I've written before about how special the 2007-2008 season was for the Syracuse Crunch. Marked by a group of players known as the "Nasty Boys," there's a lot about that year and the players who pulled on Crunch sweaters that are still in the hearts of Syracuse fans. Much like the 2012-13 Crunch team that the Tampa Bay Lightning put together, there were guys on that squad who are still making names for themselves. If they're not, they are still very much remembered for what they did in Syracuse.
Almost everything about the Crunch was loud and brash that season. Jon "Nasty" Mirasty brought fans to their feet on a nightly basis by knocking skulls together. Tom Sestito, well, learned how to be Tom Sestito that year (for better or for worse). Derek Dorsett and Marc Methot mucked it up in the corners. Derick Brassard, Joakim Lindstrom, and Derek MacKenzie provided the skill and sparkle. Dan Smith, Aaron Rome, and Duvie Wescott anchored some of the more explosive personalities and provided the quiet leadership needed to lock down the blue line.
And, at the center of it all, was the captain, the leader, the Big Dog...Zenon "Z" Konopka.
When enforcer Eric Neilson played for the Crunch, he often described Syracuse as a blue collar town. No other player in history probably understood that more than Konopka, who was a blue collar captain through and through. Much like Mike Angelidis this past season, Konopka understood leading by example and putting his game where his mouth was. Konopka finished the regular season in 2007-08 second on the Crunch in scoring, turning in his best season in the AHL by far with 55 points in 62 games.
He proved he could score, but he also proved he could protect and lead. He was a constant presence on the ice at all times, even during warm ups, where he was known for patrolling the center red line (usually with Mirasty by his side), making sure no one from the other team dared cross that line. Konopka was third on the team in penalty minutes that season, bested only by Sestito and Dorsett.
Yes, it seemed like Konopka did it all. He could score, he could fight, and he could pick up the microphone and capture the hearts of fans. He promised, he cajoled, he called out other teams and players in the media, and he even cut Crunch owner Howard Dolgon's hair. The fans ate up every single thing he did, especially during the 15 game winning streak that ended that season and during the first two rounds of the Calder Cup playoffs.
Well...Okay. Fans ate almost every single thing he did.
The summer of 2008 brought unexpected heartbreak to Crunch Land: Konopka was moving on. Weighing offers from both Columbus and, funny enough, the Tampa Bay Lightning, Konopka chose the latter. Z would go on to play in 70 games in 2008-09 for the Norfolk Admirals, Tampa's AHL affiliate at the time, and also played 8 games up with the Lightning. He would then play in 74 games for Tampa the following season. He netted 2 goals, 3 assists, and racked up 265 penalty minutes, and also made a name for himself on the faceoff dot. After his stint in the Lightning organization, Konopka bounced from the Islanders to the Senators to Minnesota and then onto Buffalo.
In May of 2014, right before he was set to become a free agent again, Konopka was suspended by the NHL for violating the NHL/NHLPA Performance Enhancing Substances Program. Konopka had taken DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone), which is a hormone produced by the body’s adrenal glands. DHEA can be bought over the counter at any drug store, and Konopka freely admitted that he didn't check with the team's doctor before taking it. He was hit with a 20-game suspension, with the stipulation that those 20 games wouldn't start until he was signed by a team.
In an article with the Buffalo Hockey Beat, Konopka explained that the NHL lifted that suspension this past January. League officials had told him they knew he wasn't trying to boost his game with what he took, and after missing out on a total of 45 games this past season (as no one wanted to sign a player who would miss 20 games right off the bat), the league figured he had served enough time. But, Konopka himself then wasn't sure if his passion for the game was still high. He went to Poland to play, and then did some time with Neilson and others in Australia this past June, playing with a charity tour. Those experiences helped him to find his love for the game again.
In that same article, Konopka was quoted as saying that he's looking to get back into playing hockey in North America. While he'd want a legitimate shot at NHL playing time, he'd be willing to see some time in the AHL:
"I had a good time in that league," Konopka said. "It's a lot different being put in big situations. So you kind of miss that. It's a closer league down there. Guys are younger. You're on the road, on the bus. You kind of miss that as hockey players."
