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Jan Rutta and his place in the Crunch’s defense

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There were some roster moves involving Syracuse’s defense, but the final product isn’t on the ice just yet.

Scott Thomas Photography

On Tuesday, the Syracuse Crunch made a minor roster move as they swapped defensemen with Orlando. Oleg Sosunov, who had been recalled last week, was sent back to the Solar Bears while Matthew Spencer was shipped up north to Syracuse for the second time this season. Sosunov did not appear in any action during his latest recall and is heading down to Florida in order to see some game action.

It’s not that surprising of a transaction based on recent events in Syracuse. When Sosunov was recalled last week, it sounded like he might stick with the Crunch for the rest of the season. Even if he didn’t play in all the games, he would see enough action to stay fresh while practicing with the team on a daily basis.

That plan went askew two days later when Slater Koekkoek was traded for Jan Rutta. If the trade hadn’t been made, Koekkoek would have returned to Tampa following his conditioning stint and the Crunch would have been back to six active defensemen on their roster. Sosunov could rotate in if anyone was banged up or sick, or if Coach Groulx wanted to go with an 11/7 line-up. There would have been plenty of practice time for him at a higher level of competition than what he would see in Orlando.

The acquisition of Rutta, who will spend the bulk of the rest of the season in Syracuse, makes things a little crowded. Rutta becomes the seventh man and makes it hard for there to be a path to playing time for Sosunov. It’s better for his development for him to be back in Orlando playing every game than to be the odd man out in Syracuse. Spencer is in that unfortunate middle spot where he can afford to get called up, sit for a few games, and then get shipped back down to Orlando once Rutta is healthy.

Once Rutta is ready to play again—which should be in about a week according to The Post Standard—it will be interesting to see how Coach Groulx works him into the line-up. Rutta wasn’t brought in to ride the bench. He should be playing—and playing a lot—as he waits for an opportunity in Tampa. So, will the Crunch roll 11/7 every night like they did when Koekkoek was in town or do they scratch one of the six players that have been in the line-up night in and night out?

Most likely they go with the second option and a Tampa-esque rotation. This team is much, much better when they play with four set lines and six defensemen. That means someone will have to sit once Rutta is ready to join the line-up. Who sits? Well, three players are definitely staying in every night: Cameron Gaunce, Cal Foote, and Dominik Masin.

Gaunce is their defensive leader and stalwart. He plays at full-strength and short-handed, and also quarterbacks the top power play unit. He can flip back and forth from the left and the right side, and is in the midst of a career year offensively. There is no need for him to spend less than twenty minutes a night on the ice.

Cal Foote isn’t going anywhere, either. The first-round draft pick is now the highest-rated defensive prospect in the organization. Not only that, but he’s earned all of the playing time that he’s getting as his game is getting better almost every time he steps on the ice. Again, he should be on the ice for 20+ minutes a night.

Masin may not be as noticeable as he was last season, especially since his offense game is struggling (1 goal, 6 assists), but he has been extremely consistent on the blue line all year long. He doesn’t make many mistakes with the puck and hasn’t been as plagued with turnovers as some of his defensive counterparts. Expect him to pair up with Rutta once the new acquisition is healthy.

That leaves the trio of Hubert Labrie, Nolan Valleau and Ben Thomas. Labrie, despite the occasional turnover, is solid enough on the left side to stay in the line-up. He also may be the most physical of the defensemen on the roster, and while that isn’t as meaningful as it once was, it still has a place in the game.

Thomas is an interesting case. He had a bit of a delayed start to his season as he was recovering from an injury. Since returning, he has looked a lot better than he did at the end of last season, but the points just haven’t been there. In 29 games he has just 7 assists. While he isn’t the second coming of Erik Karlsson, his skills should translate to more offense. Still, at just 22-years-old, he is developing and should stay on the ice.

That leaves Valleau. The 26-year-old came up from Orlando earlier this season and injected some energy into the blueline. He parlayed that play into an AHL contract and has settled into a role on the second power play unit. Valleau has also proved quite versatile. Despite being a left-shot defenseman, he has flip-flopped on both sides of ice as the Crunch have moved around players over the last couple of weeks.

Unfortunately, however, he has had more than his share of turnovers. That’s to be expected out of a player considered to be a puck mover, but a few of them have come at extremely inopportune times. Some of those turnovers have led directly to goals and have stymied the offense. It’s something that the entire team has struggled with, and is one of the problems that has frustrated Coach Groulx for most of the season.

It just seems that Rutta is a natural fit to take Valleau’s spot on the most frequent basis, especially given his skill set. Rutta has an offensive game that could lead him to some power play time, and he can pair with Masin to form a pretty seasoned duo behind the Foote/Gaunce combo. The pairings would then look something like this:

Cameron Gaunce - Cal Foote

Dominik Masin - Jan Rutta

Hubert Labrie - Ben Thomas

Valleau, with his versatility, can occasionally replace Thomas, Labrie, or even Rutta if needed. Regardless of the line-up, the Crunch needs to start getting some more production out of their defense. Other than Gaunce (6 goals) and Foote (6 goals), no current member of the defense has more than 1 goal this season. While that isn’t unusual for stay-at-home defenders such as Masin and Labrie, the others that rely on offense as part of their value to the team should have more goals.

It’s also indicative of the struggles the Crunch are having in their transition offense. When they are clicking, the defense is picking off passes in the neutral zone and feeding them ahead for scoring chances. When Syracuse scores off of a play like that, the defense usually picks up a secondary assist. That’s not happening at the moment, and the low point totals reflect this.

Preview:

The Crunch are back in Utica tonight as they take on the Comets for the second straight game. A win would snap a 4-game losing streak for the Crunch and leapfrog them back above Utica in the standings. Reid Boucher (1 goal, 3 assists) and Brendan Gaunce (2 goals, 1 assist) continue to be a thorn in the Crunch’s side in this series, while Cory Conacher (5 goals, 4 assists) and Cameron Gaunce (1 goal, 5 assists) have enjoyed success against the Comets. Expect Eddie Pasquale and Ivan Kulbakov to resume their spots in the goalcrease.

Possible Lines:

Forwards:

Carter Verhaeghe - Gabriel Dumont - Alex Barre-Boulet

Troy Bourke - Andy Andreoff - Cory Conacher

Boris Katchouk - Ross Colton - Dennis Yan

Alex Volkov - Brady Brassart - Taylor Raddysh

Defense:

Cameron Gaunce - Cal Foote

Dominik Masin - Nolan Valleau

Hubert Labrie - Ben Thomas

Goaltender:

Eddie Pasquale

Notes: I wouldn’t be surprised to see Otto Somppi rotate back into the line-up in place of Brassart or Yan. The starting lines for Saturday’s game represented the biggest changes of the season so far, and is an indication that Coach Groulx is still searching for the right combination to get the offense going.