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Syracuse Crunch ponderings: Who will be the new captain?

With the regular season right around the corner, it’s time to look at who might wear that coveted “C” on their chest.

Syracuse Crunch Daniel Walcott (85) and Matthew Peca (22) celebrate a goal by Erik Condra (11) against the Binghamton Devils in American Hockey League (AHL) action at the War Memorial Arena in Syracuse, New York on Friday, March 2, 2018. Syracuse won 3-2.
Scott Thomas Photography

Today marks the start of the first week in October, which is the week where things really start to come together for American Hockey League clubs. Their parent team’s preseason and training camps have finished up, and their own is underway. Players have been assigned, and opening night rosters are starting to come into shape. Questions are answered. Final tweaks are made. Etc.

This is also traditionally the week where these teams start naming their captain and alternates. Sometimes this has to wait a bit for a veteran to be returned to the club from the NHL, or maybe even to get healthy and return to playing, but as long as things are proceeding as normal, this is the week where that coveted C gets handed out.

For the Syracuse Crunch, things are pretty normal. All of the veterans one might think worthy of being the team’s captain this season have been assigned from the Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s probably a good bet that a new captain - or at least news about what will happen with the team’s leadership letters - will be announced in the next few days.

Since the team is going into their 25th season, it’s worth taking a look back at their past 16 captains before pondering over who might be placed into that roll for 2018-19.

Captains of The Distant Past

My first memories with the team started in 2004-05, so I can’t speak to the leadership style of these guys. However, they are still a big part of the Crunch’s history, so they certainly deserve recognition:

Dane Jackson, 1994–1995

Mark Wotton, 1995–1999

Brian Bonin, 1999–2000

Mike Gaul, 2000–2001

Sean Pronger, 2001–2002

David Ling, 2002–2003

Darrel Scoville, 2003–2004

Captains of The Not-So-Distant Past

In the fall of 2004, Jamie Pushor was named captain of the team. He would keep that title until the middle of the 2006-07 season. As the less I say about that situation is probably best, I’m going to leave it at that. However, much like those who tried to teach Defense Against the Dark Arts at Hogwarts during the 1990’s, the Crunch had a string of captains that only lasted one year following Pushor’s leave.

In the fall of 2007, Syracuse had their first new captain since Pushor in forward Zenon Konopka. Big Dog Z brought a new attitude to the position, demanding more from the guys on his team than fans were used to seeing in the past. He was as hard on himself as he was on his teammates, though, and his lead-by-example style became the standard that every captain after him has been held up to. Beloved for his single season with the C, Konopka is fondly remembered by many, and he never seemed to forget his time in Syracuse. When he decided to retire in early 2017, he elected to do so as a member of the Crunch.

Defenseman Dan Smith followed Konopka as captain in the fall of 2008. Smith had been with the team for a season before he was elected captain. Smith was well known for his self-sacrificing style of play, and he too was a lead-by-example guy who was beloved by many in the fan base. Smith was mostly an AHL journeyman, but he was quoted upon his retirement as remembering his time in Syracuse with the most fondness out of anywhere because of the fans.

Forward Derek MacKenzie was captain in Syracuse in 2009-10. Mac, who now plays with the Florida Panthers, had a tough job that season. The Columbus Blue Jackets, the Crunch’s NHL affiliate at the time, were in their final year of their partnership with Syracuse. Many of the Crunch’s faithful felt they were lame ducking-it from the start, and Syracuse was left short-handed and short-tempered for much of the season. Mac did what he could to lead the struggling team while also appearing in 18 games with the Blue Jackets. That season was his last in the AHL to date.

After the Blue Jackets, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks came in. With them came a new captain in defenseman Joe DiPenta. He...did...stuff. According to Wikipedia, he is now the Regional & National Director for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada. Honestly, with no offense to him meant, that sounds a heck of a lot more important than anything he did in Syracuse. I’d rather remember him for that.

Defenseman Nate Guenin was captain in Syracuse in 2011-12. Splitting time between the Crunch and the Ducks, he only played in 27 AHL games that season. Although his time spent with the team was usually entertaining, and no one questioned his work ethic, it’s hard to remember much about a guy who played less than 30 games with a team. His captaincy happened during the second and final year of Syracuse’s affiliation with Anaheim.

Captains of the Lightning Era

In the fall of 2012, a brand new group of guys suited up for the Crunch. The Lightning Era had arrived, and with it came a change in just about everything. Colors, mascots, and players were different, sure, but attitude was certainly the biggest change around the ol’ War Memorial.

The main person on the ice responsible for those winds of change in attitude and work ethic was the Crunch’s newest Captain, forward Mike Angelidis. Angelidis was captain from the fall of 2012 until the spring of 2016, breaking the curse on the position that seemed to have developed after Pushor’s departure. I think it’s safe to say that no one in team history worked harder than him at affecting and changing attitudes, at setting an example, and at capturing the hearts of the fans that cheered for him.

I could go on for years about Angie and what he’s meant to this team. In fact, I, uh, sort of have. Twice. His charity initiatives, many appearances, and general heart-on-his-sleeve leadership and playing style will always live on in Syracuse as the epitome of what an AHL captain should be. Angelidis is back in the organization as a scout, which is nothing short of amazing, but my goal is to have him immortalized in whatever Hall of Fame thing the Crunch is hopefully still planning. He absolutely deserves it.