Enter "The Promise."
When Konopka left Syracuse in 2008, he did so with one last promise. Konopka swore that before his career was up, he'd be back with the Crunch. Although he has made a few promotional appearances in Syracuse since leaving, many fans still hold onto the idea that Z could find his way back onto the Crunch's roster again.
But how would that work with what Syracuse is projected to look like this fall? Well, imagine a forward line up that looks a little something like this:
Jonathan Marchessault - Matt Peca - Adam Erne
Zenon Konopka - Tanner Richard - Yanni Groude
Joel Vermin - Cam Darcy - Mike Blunden
Henri Ikonen - Mike Angelidis - Tye McGinn
The first line makes the assumption that Marchessault and Erne will not make it to the NHL out of training camp and that Marchessault will not be lost on waivers when he is sent back to Syracuse. Marchessault is the veteran of the line with 295 AHL games to his resume and would likely be the primary goal scorer for the line and the Crunch. Matt Peca is easily the best center of the group and would provide solid two-way and playmaking ability. Adam Erne is a solid body that would make space for Marchessault and Peca. He's also got the hands to be a finisher, especially in tight.
The second line, which arguably could be the first line or line One-B in this setup, would be anchored by Tanner Richard in the middle. While not a spectacular center and projecting only as a grinder at the NHL level, he'll be expected to be a two-way anchor. Yanni Gourde continued to show his sniping abilities last season for the Crunch and was one of the few offensive bright spots for the team. On the other side, you'd have veteran Zenon Konopka. Never a big offensive threat in the NHL, Konopka provided a lot of scoring in the AHL throughout his career with 103 goals and 166 assists over 350 AHL games. Plus, he'd provide grit and toughness and would make plenty of space for small guy Gourde.
The third line is a little less impressive. Joel Vermin finally began to show some of the offensive potential the Lightning saw him display in the Swiss league before drafting him in the 7th round. He is more of a pest, but he's got some touch. Cam Darcy is quite the journeyman and the only real option left for a third line center (though maybe Brian Hart squeezes into this position?) and can provide some playmaking ability. Blunden is actually a player that is surprisingly similar to Konopka. He is not an offensive juggernaut, but has enough skill to find the net in the AHL as a half point per game player. He's also tough and will create space for his linemates. He was having a great season last year until an injury put him out for the year. The organization saw more than enough to bring him back for another season.
The fourth line looks very fourth lineish. Captain Mike Angelidis is a hard worker and a good checker. And he somehow still manages to surprise with his offensive ability in the AHL. Ikonen is a player that felt a lot like Ondrej Palat when he was drafted; an overage, European winger that put up some nice offensive numbers playing next to a high draft pick in Canadian Juniors. Since turning pro, he's been an adequate grinder, but not an offensive threat. Tye McGinn is a new comer to the Lightning organization signed as fourth line depth. McGinn has also shown some offense in the AHL and has been a half point per game player in the past.
The leftover forwards that didn't make this line up at Jeff Tambelini, David Broll, Phillipe Paradis, and Brian Hart. Realistically, Tambelini would likely be in that spot that Konopka has been slotted into. He's been over a point per game player in his AHL career and even in this list could probably be slotted in over Vermin though Vermin provides a different player type that you'd want on an energy third line. David Broll is a fighter, not a lover, and in any situation he'll be seeing pressbox duty and probably rotating into the fourth line slots when needed. Phillipe Paradis is in an odd spot. He was good in the first part of last season on a line with Gourde, creating space for the diminutive forward. His AHL offensive production though does not match what Konopka, Blunden, and Tambelini have put up. Brian Hart is a power forward that is probably better suited to wing than center in the pro game, but he has an outside chance of taking Cam Darcy's spot on the third line instead of going to the ECHL.
Would the Lightning be interested in bringing back Konopka a second time? Probably not. Is he an outstanding fit for Syracuse right now? That could go either way. Another veteran forward with their farm team is probably not what Tampa is envisioning right now.
But...it's fun to dream, isn't? Z did a lot for the Crunch and the Syracuse community while he was here. It'd be special, somehow, for this organization to help him get one last chance at playing hockey.