In December, the phrase Tampacuse was being reemployed with how several from the Syracuse Crunch roster had stepped into roles in Tampa while others ached and were kept out of the lineup. That was a positive air of the organizational depth from those on the high. Success in Tampa Bay from the likes of Jonathan Marchessault (who is still on the Lightning roster), Mike Angelidis, Mike Blunden and others who have passed through the Lightning ranks before being returned to the AHL, should not be taken as a sign of a successful and competitive Syracuse Crunch. And it hasn't been in solid shape for a while now.
After 47 games played as of this writing, the Crunch has a record of 19-19-8-1 (or more like 19-19-9... and if you subtract the loser-point, that's 19-28). That's good for 6th place in the North Division and 12th place in the AHL's Eastern Conference. Syracuse is 3-5-2 in their past 10 games, with a loss last night suffered to the 14th place Springfield Falcons (6-3 the final in that one). The Crunch has been outscored 21-11 in their past 4 games, giving up 5+ goals in each of them.
This reminds me of the mediocrity that the Lightning themselves were playing through earlier this season, with a stay-the-course mentality that doesn't aid but instead hampers. There are issues in place with Syracuse that play out in the locker room and in the public domain (at least through rumors, innuendo and strong suppression tactics by Crunch brass) that can be used as examples of misdirection and attitude-over-achievement among members of the Crunch roster.
Lindsay Kramer of Syracuse.com made a rather shallow assessment of goaltending being the issue of a broader problem for the Crunch. It is a truth that Syracuse has been outscored 145-126 through 47 games. It's also a truth that a club carrying 9 defensemen, routinely filling the shallow front ranks by dressing one as a forward, should be capable of suppressing opponents offense. Head Coach Rob Zettler and assistant coach Trent Cull both being former defensemen in their playing days should also hold sway on effort behind the blue line. That isn't happening, not nearly... that or their influence is strictly individual while a united team effort and team results aren't what they're expected to accomplish.
The numbers from goalies Kristers Gudlevskis and Adam Wilcox do leave something to be desired, with neither netminder having a solid save percentage (.906 for Gudlevskis, .892 for Wilcox) or goals against average (2.95 for Gudlevskis, 3.35 for Wilcox). The numbers are certainly contrasted by the brief stints Andrei Vasilevskiy had in Syracuse and the goal suppression he provided while manning the crease (10 games played, a 6-3-1 record, 2.03 GAA and .932 save percentage). His performance contradicts the other pair, but his glut-and-gone playing stints weren't bogged down by issues in the locker room.
Ice hockey's a team sport and what it seems to be in Syracuse at the moment is all about individuality - play your game and show you're better than the AHL and you may get recalled. This is a far, far contrast to the days of the 2011-12 Norfolk Admirals where a concise unit of players were working together to go on one hell of a run in the regular season, on the way to a Calder Cup. The Syracuse Crunch of 2012-13 was a continuation of that effort - up until NHL promotions for roster players and then head coach Jon Cooper played into things. And while the Crunch performed admirably in the 2013 AHL Playoffs, the game looked different even with the majority of the 2012 team working together in the playoffs.
That difference was coaching alone. Now it's coaching and cohesion, where the teamwork employed reflects the individuality of at-bats in baseball.
One man can't try to do it all with his moment with the puck and shouldn't have that mentality. Nor can any man dream about getting out of town on a recall instead of being in the moment with the team of players that surround him. That roster, be it how good or bad it is, is the unit to gauge how development is for the individuals. The readiness of those aiming for a recall to the NHL is going to be reflected by way of a strong showing by the Crunch in general.
What's at play now is mediocrity. This isn't the not-ready-for-prime-time players of Saturday Night Live, though. This isn't the secondary improve ranks of the Second City Improv either. The effort the likes of Anthony DeAngelo, Yanni Gourde, Tanner Richard and other prospects are showing is of a caliber that suggests playing on a team might not be their suit. If go-it-alone is a preferable means of effort, try crochet. That remark can be taken as the insult it looks like, or taken as the stern "cut the go-it-alone act and work with your teammates on ice" remark it's intended as.
It doesn't end with the players, though. Assistant Lightning GM, who is overall general manager of the Crunch, did not inspire with remarks made to Lindsay Kramer in a recent article:
"I strongly believe we're going to be one of those teams that's going to get into the playoffs and once you're in the playoffs, anything's possible. Who knows what the roster's going to look like at that point, with what NHL teams make the playoffs and how that impacts their affiliates. There's a lot of hockey left to be played. We're right in the thick of things. We've set ourselves up nicely. Now, if we take care of business in the second half, we're going to get in. That's the first objective. Once you're in, then you can start looking beyond just making the playoffs.''
The Crunch, as it's performing now, is not a playoff team. A Lightning fan reading those remarks might latch on to the "who knows what the roster will look like" piece of wording (as I have) to speculate on moves that could be forthcoming in the next few weeks but that door has been open (to improve the system depth and roster quality in Syracuse) for the duration of middling play. It shows an acceptance of sub-par effort by a non-cohesive unit. That's a negative for the Lightning as an organization; the depth of the system being less focused on success of the team they're on and more concerned with their own situation. It's a high concern, in fact, if prospects are being brought in who are more beholden to their individual aspirations and less apt to actually aspire to earn opportunity.
Rob Zettler's team is outside of the playoffs, and if this middling effort stands it'll be the second time in his three (full) seasons as head coach that his team has missed the post-season. With Lightning GM Steve Yzerman wanting success for players on all levels, it's looking like a revamp in Syracuse on all levels - players and coaching - is a necessity in order to even peak into competitiveness.