Radio broadcaster Dan D’uva [@Dan_DUva] interviewed Syracuse Crunch General Manager Julien BriseBois during the second intermission of the Syracuse Crunch - Bridgeport Tigers game on October 11, 2016. In this interview, BriseBois offers his perspective of the AHL team’s present success and expectations for continued improvement.
Quick note: For the sake of clarity and fluency, I have omitted extraneous uses of the phases “and,” “um,” and “you know.”
Dan D’Uva: You’ve seen this team score goals early and hold on. You’ve now seen them come from behind. What do you think at this point is the defining characteristic of your 2016-2017 Crunch?
Julien BriseBois: You know what, I think we’re a work in progress. We knew that going in. Our goal for this team was to get it to play with significant pace - shift in, shift out - period in, period out - night in, night out. Overall, I’m impressed with the pace we’ve been able to play with so far up to this point, but I know there’s more untapped potential. It’ll take time. It’s a process. It’s not something that happens overnight. I’m very impressed with the work of our coaching staff. I think they’ve done a fabulous job kind of raising the bar with regards to our standards - in terms of effort and pace and fitness level. I think, as the season progresses here and we continue to improve as a group, and our players continue to improve individually - I think all the work we’re putting in now is going to pay dividends.
D’Uva: The comments you’ve just offered have echoed what [Syracuse head coach] Ben Groulx has told us in our conversations - where he’s pointed to the ways in his demanding practices that will help the team not only now, but also down the line. And also just in the growth, in the learning process. He’s very much about the habits and the structure. Of course, bringing in a new head coach, it’s never an easy to decision to make a change. What was your experience with Ben? How did you know that he was the guy that you wanted to bring in and accomplish some of those goals that you just laid out?
BrieBois: Well, he had a fabulous track record in Gatineau [where he served as head coach and general manager for the Gatineau Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League] as well as working with Hockey Canada with the World Junior team in 2015. He had that background, that track record. I know he had experience at the pro level - he coached in Rochester. I happened to be involved with the Hamilton Bulldogs at the time and got to play his team. I knew Ben through a lot of different people too, who had a lot of respect for him and thought he was a coach who would bring a lot to the table. Over the last few years, I got to know him a little bit better - spent some time with him over the last few years. Called him and picked his brain on hockey matters - players from the Quebec junior hockey league, players that he got to coach through the Hockey Canada program. The more I got to know him, the more I was convinced that this was someone that had some special tools. There’s something about him that’s called an “it factor” - a leadership factor that was too valuable to an organization for us to pass up. [The] head coach job at the American Hockey League level is one of the key positions, in my opinion, within a hockey department at the NHL level. We needed to have the absolute best for that position and I thought Ben was the guy.
D’Uva: Not only did you bring in a new head coach, a number of veteran players that you’ve brought in from other organizations. We talked about [Gabriel] Dumont and [Michael] Bournival from the Montreal organization; Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond whose been with a number of organizations; Mike Halmo - I know I’m forgetting some. The shift, I suppose, with a number of those experienced players. How have you observed and what do you feel about how those new acquisitions have impacted your team here?
BriseBois: Well, they all bring something different to the table. The reason we wanted to bring all of those players in is because we saw potential in them. We feel they can help our team here. In the case of a number of them, we feel they have the potential to eventually help us win games at the NHL level as well. Some of them are veterans that have been around a little longer, but there’s still growth potential. They will also benefit from playing for our coaching staff and going through our development program here. That will push them to become better players. If they become better players, we’re going to be a stronger organization.
D’Uva: I know it’s hard to tell the future. Being prepared, of course as you always are, to see how Brayden Point makes the Lightning roster and has excelled there - got his first goal the other day. Meanwhile, Erik Condra and Cory Conacher are here at the American League level. The depth, it seems to me, is off the charts. How do you see the - and we’ve seen [Matt] Taormina and [Slater] Koekkoek go back and forth a couple of times here. On the players who are on that fringe - who might go up, might go back - is there a plan right now for the players to move between the top and the bottom here - the NHL and the AHL - at this point?