Angelidis left enormous shoes to fill. Unfortunately, we never got to see if his successor was really up to the job. Defenseman Luke Witkowski was given the C in the fall of 2016, but because of all of the time he spent with the Lightning, only played 19 games with the letter on his chest.

With Witkowski clearly not returning, and a playoff run looming in the distance, the Crunch did something out of character in the spring of 2017. The organization elected to give the letter to a different guy mid-season. In March of 2017, forward Erik Condra was named the replacement captain in Syracuse.

Condra brought a plethora of leadership experience to the team, and seemed to be the obvious player to replace Witkowski. Condra led his team back to the Calder Cup finals for the first time since 2013, and was certainly a force behind getting them to just two wins short of the trophy.

Condra kept the letter for the 2017-18 season, battling back from off season surgery and leading his young, rookie-filled team to the second round of the playoffs. The team’s season started off rough, but it evened out and ticked upwards right around the time of Condra’s recovery and return to the ice in November. Although a lot of other factors certainly affected the team’s turn around - the trade for goalie Louis Domingue chief among them - getting their captain back was a big boost as well.

Who is Next?

Condra elected to move onto another organization this past summer, so the Crunch is in need of a new captain. As previously stated, pretty much all of the players who would be considered for the letter are in town. The Crunch played in their first preseason game last night, and this bit of news came out right before puck drop:

Okay, so...Who is going to be picked? Here are my ideas:

Gabriel Dumont

My top pick for the position of captain is forward Gabriel Dumont. Dumont has been part of the Crunch’s leadership core for two full seasons already, and he’s been an alternate for both of those seasons. He was previously a captain when he was with both the St. John IceCaps and the Hamilton Bulldogs. The Crunch simply plays better when he’s on the ice.

However, the one drawback could be that he’s obviously in the running for a call up should there be a need. As seen with Witkowski, being a candidate for a call up or an extended NHL stay as captain can complicate things at the AHL level. It’s obviously hoped that a team captain is present for more than just a quarter of the season, so Dumont’s bubble player status might make holding the captaincy difficult.

Michael Bournival

Forward Michael Bournival has also been an alternate with the Crunch these past two seasons. He has been a big part of Syracuse’s success, and his position on the team’s leadership group is undeniable. He might be further down the line in terms of call up positioning, so it might make more sense to give him the C based on his availability. However, it certainly is still within the realm of possibility that he also sees time with Tampa.

Kevin Lynch

Forward Kevin Lynch is unfortunately starting the season hurt, so if the Crunch seem to be stalling for time when it comes to naming a captain, it could be that they’re waiting for Lynch to be ready to play. Lynch was looking forward to his first professional season under a two-way contract, something that finally came nearly ten years after he was drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2009, when he was injured during the Lightning’s preseason. Lynch has been a large part of the Crunch’s leadership core in the past, and his 154 AHL games - mostly with Syracuse - have certainly given him enough street cred to be able to be in that leadership position.

Cameron Gaunce

Honestly, I am kind of opposed to giving newcomers to an organization the captaincy, especially if there are other players that make sense available. However, Gaunce has carried a letter before in his AHL career - he was an alternate with the Texas Stars - and it wouldn’t be out of this world to think that maybe he might get a chance at the C with Syracuse. He’s probably a bit further down on the call-up list than Dumont or Bournival, which could be an advantage. If he doesn’t get the C, he’ll be a good candidate for an A.

Andy Andreoff

Again, Andreoff is fairly unlikely given his newbie status and his call up positioning, but out of respect for his career I felt it was fair to mention him. Andreoff has played in 159 NHL games and 153 AHL games (all regular season). He’s a vet that’s going to be a part of the Crunch’s leadership core regardless.

...Maybe no one?

One of the most popular choices for captain this season sadly isn’t on this list. Defenseman/forward/choreographer/Man-of-the-Year Daniel Walcott suffered a separated shoulder during the Lightning’s preseason. The recovery process will keep him off the ice until March.

Although kind of young to be considered for a captaincy, Walcott was someone the fans loved, and his name was often tossed into any conversation being had about this topic. While I doubt the Crunch would name him captain knowing he’s out for so much of the season, they might choose to go with three alternates or something similar until Walcott comes back.

Honestly, I’m of the firm opinion that the position means a lot to an AHL club, so while I am completely saddened by Walcott’s inability to play, I would prefer the team name a captain and not hold the spot open for him. Do not get me wrong: If Walcott is re-signed for 2019-20, I’d absolutely welcome him as captain. I value what he’s brought to the team. But I also worry about what the lack of a C might do to a team with as many young kids as Syracuse will have this season.

Lukas Favale’s tweet seems to indicate that a C will be named, so this probably won’t be a concern. However, given Walcott’s standing in the Crunch community and in the dressing room, I did want to address his absence and how the team might handle it.

Overall, there are a lot of strong candidates in the Crunch dressing room for captain this season. The players know who they’ll follow. Honestly, I don’t think there’s a poor choice here, and I truly believe the person selected will be the best one.