Just a few days ago, all seemed well in Crunch-land. The goaltending situation was solidified, key players were being re-signed, and renovations were well under way at the arena. It was seemingly going to be a rather quiet off-season for the Tampa Bay Lightning’s AHL affiliate. Sure, a couple of tweaks here and there were expected, as were the usual few new rookies additions, but that was it.
Then on Thursday, as the rest of the hockey world was amping up for the NHL draft and all of the other related activities that go along with said draft, the Syracuse Crunch released a bunch of tidbits that provided a little insight into what they are actually planning to do this summer. These tidbits also raised a few questions.
Who will wear the “C”?
The biggest news is that captain Erik Condra will not be returning to the club next season. Three years ago, when Condra signed his deal with the Lightning, it was thought that Condra would come to Tampa to fill a role on the bottom six and kill penalties. It didn’t quite work out that way.
He lasted just one season for the Lightning, recording 11 points in 54 games in 2015-16. The next year he found himself clearing waivers and being assigned to Syracuse. It had to be a big blow for an established NHL veteran, but Condra was the consummate professional through and through. He never complained. Instead, he put himself to work at being a leader in the AHL.
Condra became an established elder statesman on a young Crunch squad that made a surprising run to the Calder Cup final in 2017. He was given the “C” in late March of that season after it was announced that Luke Witkowski, who found his tenure as captain with the Crunch cut short by an extended stay with the Lightning, wouldn’t return to Syracuse for the playoffs. Condra appeared in 55 games during the regular season in 2016-17 and put up 48 points for Syracuse. He also appeared in 18 playoff games, contributing 16 points. He did all of this with a back issue that would require off-season surgery.
This past season, with an even younger lineup starting the season in Syracuse, he assumed the “C” again despite missing the beginning of the season due to rehab. He added another 25 points in 46 games, and helped his team make it back to the playoffs.
Now 31 years old, Condra has apparently realized that his path back to the NHL is severely blocked in the Lightning’s organization. There are just too many young forwards that can fill the role Condra would play as a bottom-six penalty killer, players who can also do it cheaper. Given all of that, Condra has decided to move on. His skillset does play well with almost every other team in the league. He should get an opportunity for the fresh start that he is looking for.
So, who steps in as captain for the Crunch next season? While I’m certain select members of this staff will openly campaign for Mike Angelidis to return from his exile in the Austrian Hockey League, that’s unlikely to happen. (Alex’s editor’s note: *waves*) There is the chance, especially with such a young roster, that there is no captain. Coach Groulx could choose to rotate alternate captains throughout the season.
If a “C” is handed out here are a few possibilities:
The 26-year-old winger has 199 games of AHL experience split among the Crunch, the Hamilton Bulldogs, and the St. Johns IceCaps. Although he is currently recovering from ACL surgery, the six month rehab should wrap up in time for the season to begin. Bournival served as captain during his final season with the Shawinigan Cataractes of the QMJHL in 2011–12, and has been an alternate with both the Crunch and the Bulldogs.
Dumont is similar to Bournival in that he’s another experienced forward that is a leader on the ice for the Crunch. His potential impact with this organization this past season was muted by a waiver claim that saw him end up with the Ottawa organization for three months. Dumont returned to the Crunch in February after being snatched back off waivers by the Lightning, and was welcomed back exuberantly.
Dumont already has experience as an AHL captain. He served in that role when he was with both the IceCaps and the Bulldogs. The one drawback could be that he might be in the mix to either start the season with the Lightning, or would be 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 can complicate things at the AHL level. The former Lightning defenseman holds the shortest tenure as a Crunch captain in team history with just 19 games played with the “C” on his chest. It’s obviously hoped that a team captain is present for more than just a quarter of the season.
The 24-year-old defenseman/forward really stepped up his game last season and wore the “A” several times. He also wore the “C” for one game at the end of the season with Condra out due to injury, a move that was rather unprecedented for the organization. He was the captain of his junior team - the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada - in his second season with the squad.
Walcott has also proven to be a leader for his team off the ice, especially in the area of community service. He was selected as the Crunch’s IOA/American Specialty Man of the Year this past season for his work in and around Syracuse. Community service is generally a hallmark of Crunch captains; Angelidis was well-known in the organization for his service to Syracuse, and his Change for Change initiative is still running strong.
Who’s on Defense?
