Yesterday, this series covered the defense, the coaching, and the goaltending situation as potential gray clouds on the horizon for the Syracuse Crunch. Today we cover the more bight and sunny side of things.
Something to look "forward" to: Forward depth
One of the reasons the Crunch had such amazing success during the 2012-2013 season was because they had three solid lines that could score. That kind of talent is what wins AHL championships, and although Syracuse fell two wins short of that ultimate goal (and the pain is still fresh, may I add), the depth of the system that season was astounding.
There's a chance Syracuse may see a similar deep pool of talent this year. Barring any waiver claims or emergencies, the Crunch will be bolstered by both proven AHL talent and leadership and an influx of new blood.
Returning forward Mike Angelidis is well-known for his grit, his drive, and his ability to lead teams. Fellow forward Mike Blunden has been around the league for years, and his previous stint in Syracuse is one many still remember fondly. Right wing Jerome Samson is considered to be the jewel of the Crunch's off season. All three of these names should be huge in the dressing room and should go a long way in leading the younger guys.
To help in that last area, and to protect the prospects (and everyone else), the Lightning also brought back fan favorite Eric Neilson and re-signed pest Phillipe Paradis. As Neilson and Angelidis are the only two forwards remaining who played on both the Norfolk Admiral's championship team and the Syracuse Crunch's Eastern Conference championship team, it's clear they know the organization, know the expectations, and should be able to acquaint Blunden and Samson rather quickly to it all.
Although it obviously depends on how training camp shakes out, it's looking like proven playmakers Cedric Paquette and Vladislav Namestnikov will be back with Syracuse. This is exciting news for a fanbase who figured they had seen the last of both of them in the AHL. Namestnikov was a large part of any success Syracuse achieved last season, and Paquette played himself into the Stanley Cup playoffs, earning time with the Lightning during the first round.
Speaking of talent, Jonathan Marchessault and Yanni Gourde are huge impact players who can shift and fill in as needed. They were traded to the Crunch towards the end of last season, and they, too, are projected to start the year in Syracuse. They are certainly familiar with the game and the level of play and effort required in the AHL. Marchessault was the leading scorer with the Springfield Falcons before he was traded to the Crunch, and he continued to score points after the trade.
The Crunch will be seeing new guys like Cody Kunyk, who spent part of last year up with the Lightning, and Jeff Costello, who was inked to an AHL contract at the end of August. Henri Ikonen and Joel Vermin are also projected to join the Crunch full time. Both Ikonen and Vermin saw time with the Crunch at the end of last season, and impressed with the minutes that they got.
Then, there's the fact that Tanner Richard is still hanging around. He struggled last season, but, as already covered, so did most of the team. He should have a more productive year, especially with a more solid D-core behind him. Dalton Smith, who was traded to the team with Marchessault, is also still under contract. 7th rounder Cameron Darcy does not have an AHL deal yet, but is reportedly hoping for one in the near future.
Basically, this is a really solid group of forwards. There's a potent mix of experience, eagerness to prove themselves, and raw talent that should prove explosive when given the chance to mix. It should be really exciting to watch this group come together.
Something new: Improvements to the War Memorial
When the Tampa Bay era started in Syracuse, one of the first things fans heard about was the Lightning's impressive dedication to making visible improvements to the War Memorial. The team's training rooms, offices, and friends and family room all received makeovers with the help of Tampa. These changes immediately made the players in Syracuse feel more welcome and valued, and it also made the Crunch itself feel valued, too, as no parent club had ever taken such an interest in the Crunch's building before.
In addition to those original changes, the Crunch, with the encouragement of Tampa Bay and the affiliation extension that was recently signed, is going to be seeing a marked changed in the look and feel of their ice rink between this season and next season. First up is the replacement of the dasher boards and "glass" that surround the rink. Onondaga County pulled nearly $500,000 out of their Capital Improvement fund to buy better dasher boards for the arena, an improvement that will replace the team's 20-year-old steal dasher boards with better, more springy aluminum boards that are identical to those used in NHL rinks. The goal is to cut down on injuries resulting from players falling into or hitting the boards.
The new dasher boards will be paired with new seamless spring-loaded acrylic panels that will replace the current "glass" around the arena. The panels will make for a clearer view for fans and have additional safety features, like rounded edges, that will help protect the players. These improvements are the first of their kind in the Crunch's history. New blue paint has also been applied to the tops of the boards and around the War Memorial itself, giving the arena a fresh look that matches totally with the organization's color scheme.
Next season, Crunch fans and players will return to their home to find a bigger, expanded rink, a change that will push the team's smaller ice surface into one that is the same as NHL regulations. Consistency in development and play is being touted as the reason for the change, and the hope from the Crunch's perspective is that it will help Tampa Bay's AHL affiliate win more games at home.
In the past, successful Crunch teams had to push to be more physical on the War Memorial's ice, something that doesn't always jive with the overall vision of a parent club. Tampa Bay-era Crunch teams have struggled at times to get things going at home, and this change may just help with that. It isn't yet known how much money this improvement will cost or where the money will come from, but the decision to move forward with this change marks a dedication on both ends of the affiliation to keep this relationship strong.
Of note is that all of these changes show a dedication to the Crunch from Onondaga County, which is something that the team has sometimes lacked in the past. In terms of the Crunch's front office, it shows a clear vision of keeping Syracuse a strong AHL city. Both Lightning fans and Crunch fans should be excited about what these changes mean for the Crunch, their affiliation with Tampa Bay, and the overall fan and player experience in Syracuse.