clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

10 Things We Want to See Next Season #9: The defense prospects growing in Syracuse

The Tampa Bay Lightning will be in need of some help on the back-end very soon.

Erik Cernak chases after the puck against the Toronto Marlies.
Credit: Thomas Skrlj

It’s been a few years since the Syracuse Crunch have graduated a real difference-maker on defense. The current defense core of the Tampa Bay Lightning contains a star #1 defenseman in Victor Hedman, who was trained in Sweden and stepped straight into the NHL. Mikhail Sergachev was a gift from the Montreal Canadiens and also walked straight into the NHL, shoutout to Les Habitants for that. And finally, Ryan McDonagh, Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn, and Dan Girardi are all free agent signees or trade acquisitions from other teams. No one from Syracuse.

Sure, Slater Koekkoek and Jake Dotchin are both on the NHL roster, and the two have combined for 337 games in the Crunch sweater, but both appear to be on the outside looking in and with very little upside left to grow into. Maybe the offense-first Koekkoek or defense-first Dotchin will find a home on another team, or they can stay in Tampa Bay and be loyal extra skaters.

New York Islanders v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Five
Slater Koekkoek #29 of the Tampa Bay Lightning checks Cal Clutterbuck #15 of the New York Islanders during the first period of Game Five of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on May 8, 2016 in Tampa, Florida.
Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

The last player to graduate from the team and become a legitimate member of the team was Radko Gudas back in 2013. Slater Koekkoek, Jake Dotchin, Anthony DeAngelo, Luke Witkowski, Nikita Nesterov, and Andrej Sustr all have seen time in the NHL, but none of them have shown themselves to be more than replacement level players.

This lack of development isn’t due to any insufficiency with the Crunch specifically. It’s a combination of questionable drafting by the Lightning and then questionable player development once the players are in the organization. For all the success with forwards, the Lightning have not been able to replicate that with their defensive prospects.

That brings us to the crux of this article; what we want to see next season.

First and foremost, I want to see the Syracuse Crunch become a defenseman factory for the Tampa Bay Lightning. I want to see Benoit Groulx and his crew create a place where young defensemen can play, make mistakes, learn, and hopefully graduate and become Bolts. Not to mention, Stralman, Coburn, and Girardi will all be needing new contracts next summer. Or not, if one or two of these following players are able to take a job by the end of the season.

Two years ago, the Crunch gave up roughly as much as they scored. They improved that greatly last season as they were near the top of the Eastern Conference in both goals scored and goals against (meaning they didn’t give up much). That improvement came largely in part because of the growth of two of the players below. Okay, enough prelude, let’s get into it for real.

Dominik Masin

I’ve been a fan of the 22-year-old Masin ever since I took some time out of my vacation in England to write his Top 25 Under 25 prospect report. I had him pretty high already, ranking him at #10 in my personal list while he ended up placing #15 in the final rankings. But after going deep into the numbers and video on Masin, I think I caught feelings.

Masin, a left-handed defenseman drafted 35th overall in 2014, has the size (6’2”), dependable footspeed, and has become a strong defender in his own zone over the past few seasons with the Crunch. He put up even-strength points at the rate of some of the best U22 defensemen in the AHL last year. I go into this depth more in his Top 25 Under 25 article, but the following excerpt is a nice summary of where Masin ranks among his peers in terms of point production.

In terms of even-strength production in the AHL, among under-22 players, Masin is fifth in both 5v5 points-per-game and 5v5 estimated points per 60 minutes of play (the AHL doesn’t track ice time so TOI values are estimated). The only players above him either category are the aforementioned Kylington, his teammate Rasmus Andersson (also a top defensive prospect in Calgary’s system), Frederic Allard (teenage RHD in Nashville’s system), Roland McKeown (Charlotte’s top defenseman who spent time in the NHL with Carolina), and Winnipeg’s breakout star in the AHL: Sami Niku. That’s some pretty good company to be with.

Masin has put in the work on the defensive end to become one of Groulx’s most relied upon defensemen in key moments and on the penalty kill. What I would like to see out of 2018-19 is Masin see time on the power play and show us whether he can be an all-around defenseman capable of making the NHL and making a difference.

