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The Tampa Bay Lightning, the Syracuse Crunch, and free agency: What else went down on July 1st?

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The Crunch netted Kevin Lynch, Cameron Gaunce, and Hubert Labrie and on 7/1. They also lost Matthew Peca.

Syracuse Crunch Kevin Lynch (14) raises his stick in celebration as the puck slips in behind Toronto Marlies goalie Garret Sparks (40) for a goal in American Hockey League (AHL) Calder Cup Playoff action at the War Memorial Arena in Syracuse, New York on Tuesday, May 8, 2018. Toronto won 2-1.
Scott Thomas Photography

Although it’s the bigger deals that tend to get a lot of attention on July 1st - the Tampa Bay Lightning extending defenseman Ryan McDonagh for seven years, for instance - the smaller deals can be the glue that holds the lower levels of any organization together. The Syracuse Crunch got a helping of that glue today with the signings of forward Kevin Lynch, and defensemen Cameron Gaunce and Hubert Labrie.

According to a few Instagram posts, forward Kevin Lynch was actually signed by the Lightning weeks ago, but apparently the change in his contract from an AHL-only to a two-way necessitated waiting until 7/1 to announce it. This contract is Lynch’s first one with an NHL team, something that is quite an achievement for the 27-year-old.

Lynch is no stranger to the Crunch. Out of the 154 games the center has played in the AHL games over four seasons, only a small handful of them were with another AHL team. In 2015-2016, he played in five games with the Manitoba Moose. The rest of his AHL experience has been with Syracuse, through both professional tryout contracts and AHL contracts. He has 22 goals and 37 points over the course of that career.

During the 2017-18 season, he played 57 games with Syracuse, posting a career-high 14 goals and 26 points. He ranked third on the team for shorthanded goals with two and was tied for sixth for goals.

During the 2016-2017 season, Lynch played himself into an extended stay with the team, earning an AHL contract. At the time, Crunch head coach Ben Groulx praised Lynch’s competitive spirit and effort. Lynch’s stated philosophy from that June certainly doesn’t seem to have changed:

I think (it’s) just playing with confidence. That’s the biggest thing with coming up is not to play tentative and say you don’t belong here. You want to be confident, still stick to your game, and do the things that were making you successful down in Indy, which for me is playing physical every game, winning faceoffs, getting the puck in, being really good defensively and trying to chip in offensively when I can.

Although he probably won’t see any NHL time with the Lightning, a two-way contract is an excellent reward for a hard-fighting player that has become a leader in Syracuse.

Along with Lynch, it was announced that the Lightning has signed defenseman Cameron Gaunce to a one-year, two-way contract. Gaunce is a veteran of 535 career AHL games with the Cleveland Monsters, the Wilkes/Barre-Scranton Penguins, the Portland Pirates, and the Texas Stars. He has collected 24 goals and 171 points in those games. He won a Calder Cup with the Stars in 2014. Last season with the Monsters, he totaled three goals and 24 points, and led all Cleveland defensemen for assists with 21 and points.

According to the AHL blog Chirps From Center Ice, a blog that always puts out a quality list of AHL free agents every summer, Gaunce was a highly-desired name among all free agents. He clocked in at #41 on their list of the top 50 free agents. Jason Iacona, one of the list’s compilers and a blogger for AHL Wilkes-Barre, described him this way:

One of the bright spots for a very bad Cleveland team, led defenseman in points. A solid defender.

Tony Androckitis, who runs the blog Inside AHL Hockey, had Gaunce listed at #14 on their rundown of the Top 40 AHL free agent defensemen. If needed, Gaunce will certainly be a good candidate for a call-up to the Lightning.

The Crunch’s stock of defensemen needed to be replenished after the departure of Jamie McBain, Matt Bodie, and Reid McNeil. All three were allowed to become unrestricted free agents after their one-year stints with the Crunch.

On his website Around the A, Williams described Gaunce as “a very durable AHL defenseman who can add something of an ornery presence.”

In addition to Gaunce, veteran AHL defenseman Hubert Labrie was signed to a one year AHL contract. Labrie has 342 AHL games under his belt. He’s been with the Hartford Wolf Pack, the Hershey Bears, the Chicago Wolves, the San Antonio Rampage, the Springfield Falcons, and the Texas Stars. He’s earned 53 points (12g, 41a) over the course of his career in the AHL.

Labrie will also help with the holes left by the departure of Bodie, McBain, and McNeil. Both he and Gaunce will be needed to help guide the Crunch’s rather young blueline:

Labrie is described as a solid defender who won’t put up a lot of points, but also won’t land himself in the box very often. Of note is that Labrie has a history with Coach Groulx:

Unfortunately, on the other side of the things, the Lightning organization lost the valuable services of forward Matthew Peca. Although it was reported that the Lightning were hoping to retain him, Peca instead signed a two-year contract with the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday.

Peca, although very versatile and speedy, never seemed to be able to stick with the Lightning. He impressed at the AHL level and fans were rather hoping to have him back. However, with his path to the Lightning probably blocked and several younger, hopeful prospects pushing in from behind, Peca obviously felt his best path would be with a different organization.

Best of luck to Peca. Besides how he impressed with his hockey talent, he will also be remembered for his lip-sync and karaoke abilities.

One final note: Although it was known already that Crunch forward and captain Erik Condra was moving on, it became official today when Condra signed on with the Dallas Stars organization. Condra was captain of the Crunch for the last season and a half-ish, and it doesn’t feel right to end this entry before saying goodbye to him. Best wishes to Erik, it’s hoped he finds success with Dallas.

Overall, the Lightning did what it needed to do today to keep the Crunch competitive in 2018-19. With the team pretty much set at forward thanks to returning guys and new prospects, and also solid at goaltending, all that was really needed was a few more defenseman to shore things up. Syracuse is destined to be young again, but that was expected. In a conversation with Bryan Burns from last week, Coach Groulx explained how he was seeing his team shaping up:

Last year, we were a young team. I think we’re going to be a young team again…We’re going to have about 10, 11 very young forwards, a very young team up front…The biggest thing is as a coach you want to have the opportunity to work with good players. I see the guys coming from college and junior hockey, you see these young men can shoot the puck, they can skate, they can pass, they have good hockey sense. It tells me that we have a lot of material to work with again. And it’s going to be for us and for them to put all that together and have a good season.

The additions today will certainly help Syracuse pull it all together. It should be another exciting season for the Crunch!