Gabriel Dumont skated in towards the Utica Comets goaltender this past Saturday. It was just a minute into their game and the Syracuse Crunch were already on the power play. Their captain was establishing a presence in front of the net when he stopped awkwardly. It was just a small twinge, something that happens every game and wouldn’t even draw notice if he hadn’t slowly skated off the ice and not returned for the rest of the night.
Was that the moment he suffered his “lower body injury”? It’s tough to say. With the lack of transparency in professional hockey, a player could have his hand sliced off by an errant skate blade and after the game his coach would vaguely confirm that it actually happened. Only at some point in the distant future, during an interview about something else, would the truth eventually emerge.
For now, the what and when really don’t matter. The only thing that matters for Gabriel Dumont and the Syracuse Crunch is the “what now.” Dumont is unquestionably the leader of the Lightning’s AHL affiliate. The reality is that he was even before the “C” was sewn to his sweater two weeks ago. He’s more or less been their leader since he returned last spring after a waiver claim deal with the Ottawa Senators.
The Quebec native is their number one center, their number one penalty killer and the cornerstone of their power play. Due to that lower-body injury, he is also going to be missing for the next four-to-six weeks. At best he misses 10-15 games, at worst the injury lingers and the initial four-to-six weeks turns into three-to-four months. Either way, this leaves a huge hole for the team to fill.
It’s also a tough break for the 28-year-old center. Playing in the final season of a two-year contract, he was set to enter the free agent market as a valuable commodity this off season. Was he going to sign a massive, 7-year, cap-breaking deal? No, but teams are always in need of speedy centers who can play in all situations. He is a scoring machine at the AHL level with 238 points in 432 games.
At the NHL level the scoring isn’t quite there - 9 points in 87 games - but he is a relentless forechecker who can center both bottom-six lines and make himself a nuisance on the penalty kill. With a successful season leading the Crunch, he could have parlayed his skills into a decent new contract.
Could that still happen? Certainly, but with 15 less games on his resume, the point totals will be a little less whelming.
So how does the Crunch move forward? By slotting the next player up, as they always do.
In this case, the leadership void will be filled by recently demoted Cory Conacher. It was obvious that the team needed more veteran voices in the locker room even before Dumont’s injury, but now that he’s out, Conacher will fill an even bigger need.
The first line minutes that Dumont logged will most likely be filled by multiple players, with Alex Barre-Boulet sliding into the center role on the top line and power play. Mitchell Stephens will most likely fill the role short-handed. Hopefully, they can fill the production, as well.
Following Dumont’s injury last Saturday night, head coach Ben Groulx admitted that the team was kind of lost for the next “12 to 15 minutes.” There was a too many men penalty, and several players rotated through on the penalty kill. Stephens, Conacher, Andy Andreoff, Jonne Tammela, Alex Volkov, and Danick Martel all logged time short-handed. Hopefully the special teams units will find a more stable rotation with a week’s worth of practice now under their belts.
Tammela, who has been an occasional healthy scratch, could see the biggest increase in playing time as the centers are moved around. Ross Colton is another young player that might see more playing time due to the injury. That’s a bright side to a player going down - it often opens opportunities for others to step forward. Mathieu Joseph would most likely in Syracuse and not on the ice at the end of close games in Tampa if Ryan Callahan hadn’t started the season rehabbing his shoulder.
It seemed like the Crunch had a glut of forwards just last week as three players were brought in on the same day. But now with Dumont out, Mitch Hults in Orlando and Dennis Yan serving a two-game suspension for a head shot, the ranks have thinned out a bit. Luckily, reinforcements are on the way. Kevin Lynch seems to be day-to-day and Otto Somppi should be back from his hand injury sooner rather than later.
The Crunch, much like the Lightning, aren’t married to positions. Even with Dumont injured there are seven players listed as centers on their official roster. Obviously they don’t all line up down the middle of the ice, so lines and positions are fluid and based on the flow of the game. That helps them absorb injuries a little easier. Alex Barre-Boulet had been riding on Dumont’s wing for the beginning of the season, but is naturally a center. It’s only natural that he slides over to the middle of the ice between veteran Conacher (who he seems to have already developed a good rapport) and Danick Martel or Andy Andreoff.
Last season, Syracuse had to overcome an early season injury to their captain as Erik Condra missed time recovering from a back injury. In part due to his absence and in part due to an influx of rookies, the Crunch struggled over the first two months. Hopefully, despite the similar circumstances, the team has learned how to deal with adversity and can prevent getting way behind in the race to the top of the North Division.