Dominik Masin battles with Mason Marchment in front of Connor Ingram’s net.
Credit: Christian Bonin

Erik Cernak

Cernak is in the same mould as Masin in that they’re both big, good in their own end, and have shown a bit of flair in the offensive zone. The only difference with Cernak is that he’s bigger (6’4”), younger (21), and right-handed. He too took a big step from being a stay-at-home defenseman in Erie of the OHL into becoming a more well-rounded defenseman at the professional level.

Cernak has made it clear that he has worked on not only being tough in his own end, but showing his coaches and fans that he isn’t just a stay-at-home player. The following is from Cernak’s Top 25 Under 25 article that Associate Editor Alex did a great job of putting together. She explains not only what areas the coaches want him to work on, but what he himself wants to make sure he’s proficient in. Namely, offense.

Cernak spent much of the season paired with Dominik Masin. Masin’s steady presence and quiet, solid season clearly made an impression on Cernak, and the partnership probably helped him make the leap from juniors to the professional leagues. Honestly, it was rather hard to tell if Cernak had any trouble at all adjusting. Not known for his scoring, he potted his first professional goal in just his 4th game with the Crunch... Cernak talked often throughout the season about playing hard and battling. Indeed, those two things are what he became known for within the organization.

Masin may be out-performing his partner in terms of points at even-strength, but Cernak has one of the best goal differentials among his AHL peers (data can be found in the Masin 2018 T25U25). As a 20-year-old in 71 games playing in the top-4 of a good team, Cernak allowed only 20 goals against at 5v5. Being on the ice for 45 goals for helped him put up a 69.23% Goals For percentage in the AHL. Nice.

Even accounting for Cernak getting favourable linemates and competition (QoT, QoC), Cernak still comes out as the cream of the crop among U22 defensemen. What I want to see from Cernak this season is the ability to take on some tougher minutes as a 21-year-old. Let’s see how much he can handle and whether getting more opportunities will result in more points.

Cal Foote

Foote is the top-prospect, the star, the feeture presentation if you will.

Because feeture. Not feature. Hah...

Ahem.

Alan, I think it’s time I hand in my resignation. It’s for the best. [Editor’s note: Agreed]

Moving on, Cal Foote was the 14th overall pick in 2017. He’s already found himself in the AHL and playing consistent minutes for the Crunch. He was one of the players I noticed who had a bit of an extra pop than his peers in the playoff series against Toronto that I was able to cover. I really like Foote. I think a lot of people do. But there are aspects of his game that keep you on your toes....

If this is going to be my last article ever, why not go out with a bang. Or a stampeed. Whatever works. Okay, I’m done, I promise. [Editor’s note: For real though, send in that resignation letter]

Kootenay Ice v Kelowna Rockets
Cal Foote #25 of the Kelowna Rockets slides to block the shot on Roman Basra #30 of the Kelowna Rockets during first period against the Kootenay Ice on December 2, 2017 at Prospera Place in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada.
Photo by Marissa Baecker/Getty Images

Foote was the captain of the Kelowna Rockets, putting up 70 points in 60 games for the club last season. The 6’4” right-handed defenseman already looks like a man at 19-years-old in terms of his size and weight. A few extra pounds of muscle, especially in areas that will help him skate would be much welcomed, though. His point production in the WHL is good, not great, but his goal differential data looks solid for the most part. A full season with the Crunch will answer a lot of the questions Lightning fans surely still have with this prospect. There’s lots of reasons to be optimistic about Foote, but there’s also room to grow. Geo wrote Foote’s Top 25 Under 25 article earlier this month and I think this paragraph from it nails where our expectations for Foote should lie.

If there is any question in his game, it’s in his skating. He is an average skater for his size and not overly fast. Just a small improvement in that department can serve to push him over the top as a defensive prospect. Since he’ll turn 20 before January 1st, he is eligible to join the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL this season. With a logjam at defense in Tampa Bay, it’s unlikely we’ll be seeing another rookie defenseman making a big impact as we saw with Mikhail Sergachev last season.

What I want to see from Foote is some more foot speed! He’s getting older and more comfortable with his abilities. I would like to see him get more comfortable with what his body can do and start to find a rythem in his play. Foote should be begging his coaches for as much time with Barb Underhill as they can afford.