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.
As good as the defense and goaltending was for the Syracuse Crunch in 2018-19, it was the offense that led the way to the North Division title. They boasted the top two goal scorers in the league (Carter Verhaeghe and Alex Barre-Boulet) and had three other players crack the 20-goal mark. As a team they led the league in goals scored with 264 goals scored.
That’s not too shabby.
The Crunch should prosper from the fact that many of the same players that played for them last season are returning. Unlike in previous seasons they are only breaking in a handful of rookies. Hopefully the familiarity and the overall lack of injured players helps the team get off to a quick start, something that has eluded them the last couple of seasons.
Unfortunately, they will have to get off to a quick start without some of the big guns from last year. Players who accounted for 75 of their 264 goals from last season, roughly 28% of their offense, are no longer on the team: Carter Verhaeghe - 34, Andy Andreoff - 26, and Gabriel Dumont - 15. That’s a lot of offense.
So how are they going to do it? Well, maybe they don’t have to. As we’ve touched on in the previous two posts, the defense and goaltending should be pretty good. It’s hard to improve on allowing only 187 goals in a season, but the Crunch may be able to do that. If they can’t, well, they did bring in some players that may help out.
If it looks like a team is going to lose the top scorer in the league to graduation (which they did with Verhaeghe going to Tampa Bay) why not sign the second highest goal scorer from last year? Well, they did. Chris Mueller was signed on July 1st to plug the void not only in goal scoring, but also leadership. As a veteran of 711 AHL games the 5’10” center brings experience along with 222 goals. He should be a good fit in a clubhouse that still has quite a few young players in it.
Danick Martel is the other newish veteran player that’s going to be on the roster. One of the last cuts from the Lightning training’s camp this summer, Martel did play in four games with the Crunch last year during a conditioning stint. With a logjam in Tampa Bay for now, chances are he will play quite a bit more in Syracuse this season. He brings the Groulx-approved speed and tenacity to the line-up as well 121 points (68 goals, 53 assists) in 203 AHL games. He topped 20 goals in a season three times with Lehigh Valley.
The Crunch can look for more goals from some of their second year players as well, most notably Taylor Raddysh and Boris Katchouk. Raddysh netted 18 in his rookie year, but there were also several stretches throughout the season where he kind of faded into the background a bit. More playing time and greater consistency could get him up into the 25-30 goal range. Katchouk was consistent for most of the season, but he just couldn’t find the back of the net. To only score 11 for the Crunch was a little underwhelming for a player who averaged 33 goals over his final three years with the Soo Greyhounds. As a noted Katchouk fan, I fully expect him to continue to play great two-way hockey and get up around 20 goals.
Another second year player that could help out would be Otto Somppi. He split his time last season between Orlando and Syracuse, dominating in the ECHL, but struggling in the AHL. It appears he had a pretty good summer because in the two preseason games from the Crunch Somppi put up 6 points (3 goals, 3 assists). It most likely earned him a spot in the opening night line-up and now he needs to work to keep his spot.
He’s going to have to work hard to keep that spot, because the battle for the bottom six could be pretty fierce. A trio of newcomers (Peter Abbandonato, Jimmy Huntington, and Mikhail Shalagin) are looking to force their way onto the team. Abbandonato and Huntington will rely on their speed while Shalagin gives the Crunch something that they are a little short on - size. At 6’4” he may help Syracuse create a little chaos in front of the net.
They could make things a little tough for veterans Dennis Yan and, when he returns from injury (which is hopefully soon), Daniel Walcott, as well as second-year man, Ross Colton. Yan is now in his third full season with the Crunch and, much like Ben Thomas, this could be a make or break year for him. He’s yet to earn a full time role with the team and mixes flashes of brilliance with lackluster play. The inconsistency has led to him being healthy scratched several times.
At the top of the offense will be some familiar faces. Cory Conacher returns for another season, one that begins with him fifth all-time in points for the Syracuse franchise. Another solid season could see him leapfrog Joe Motzko for fourth place. It’s a bit of a dubious honor, I’m sure Conacher would eschew AHL points for a spot in the NHL in a heartbeat, but he’ll keep things professional and do the best he can for the Crunch as long as he’s with the club.
It’ll be interested to see how Alex Volkov and Mitchell Stephens play this year. For the third time in as many seasons Volkov was included in the last rounds of cuts by the Lightning. There isn’t much more he can do in the AHL to prove that he is ready to be called up, so for now he has to bide his time and stay focused on things in Syracuse. That can be tough to do for a young player.
Stephens is in the same boat. He was in the running for the fourth line center spot for the Lightning, but was reassigned to Syracuse fairly early in the process. Most likely the organization would like to see him stay healthy this season and focus on being a top-line center.
For me the player to keep an eye on this season is Alex Barre-Boulet. The unsigned forward was a pleasant surprise last season as he seemingly came out of nowhere to tie Verhaeghe atop the league in goals scored. He did benefit from the power play quite a bit as 17 of his tallies were with the man advantage. As the season progressed he looked better at even strength, but he’s going to have to keep working hard at all ends of the ice in order to make the leap to the NHL.
It’s going to be a lot tougher for him this year as teams will have a much better grasp of what he does well and what his preferences are. Goalies will be acutely aware of his tendency to lurk by the right post on the power play looking for those slam dunk one-timers.
The coaching staff is sure to also make certain he works on his defensive game, as well, something that came and went at times during the season. It will be interesting to see if they have him play a little more at his natural position - center - to see if that opens up some more ice for him. It would be overly optimistic to expect him to match the goal output of a season ago, but even if that dips a bit, it wouldn’t be unrealistic to think his assists creep up, especially if he does play in the middle of the ice more.
One thing the players as a whole will have to focus on is taking fewer penalties. They were shorthanded a league-leading 368 times last season. That’s a bit much. While they were able to kill off 84.5% of the penalties they took, spending that much time down a player (or two) interrupts the flow of their offense. We harped on it time and again last season. They are aggressive in the offensive zone and will take the occasional two minutes here and there, and that’s fine. It’s the lazy penalties in the neutral zone when they are backchecking that they are just too good to be taking.
Cut two penalties out of every game and that’s four more minutes they can be using to force their opponents to defend. Better yet, it’s four more minutes they have to create their own power plays and make things even rougher for the other side.
Even with the loss of players like Verhaeghe and Andreoff, the Crunch should still be one of the top scoring teams in the league.