BriseBois: Well, like you said, I think we have depth and we have a lot of options. Really it’ll come down to needs at the NHL level. Usually when there’s a call-up, we’re looking for something specific. We’re trying to replace someone who has been hurt. The skill set that we are looking at that particular time varies from one opportunity to the next. So that will factor into our decision, obviously. And then whoever is playing best at that time will probably warrant getting the call-up. So a number of factors go into those decisions. What we like - and what’s important for us - is that we have a lot of players that we know that we can trust them to come up and help us win in Tampa. That’s key in having a good AHL development program.
D’Uva: We can easily look up and down the roster and see who’s put up points. You’ve got Dumont and Conacher with good starts to the season with 8 points [each]. Halmo with a four game scoring streak. Those are the numbers. From a management standpoint and a coaching standpoint, who’s caught your eye? Who’s impressed Julien BriseBois through the first nine-plus games?
BriseBois: I would say a lot of players have had really good starts. If I was going to name person, it’d be Ben Groulx though [chuckles]. I’ve been really impressed with Ben. I’ve been really impressed with the level of demand that he expects and he asks of the players. I think, like I mentioned earlier, we’re all going to benefit. Our organization is going to benefit. The Syracuse Crunch hockey team is going to benefit. Our fans are going to benefit. But most of all, our players are going to benefit. They’re given a great opportunity to improve as hockey players and grow as hockey players. As they do that, more and more opportunities are going to present themselves - whether it’s more money or more NHL opportunity or better performance or championships. So I would say, at this point, the person that’s impressed me the most is Ben Groulx. But we have a number of players that have been doing very well and I expect them to do even better as the season goes on.
D’Uva: [I was] talking to Adam Wilcox last week about this year compared to last. You really thought about last year in developing. Of course at times he had to sit on the bench with [Andrei] Vasilevskiy and [Kristers] Gudlevskis alternating starts at times, but he saw such an opportunity with the start this year. Kristers Gudlevskis now, he’s been at the American Hockey League level for a few years. He’s had his cracks in the National Hockey League. This season, how do you see the goaltending tandem unfolding here between Adam Wilcox and Kristers Gudlevskis?
BriseBois: I think every year - or most years - if you have two good goaltenders who can get the job done, they’re probably going to alternate for the most part through 2⁄3 to 3⁄4 of the season. Then usually someone will kind of take the baton and kind of run with it down the stretch. It’s too early to tell how that’s going to play out. I do know that one of the biggest challenges, I think, the AHL schedule presents for us as a development program - especially early in the season, the way the schedule is set up, it’s hard to get goalies into a rhythm. We play pretty much every Friday, every Saturday so it’s two games a week. Then you go five days without playing, six days without playing again. So really, each goalie gets a game a week, which is not a lot of work in order to kind of get into a groove and build on what you’ve done in the last game. So that’s a challenge. But so far, both goalies have been working really hard. For the most part, delivering some really solid performances for us. Especially of late, I think they’re kind of both in a good groove now and in a good position. Hopefully they’re also a part of that group players that continue to improve as we go along here.
D’Uva: Last thing for you, Julien. We could talk about hockey all day, you know that. We’ve got a game to get back to, but how’s the BriseBois family? How’s the off-season been? What’s new in the BriseBois clan?
BriseBois: [chuckles] Everyone is doing really well. We get to live in Tampa and I get to work for a fabulous organization with a fabulous owner and a fabulous boss in Steve Yzerman. In the grand scheme of things, things couldn’t be any better [laughs]. Everyone’s healthy, everyone’s happy, so it’s all good.
D’Uva: Well good. Our best to the family and of course the rest of the group down in Tampa Bay and look forward to chatting with you again soon. Thanks for your time.
BriseBois: Always a pleasure.