Things were rough last season for the Syracuse Crunch. A lot has been said on the topic, both through my entries here chronicling last season and, more recently, in Kyle Alexander's amazingly thorough Analytical Year in Review. A playoff-less season is never in a team's plans, and it is certainly never in Tampa Bay's big picture for their farm team. The Lightning organization has been huge on winning at the AHL level during the past few seasons, and it's probably an understatement to say that both organizations are looking forward to a more successful campaign this fall.
However, the formula for success in the AHL is generally a hard one to nail down. Last fall, the Crunch seemed fairly prepared to play some competitive hockey after coming off of their best season in their 20 year history, but then Murphy's Law came into play in basically every way possible. Things went off the rails. Injuries at both levels put a severe strain on system depth, goalie drama affected the net, and a general feeling of woe surrounded the team.
This season, Syracuse fans are hoping for a big, fat, juicy rebound, and there are several reasons to be optimistic about that happening. But, as with all AHL seasons, there are also some potential question marks that may cause trouble for the Crunch.
Potential trouble spot: Defense
When asked in an interview about one area of he was hoping would be better this upcoming season, Syracuse Crunch head coach Rob Zettler immediately pinpointed the blue line. As Zettler explains, although Syracuse allowed less shots than a vast majority of the league, the Crunch was also 22nd in goals against last year. Goaltending was a clear trouble spot, but the defense also struggled to clear away rebounds and generally left their netminder without much help.
The Lightning added veteran AHL defenseman Matt Corrente to the Crunch's stock this past summer, but Corrente often struggles with injuries and has missed long chunks of time in previous seasons because of this. Speaking of injuries, the Crunch could have really used the services of JP Cote last season, but between his month-long NHL call up (which was exciting and thrilling for him and his fans, but also painful for us left behind) and injuries, he only saw 33 games in a Crunch sweater. Now that the Lightning have shown they're willing to give Cote some big game time, Syracuse will be in danger of losing his services again should he be needed.
Playing the "What If" game: If Corrente suffers an injury and Cote gets called up, the lone vet defenseman left in Syracuse will be Joey Mormina. Mormina is on the second and last year of his AHL contract with the Crunch, and has been a solid AHL defenseman for years. However, he appeared to struggle to find his footing with the Crunch last year, and only really found consistency in the last few months of the season.
Now, to be totally fair to the Lightning, having three veteran blue liners hanging around an AHL team is practically a reason to throw a party. Syracuse should be fine as long as some combination of Corrente/Cote/Mormina is healthy and playing for the majority of the season. Luke Witkowski was very deserving of the huge amounts of minutes he earned last season, and there's no reason to doubt whether or not he will pick up right where he left off. ACorrente/Cote/Mormina combo plus a Witkowski gives Syracuse at least two very solid D pairings to start with. This will take some strain off of guys like Nikita Nesterov and Artem Sergeev, both of whom struggled mightily last season.
In actuality, it might not be surprising to see Nesterov and/or Sergeev spend some time in the ECHL while the Crunch gets a look at up-and-comers like Dylan Blujus, Slater Koekkoek and/or Jake Dotchin. Koekkoek comes with a rather long injury history, but his performance in the Lightning's prospect camp has been solid and apparently pain-free so far.
Still, even with Corrente/Cote/Mormina/Witkowski, Syracuse's blue line could struggle again if the injury bug bites at the AHL level at the same time as a key call up or two. If it happens, there's only a lot of young blood left to lean on should experienced AHL'ers be unavailable.
A question mark: Coaching
Ah, coaches. They just can't win, can they? They're kind of like goalies in that they're the heroes when teams win and the villains when teams lose.
I always hesitate to immediately blame the coaching staff when things get rough, especially in the AHL. All of the things that can decimate AHL rosters make a coach's life hell at this level. However, how a coaching team adjusts their strategies to cover for those things is generally the mark of a good AHL coaching tandem. Tampa Bay hit gold when they discovered Jon Cooper, who made magic happen in both Norfolk and Syracuse before the Lightning promoted him. But, did they find similar riches in Rob Zettler?
The answer to that question remains to be seen. The Crunch struggled mightily immediately after Zettler took the helm in 2012-2013, but then surged during the Calder Cup playoffs with Zettler and assistant coach Marty Raymond working together. Raymond left the organization after that and was replaced by Trent Cull, a former Crunch player and assistant coach. Tampa Bay then added goalie coach David Alexander, but the three of them weren't able to stem the bleeding once Syracuse's season went off the rails in December.
Whether Cooper--or anyone else--could have done a better job is a moot point. The Lightning seems to have faith that Zettler, Cull and Alexander can right the ship this season and utilize whatever they're given to get the Crunch back into winning again. Hopefully, that will occur and the Lightning's faith will prove to be well-placed.
A bigger question mark: The goalie situation
The goalie situation in Syracuse this season has the potential to be one giant rollercoaster. Whether it's a fun ride or a heart-stopping drop may depend on one single thing: How much the Lightning will want to push the envelope on Andrei Vasilevskiy's development.
In her article The Lightning's less than successful record with developing goalies, my other RC colleague, Clare Austin, targeted the potential of both Vasilevskiy and his projected goaltending partner in Syracuse, Kristers Gudlevskis, to forge new territory for the Lightning. How quickly that territory is carved might have a substantial effect on the Crunch's season.
The plan is for Syracuse to start with Vasilevskiy and Gudlevskis doing work in net. Gudlevskis made history last season as he burned up the hockey charts, being the first player ever to do stints in the ECHL, the AHL, the NHL, and the Olympics in one season. His rise was unheard of, and his sudden appearance on the stage in such a big way marks good things for the Crunch as he looks at his first full season in the AHL.
On the other side of the mask, Vasilevskiy has basically been touted as the Second Coming (which is well deserved, no doubt), and much has been made of the Lightning's arrangement with goalie Evgeni Nabokov. Nabokov is currently slated for the number two position in Tampa, but he just might be shoved out of the picture by either Vasilevskiy (more likely) or Gudlevskis (less likely but still possible) at some point this season. If that happens, Syracuse may find themselves in trouble.
Ben Bishop isn't going anywhere anytime soon, so Syracuse won't lose both of their netminders at the same time unless some catastrophe happens. Nabokov probably won't be visiting Syracuse. Allen York is on an AHL contract with the Crunch, and it's assumed he'll be hanging out in the ECHL until he's needed. York could be just fine in a backup position with the Crunch if either Vasilevskiy or Gudlevskis makes the big club this season, but the transition has the potential to be sticky, and help will then be scarce if an injury occurs anywhere along the chain.
What happens with this situation may just make or break Syracuse's season. It may also not be anywhere near that serious. Hockey can be weird like that.
Coming up tomorrow: the more optimistic side of the coin!