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2018-19 Syracuse Crunch Preview: The Defense

An experienced blueline will be the backbone of the Crunch’s march to the Calder Cup.

Scott Thomas Photography

This week we’re going to preview the Syracuse Crunch roster in three parts. Part One will concentrate on the goaltenders, Part Two on the defense, and Part Three - you guessed it - the offense. There may be a few changes along the way if the Lightning or the Crunch tweak their rosters, but for the most part this should be the team that the Crunch uses to defend their AHL North Division title.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: I friggin’ love this defense. It is my favorite non-Boris Katchouk part of the Crunch. Not to go all Stefon on you, but this blue line has everything: size, breakout ability, puck-handling, Ben Thomas, offense. It’s also the perfect blend of experienced veterans and young players that are almost ready to take the next step to the NHL.

The thing I love the most about this group is the stability. The unit that the Crunch will put on the ice to start the season in Rochester is pretty much the same as the one that ended last season in Cleveland. The only significant change is the departure of Hubert Labrie and the addition of Luke Schenn.

A returning group of players is so important to maintaining an identity for a team. With the abbreviated training camp most AHL teams have, it’s hard to learn the little idiosyncrasies of teammates, so a good group that has done this all before together is a plus. In addition to having a firm grip on the systems that the Crunch run, this group also knows the little things that take a few games to learn and adjust to. That should give Syracuse a jump at the start of the season.

Not only are they bringing back the squad from last year, but that group was pretty effective. Sadly, there isn’t much advanced data we can throw at you from the AHL level so we’ll have to go with an old school stat - goals allowed.

The Crunch allowed a total of 187 goals last year. That was second best in the entire AHL. Bakersfield allowed 182, but they also played 8 fewer games. So Syracuse’s 2.46 GA/G was the best in the league. Of those 187 goals, 57 came shorthanded. Take away another 6 that the Crunch allowed when they were on the power play and you’re left with 124 even strength goals or 1.63 GA/G. That’s pretty good.

Eddie Pasquale and his band of merry goaltenders had a lot to do with that, but it was also the defense’s ability to limit high danger shots (except for the daily odd man rush) and second chances. The Crunch were excellent for most of the season in either clearing out loose pucks or tying up their opponents to prevent quality whacks at the puck.

Let’s take a look at the blue line and the possible pairings.

Top Pairing:

Cameron Gaunce / Cal Foote

By far the two best defensemen on the roster, Gaunce and Foote will most likely see the majority of the ice time at even strength and special teams. Expect Gaunce to run the first power play unit and Foote to run the second.

Gaunce is the veteran of the unit, having played over 620 professional games. He came to the Crunch last season and immediately made a difference and had a career year. Gaunce set career highs in goals (10), power play goals (5), assists (36), points (46), and +/- (+24). His play was good enough to earn a call up at the end of the season and he saw some action with the Lightning.

He plays a fairly balanced game, but does take risks to generate offense. He will pinch down low if the play calls for it, but is rather responsible in his own zone. There isn’t anything overly flashy about the way he plays, but he can move the puck fairly well and is an excellent quarterback on the power play.

Cal Foote spent his first season in professional hockey becoming the most improved player on the ice. It did take him a little while to warm up to the pace of the AHL, but once he got comfortable he looked like a seasoned professional. He has a similar game to Gaunce in the fact that there is nothing he does that makes you say “wow,” but he also doesn’t do a lot of things that leave you cursing his name, either.

He doesn’t play a physical game of hockey (there aren’t many in the system that do), but he does play excellent positional hockey and is rarely in the wrong spot on the ice. His shot is deceptively heavy and he isn’t afraid to let it rip, his 118 shots last season was tops among Crunch defensemen and tied for fifth overall on the team.

When Gaunce and Jan Rutta were in the NHL, Foote easily took over some of the power play duties on the first unit and was just fine. There was some hope among the more optimistic fans that Foote would make the Lightning out of training camp. That didn’t happen, but it doesn’t mean he won’t get a call up at some point. Right now, it’s more likely that Gaunce or Luke Schenn would be the first to get the nod should the Lightning need another blueliner, but if Foote excels out of the gate, he could have an Erik Cernak-esque rise through the system.

