Player development is a key with the Tampa Bay Lightning organization and it's been stated more than once that success needs to be taught at all levels of the game. The Lightning are having an off-year with injuries depleting the roster and it puts more weight on success elsewhere in the system because their assets are who will be called up to substitute for starters at the NHL level. It's even possible those recalls will replace those roster members sooner rather than later with thanks to transactions or free agency.
For a casual fan watching the Bolts, it may stop at just knowing a minor-leaguer needs to be called up and there's no telling how they'll do in the big game. Heck, I have friends who wrote off 2013-14 due to the fact a bunch of career minor-leaguers were going to be relied upon after Steven Stamkos broke his leg. What goes on below the NHL level doesn't mean much at all, and yet it's because of how much the organization devoted itself to honing skilled players at all levels of the game that the skill and vital cogs made it to the NHL and became assets to the Lightning lineup (or became trade assets).
While Tampa Bay continues to have organizational assets playing with the Syracuse Crunch - Slater Koekkoek, Anthony DeAngelo, Matthew Peca, Joel Vermin, and Kristers Gudlevskis just to name a few -- there's a problem that's festered and grown: Less of a competitive drive and the direction of the Crunch. The wrong mentality is hovering over Syracuse that seems to vacate the task of accomplishment and achievement. Those goals have morphed into the style that more casual Lightning fans would expect from a minor leaguer: Players simply waiting for recall to the NHL.
The Crunch is listed as a .500 team if you don't count games that go beyond regulation (10-10). They have 3 overtime losses and a shootout loss to add to that. They're also 6th place in the 7-team North Division, 10 points ahead of the last-place Binghamton Senators but a general lower-middling place in the AHL.
There have been the recalls by the Lightning from Syracuse that can be cited as another reason there could and would be any issue with the Crunch - taking their top guys away to solve depth issues with the Bolts, but organizational depth is so often crowed about - the number of guys able to fill in - to just write things off with underachievement in Syracuse.
Despite recalls, talent is there. The mentality and drive for success isn't.
Stories of character issues and off-ice shenanigans from with members of the Crunch creep out from time to time, and while young men won't always be of the classy variety, they should be held to account and steered into the right direction by veterans and coaching. Too often, in both rough times and successful days, that seems to be missing with captain Mike Angelidis and coach Rob Zettler. Heck, it seems like it's turned into an annual rite here at Raw Charge from me or Alex (or both) to state there's a need for leaders to step up.
Leadership starts at the top and the message is sheepish at the moment. Yes, Angelidis spoke up last week regarding accountability but for a lacking of accountability to exist until mid-December there's a problem from the powers-that-be. In fact, the piece might highlight a disagreement in direction with the club. After a loss to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last week, coach Zettler put the squad through what can be seen as a punishment line-to-line skating test, saying afterward:
"That's not productive. Sometimes as a coach you have to take a breath for a second and figure out what's best for the team and how we can win games and how we can get better,'' Zettler said. "And that's what we're here for, is get better.''
Angelidis' views on the punishment practice were a bit more versed, and not so supportive of the coaching decision:
"I don't think that's what we need right now. I think we need to get our act together, be ready to play and be hungry,'' Angelidis said. "I've been on teams where it's worked in junior. I think this is pro hockey. We need to know what it takes to win, and what it takes to bring it every night. A lot of guys are learning that. You can't just play one game and then take three games off. You have to bring it every night, compete every night. Battle every shift. And then you'll stick around and you'll play pro hockey for a long time. If you don't do that, it's going to be a long road.''
Perhaps it's time for a shuffling of the deck in Syracuse among the elder veterans and coaching staff to kick-start the team drive? A shift that finds some synergy in direction and attitude for the players as people and competitive athletes. A change that prepares for the next class of Lightning prospect arrivals in the AHL late this season (on amateur tryouts) and next season as the prospect class and roster in Syracuse changes with junior class graduates who become pro-eligible. The status-quo largely remaining and mediocrity being accepted isn't the way the organization found success developing prospects between 2010 and 2013. A non-driven, just-wait attitude is also not the type of spirit or attitude you want from players you will rely on for team depth.
It was an organizational rising of the bar with the Norfolk Admirals years ago that led to last season's Stanley Cup Finals berth. Expectations and the bar on team performance in Syracuse should be raised or the results in the future in Tampa are going to be just as middling.