Part of what made Jon Cooper so successful as an AHL head coach is that he was able to balance the needs of the organization in developing prospects with winning. His winning ways with the Norfolk Admirals and Syracuse Crunch in the AHL helped him earn his job as the Tampa Bay Lightning head coach.
Former Crunch head coach Rob Zettler had done a fine job of developing players and getting them ready for the NHL. During his tenure, when the Lightning called upon a Crunch player as an injury replacement, they always came in and looked like NHLers rather than minor-leaguers that weren’t ready for the big show. However, Zettler’s inability to get the Crunch over the hump consistently as winners led to his departure from the team.
Zettler’s departure led to the hiring of Benoit Groulx. For Groulx, it was a good time for him to leave the QMJHL. His son, Benoit-Olivier Groulx, had just been drafted first overall by the Halifax Mooseheads. By leaving the QMJHL and the Gatineau Olympiques whom he had been the GM and Head coach of for six seasons, he avoided having to coach against his own son.
At the same time, it also was an opportunity for Groulx to take a step up in the coaching world. He had one previous stint in the AHL with the Rochester Americans, and lasted two seasons before returning to the QMJHL.
For his first season in Syracuse, the Crunch were loaded with veteran minor-leaguers that knew how to perform. For most of them, their NHL dreams were basically over with only hopes of an occasional call-up left for them. There were a handful of inexperienced prospects on the team, but they were a small portion of the overall roster and not key performers for the Crunch.
Groulx took the team, molded them, and pointed them in the right direction. He knew the buttons to push with the veterans and how to work with the prospects he had. And that got the Crunch all the way to the Calder Cup Finals before they fell to the Grand Rapids Griffins.
This season, the Crunch roster looks significantly different. There are far fewer veterans and older prospects. The Crunch welcomed in a big class of rookie talent. Including their late season call-ups from Juniors and players loaned to the team from the ECHL, the Crunch had 18 different rookies play at least one game for them.
Seven of those rookies played at least half of the season, with Connor Ingram playing 35 games in net and serving as back-up for most of the rest of the season. Compare that to the previous season when the Crunch only had eight rookies make an appearance, and only two of them played more than half of the season.
The Crunch and their rookies got off to a slow start to their season. With so many rookies, it was inevitable that there would be an adjustment period. The big question going into the season was how quickly they could adjust and whether it would take so long that they’d remain out of the playoff hunt. Knowing how much talent many of these rookies were bringing to the team, there was a hint that perhaps they could perform like the 2011-12 Norfolk Admirals team that won the Calder Cup, with many of those players now playing in the NHL with the Lightning and other teams.
Fortunately, the rookies did begin to learn and adjust to the professional game. After their slow start, the Crunch went on a major run.
Plus-minus is a flawed stat. There is a lot wrong with it. But on the surface, when other stats for evaluating performance are unavailable, it does suggest that the team started to score a lot more at even strength. After the first couple months of the season, I remember looking at the Crunch stats page and almost everyone was in the negatives for plus-minus. Today when I look back, everyone with the exception of a player here and there, are in the positive and many of them being way in the positive.
Three defensemen ended up with some gaudy numbers as Mat Bodie (+32), Erik Cernak (+30), and Dominik Masin (+25) closed out the season with the lead on the Crunch and 4th, t-5th, and t-12th in the league respectively.
Four of the Crunch’s top six scorers, including the leading scorer, were rookies. Dennis Yan probably would have been up there in that race if he hadn’t missed almost half of the season with various injuries but still put up 23 points in 43 games.
I mentioned earlier that players coming up from Syracuse were ready to play in the NHL. Zettler did a really good job of that, and Groulx has done the same. Most notable in the group of prospects that have come up this season is rookie Anthony Cirelli. He was recalled shortly before the trade deadline on an emergency basis to fill in for some injuries. I wrote at the time that I thought he was auditioning for Cedric Paquette’s spot in the line-up. Turns out, he was auditioning for a spot on the third line, and the injury to Adam Erne late in the season further cemented his spot on the roster going into the playoffs.
Cirelli’s ice time started out low with his first three games being kept under ten minutes. Through the first eight games, he averaged 10:46 TOI with a low of 8:14 and a high of 12:53. In the last 10 games of the season, he averaged 15:13 TOI with a high of 17:53 and low of 13:12. Now through the first three playoff games in the NHL, he’s averaged 15:10 TOI.
His quick acclimation to the NHL speaks not just to his skill, but also the work that Groulx did in the AHL to get Cirelli ready. With another coach in the AHL, it’s very possible that Cirelli would not have been ready to make the transition yet and make it so seamlessly.
For any NHL organization, the primary role of an AHL affiliate is to develop prospects and prepare players for the NHL. That is most important to the NHL club. But perhaps just as important, is building a winning culture in the AHL. When you teach players to win, to expect to win, and more importantly to be hungry to win, you develop winners. And when you get them on your NHL team, you want your prospects to be winners.