Second Pairing:

Dominik Masin / Luke Schenn

Masin enters his fourth season in Syracuse as the solid foundation of the blue line corps. He is their steadiest player and can be thrown into pretty much any situation and excel. So why doesn’t he get more press? Probably because he doesn’t rack up a ton of points. There have always been players a step or two of a head of him when it comes to putting the puck in the net, so he rarely sees a lot of time on the power play.

Honestly, his game just isn’t built around offense. Despite playing in 69 games last season he only had 55 shots on goal. In the offensive zone he is content to keep the puck in, dump it back down low or pass it off to a teammate. He’s not going to drive the net or take risks with the puck.

In his own zone he possess a similar mentality - don’t make mistakes, get the puck out of the zone or to a teammate. He is a little more physical than some of his teammates and can sneak a big hit on an opponent skating through the zone with their head down.

If the Crunch are killing a penalty, which they do quite often, Masin is likely going to be on the ice. He’ll put himself in position to block shots, break up passing lanes, and, oddly enough, provide some offense. Of his 11 goals over the past two seasons, 2 of them have been shorthanded.

Luke Schenn is the unknown commodity on the team. A veteran’s veteran, he was one of the last players sent down to Syracuse in the preseason and figures to be one of the first call-ups should the Lightning need some help on the blueline.

As a right-handed defenseman, he’ll likely line up on the right side of the ice on the second or third pairings. Most likely he won’t see much special teams play early in the season since those spots are filled, but could rotate in on the penalty kill.

The biggest thing to look for will be his attitude. Will he sulk that he didn’t make the Lightning or will he accept it and work to make it back into the league? The Crunch have been lucky the last few seasons in the fact that they’ve had veterans accept their demotions without sullying the clubhouse (Cory Conacher, Gabriel Dumont, and Andy Andreoff are recent examples). If Schenn accepts his lot in life, he can act as one of the on-ice coaches that Coach Groulx likes to have on his roster.

Third Pairing:

Nolan Valleau / Ben Thomas

This could be an interesting pairing as both players are pretty similar to each other. They both lean more to generating offense than defending their own zone, both can skate the puck out of danger, and both occasionally make plays that leave you scratching your head in bewilderment.

Valleau (who can also play on the right side of the ice) was a success story last season. He started in Orlando and was supposed to be a temporary call-up, but he played so well the team signed him to an AHL contract. His option was picked up this offseason and he returns with a slightly more permanent spot on the roster.

He does get some time on the power play and has a decent shot. His strongest asset is his ability to transition the puck by skating it from zone to zone as opposed to having to dump it out of trouble or dish it off to a teammate.

Thomas is a mirror-image of Valleau except that he tends to fall down more. The Crunch equivalent of Alex Killorn, Thomas sometimes gets going so fast that he blows a tire and ends up on the ice.

Like Masin, he’s now entering his fourth year with the Crunch. Unlike Masin, there are still some question marks to his game. Despite being healthy, his offensive output was halved over the previous year and he continues to make mistakes that lead to goals for the other team.

He will have to show some improvement on the ice this season in order to stay in the organization.

The Others:

There will be a few names shuffling between the press box, the ice, and Orlando. Most likely they are Oleg Sosonov, Matt Spencer (assigned to Orlando on Tuesday), and maybe the delightfully named Luc Snuggerud. Spencer has been a tweener for the past couple of seasons and appears bound to do it again this year.

The supersized Sosonov also shuttled back and forth from the Sunshine State last season, but may benefit more this season from being a seventh or eighth defenseman in Syracuse where he rotates into a game once a week or so and practices with the team on a consistent basis. He had some good times in his limited role last season, and while he remains a project, he does add a bit of size to the defense.

Speaking of size, wouldn’t it be cruel and unusual to keep throwing Sosonov on an airplane every four weeks or so? I’m 5’11” at best and on certain flights find myself lacking leg room. I can’t imagine cramming legs that support a 6’9” body into row 14 of the Airbus A320 on the 6:20 AM JetBlue flight from Syracuse to Orlando is all that comfortable.

As for Snuggerud, he seems to have impressed some folks so far as he remains in the Crunch’s preseason camp. A training camp invite to the Lightning camp, the Minnesota native is still on a PTO with the Crunch. He has played well in camp so far and may be an unlikely addition to the roster.

The only drawback to the Crunch’s blueline right now is that it is rather thin. They have six very good players, but after that things can get a little nerve-wracking should anyone else have to be slotted in. It wouldn’t be overly surprising to see a veteran sign with them in the next couple of weeks just to add a little depth to the position.