In another announcement that perhaps raises even bigger questions, General Manager Julien BriseBois said that the organization would not pursue new deals with defensemen Reid McNeil, Jamie McBain and Matt Bodie.
In other words, nearly half of the blue line will need to be replaced.
The loss of McNeil and McBain is huge for the defense. They were the number-one pairing for most of the season and put up significant minutes on the ice (the AHL does not provide time on ice stats so exact numbers can’t be sussed out). They were key players on the penalty kill, as well.
One trait that they also shared was that they were not fleet of foot getting the puck out of the defensive zone, a minor flaw that the Toronto Marlies exposed in their second round match-up in the playoffs. In getting rid of both players, one would think that BriseBois is looking to upgrade the defense in terms of puck movement in their own zone and through neutral ice.
Matt Bodie had his ups and downs throughout the season, but was a key player at the end of the season when the defense was riddled with injury (remember PTO players Craig Wyszomirski, TJ Melancon, and Ben Wilson?) When given room to roam, he showed himself to be a competent puck carrier who put up career numbers (37 points and a +32).
Some of those minutes—well, actually A LOT of those minutes—will go to Cal Foote. The 2017 number one pick will be playing in his first full professional season and the Lightning will want him on the ice so that he can develop. Based on the showcase he had last season, that may be an upgrade to the Crunch’s defense.
Additionally, expect Erik Cernak to pick up a lot of the slack, as well. The rookie may have improved the most out of any player on the Crunch roster throughout the season last year. He may step into that top pairing early in the season while Foote is getting his feet wet.
There is also the possibility that Walcott suits up a defenseman full time again. That is the position he came up as and played the majority of his career prior to last season.
In all likelihood, it will be a combination of the above players along with a veteran free agent that fills the void.
Will Matt Peca come back?
Matt Peca may be the most gifted passer on the Crunch roster. He is also an unrestricted free agent. BriseBois stated that they want to sign a deal with him, but it could be difficult if the the 25-year-old is looking for an organization that has a little less competition among the forward ranks.
Peca finished third in scoring with 46 points despite missing nine games after spending some time with the Lightning. He has that ability to make his teammates better and pairs well with all of the other forwards in Syracuse. If he stays, the Crunch can pretty much keep their top two lines together. Those lines were quite lethal for most of the second half of the season.
Who could step in should he leave the organization? The number one candidate would be Alex Barre-Boulet. The reigning Canadian Hockey Player of the Year will begin his professional career with the Crunch coming off of a final season in juniors that saw him put up 116 points and 53 goals.
It will be interesting to see how Barre-Boulet fits into the Crunch/Lightning system that emphasizes two-way play over creativity. His game is more along the lines of Jonathan Drouin than Peca or Anthony Cirelli, and it could lead to some adjustment issues.
He could also struggle in the rough-and-tumble AHL due to his slight size (5’10” 165lbs). Then again, that could be said for almost every single prospect that has played for the Crunch over the last few seasons, and most of them are doing more than okay.
Who will pick up all of the game misconducts?
The final tidbit of importance was that Alex Gallant will not be offered a contract, which means the 25-year-old forward will become an unrestricted free agent. In 38 games with the Crunch, he managed to accumulate 194 penalty minutes and multiple suspensions. From all reports, Gallant is a fantastic human being. He is also, unfortunately, a relic of a more violent era. He is a fighter, an enforcer, a player who has one role on the team: make the other team pay for taking liberties with his teammates.
The AHL, more so than the NHL, still employees enforcers. From a certain point of view it makes sense. There are a lot of young, skilled players playing in the pros for the first time. There are also a lot of veterans that want to show these young upstarts how physical professional hockey can be. That can lead to a lot of cheap shots and Saturday night fights. So, keeping a player on the roster that is known to be able to throw a few solid punches still theoretically makes sense.
However, like it’s parent league, the AHL is actively moving away from that type of chaos. They’ve instilled tougher penalties on premeditated fights and instituted suspensions for players accruing multiple game misconducts. That makes a player like Gallant even more of a liability than before.
With so many talented forwards fighting for playing time, it’s hard to justify keeping a roster spot for a player that is known just for fighting. It’s unlikely that they sign an Alex Gallant-esque player for the upcoming season.
Free agency is a week away, and the Crunch will have their hands full plugging the holes they just created. They also want to start to focus on improving a team that played well, but was exposed quite a bit by the eventual Calder Cup-winning Toronto Marlies in the playoffs.