Unless something changes, Syracuse Crunch fans will be able to walk away from one of the most dissatisfying seasons in recent memory Wednesday night, when the Crunch play game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Syracuse is down 2 games to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Round one of the Calder Cup playoffs is a best of five series, so one more loss will seal the deal and send the Crunch's players to the golf course much sooner than anyone would have wanted.
It'd be nice to be able to say that it's hard to believe that a team who was sitting atop their conference a mere few months ago could fall out so quickly. It'd be even nicer to be able to say that it's harder to believe that a team who led their division for more than half the season could fall out so quickly. But for those who have been paying attention, this latest blow to what should have been a satisfying, fun ride for Syracuse and their fans is anything but surprising.
Regardless of what the standings have said, this was not a good season for the Syracuse Crunch. It just wasn't. It ended the way it should have: with the Crunch losing nine of their last ten regular season games, being out-scored and out-hustled in nearly every outing. Those who have watched and worried all season, however, honestly felt that every game should have gone that way, and the fact that Syracuse was able to stick it out at the top for as long as they did was nothing short of a miracle.
That miracle has run out, and Syracuse's season is on the brink of running out, too.
What's probably the most frustrating thing with all of this is that the reasons the players and the coaching staff are giving for losing are things that were echoed by writers on this site back in November. According to quotes in a recent Syracuse.com article, the players are concerned about a lack of communication, a lack of energy and motivation, and a lack of organization on the ice. Those exact issues were ones that were pointed out as huge problems in the beginning of November in an article written by myself and John Fontana. Among the highlights:
How is it a team of skilled and talented players, those who could play at the NHL level as part of a concise unit, cannot find that same direction and motivation with their AHL teammates? It seems like a clear sign something is wrong.
When the status-quo holds and the product remains tepid and mediocre (making a showing but not putting together a winning effort) there's a problem. It's a problem higher than the guys on the ice.
The effort the Crunch is currently displaying is too disorganized, too scrambled, and too disconnected from each other to be capable of generating consistent efforts that translate to wins.
This is the second season the Syracuse Crunch are underperforming, and the second season that player recalls have been cited as the reason the compete-level is underwhelming from a talented roster. At what point is the problem acknowledged? At what point is everyone - players and coaches - held accountable for the lack of results?
How well does what was written in November match what is being said now? It appears nearly identical. So, are the players really saying that they have learned nothing since those times of troubles six months ago that will help them to overcome and persevere when this team needs to the most? And if so, what does that say about the leaders in the dressing room and behind the bench?
Yes, Syracuse's roster has been dinged by recalls and injuries. Yes, their level of apparent scoring talent is lower than any other team in the Conference's top 8. But shouldn't there still be more that this roster can give? Something? Anything? The Crunch has been outscored so far by a 9-1 margin. Surely there's got to be a better showing than that buried somewhere in this team's potential.
Then again, maybe this group was doomed before they even started.
It's been a point of idle chatter among Crunch fans as to whether the coaching staff has continued all of the team building exercises that former head coach Jon Cooper started during Syracuse's 2012-13 season. That team, with many holdovers from a Norfolk Admirals squad that had won the Calder Cup the season before, was just about as close as a team could get. Cooper's goal was to keep it that way. Players joined a bowling league with each other. They practically embodied the idea that a family who plays together stays together.
The past two seasons, news of that kind has been scarce. Although players continue to talk about how close they are, their stories to prove that closeness revolve around video game tournaments and team dinners, activities that, while normal and probably good in their own right, don't exactly scream total team bonding. Has Cooper's obviously successful plan been abandoned for some reason? If so, would continuing to follow that plan have changed anything this season?
Obviously, there's a lot of questions and not a lot of concrete answers. However, if the goal is progress, then these questions are things that Syracuse's players and coaching staff should be chewing on this summer.
How long they have to chew on them, however, is up to them.