The 2017-18 season is the sixth season the Tampa Bay Lightning have been affiliated with the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL. The AHL is a developmental league where NHL teams place young prospects once they have graduated from the CHL leagues (OHL, QMJHL, and WHL), from NCAA college hockey, or come over from European leagues.
While the Lightning have been lauded for their drafting under Steve Yzerman and Al Murray, it hasn’t been often that the Lightning have had professional rookies with the Crunch that dominated in the AHL in their first year. Some of this has been that players have either made the jump straight to the NHL, like Jonathan Drouin and Brayden Point, or have had players that have taken longer to develop before making the jump, like Jake Dotchin and Matthew Peca.
The Lightning’s first big surge of talent in the AHL actually started with the Norfolk Admirals. Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Cory Conacher, and Ondrej Palat started their professional careers in Norfolk before the Lightning shifted their affiliation to Syracuse. After that wave, there has been more late bloomers than early boomers.
But that’s changed this season. For the first time since going to the Syracuse Crunch, rookies are a big part of the team’s success on the ice.
The lockout-shortened 2012-13 season produced perhaps the most talented roster the Lightning have placed with the Crunch. Players that likely would have made the jump right to the NHL were able to stay in the AHL for at least half the season, and other players from that group would soon make the jump to the NHL full-time.
The most prominent rookies for Syracuse were defenseman Dmitri Korobov and forwards Alex Killorn, J.T. Brown, Vladislav Namestnikov, and Danick Gauthier. With a stacked roster, Killorn was the leading point scorer of the rookies with 38 points in 44 games ranking tied-6th overall on the roster. Brown was next at 9th in scoring with 28 points. Korobov’s 22 points ranked 13th on the team and 3rd among defensemen. Namestnikov finished 14th and Gauthier 19th in scoring.
The 2013-14 season saw many of the Lightning’s top prospects graduate to the NHL, with a little flood of new rookies joining the Crunch. Included in the group of rookies were Cedric Paquette, Nikita Kucherov, Nikita Nesterov, Tanner Richard, Luke Witkowski, Artem Sergeev and Kristers Gudlevskis. Yanni Gourde also joined late in the season, but only played in 18 games for the Crunch.
Paquette was a bit of a surprise finishing 3rd in scoring on the team with 44 points. Kucherov, despite only playing 17 games before his promotion to the NHL, finished 8th on the team. Nesterov finished 3rd in defenseman scoring and 12th overall. Richard finished 11th, Witkowski 17th, and Sergeev 20th. Gourde finished 23rd with his eight points in just 18 games. Gudlevskis was pretty much even with veteran Cedrick Dejardins in net.
The Syracuse Crunch got a bit more of a boost from the rookie class coming into the 2014-15 season, in a way that was more notable on the blue line than the previous two seasons. Forwards Joel Vermin, Henri Ikonen and Cody Kunyk were joined by defensemen Slater Koekkoek, Dylan Blujus, and Jake Dotchin. In net, the Crunch had rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Vermin had the biggest impact of the group finishing 6th on the team, followed by Kunyk at 7th in the scoring. Koekkoek slotted in as the 8th highest scorer and highest scoring defenseman, followed by Blujus tied for 9th and Dotchin tied for 11th. Ikonen finished 18th on the team.
Up to this point, this rookie group had the biggest impact on the Crunch’s offensive performance. Vasilevskiy only played 25 games for the Crunch and was the best goalie the Crunch had.
The Crunch picked up another handful of rookies for the 2015-16 season. Forwards Matthew Peca and Brian Hart and goaltender Adam Wilcox came in from NCAA hockey, while forwards Adam Erne and Cam Darcy and defensemen Anthony DeAngelo and Daniel Walcott made their way up from the CHL leagues.
Peca and DeAngelo had the biggest impact with 43 points each tied for 5th in scoring on the team, with DeAngelo leading the defensemen. Erne had a decent showing coming in at 9th with 29 points. Walcott finished 16th with 13 points from the blue line. Darcy and Hart had lesser impacts on the team finishing 17th and 28th respectively. Wilcox struggled in 27 games as the back-up goaltender.
This season saw the smallest group of rookies the Lightning had sent to the Crunch since changing the affiliation, with just Ben Thomas and Dominik Masin joining the team on the blue line. Thomas finished 2nd among defensemen and 11th overall on the team, while Masin was offensively underwhelming with just six points in 69 games to finish tied for 26th.
Now we get to this season. This rookie class is the most stacked professional rookie class the Lightning have had since the 2011-12 Norfolk Admirals team.
The Crunch have had nine nearly full-time rookies this season. Coupled with some younger players mostly playing at the ECHL season, the Crunch have had more than a few games this season with ten rookies dressed.
That’s half of the team.
As the points stand right now, here’s where the rookie skaters stack up from the Crunch so far this season:
- T-1st - Mathieu Joseph, 44GP, 8G-23A-31P
- 3rd - Anthony Cirelli, 41GP, 9G-20A-29P
- 4th - Mitchell Stephens, 46GP, 16G-12A-28P
- T-5th - Alexander Volkov, 46GP, 13G-14A-27P
- 12th - Dennis Yan, 28GP, 8G-9A-17P
- 17th - Erik Cernak, 46GP, 2G-7A-9P
- 22nd - Jonne Tammela, 11GP, 3G-1A-4P
- T-23rd - Matthew Spencer, 25GP, 1G-2A-3P
- Connor Ingram, .902 SV%, 2.64 GAA
Four of the top six scorers for the Crunch are rookies.
Just let that sink in for a moment. These are the players that are driving this team’s offense.
Next season, the Lightning should have a similar rookie class going to Syracuse with a lot of talent coming up. Players to expect next fall are forwards Taylor Raddysh, Boris Katchouk, and Brett Howden, and defensemen Cal Foote and Libor Hajek. That’s two first round draft picks and three second round draft picks.
They could also be joined by seventh round forward Otto Somppi if he is signed to an entry level contract. Third rounder Alexey Lipanov would also be eligible, but could go back to the OHL for another season. Fourth rounder Ross Colton is also a small possibility if he decides to leave NCAA hockey early.
Consider also that there’s not likely to be much turnover with the roster in Tampa going into next season. Most, if not all, of this year’s rookies are likely to be back in Syracuse next fall...with a full year of experience under their belts.
That has to be a scary thought for the rest of the AHL.
It should also be a very, very, very happy thought for Syracuse Crunch fans.