The Syracuse Crunch only had two games this week, which based on how the second game went, was probably a good thing. After losing a well-played, but ultimately disappointing, 2-1 shootout to Binghamton, the Crunch ventured up to Canada and were thoroughly embarrassed by the Belleville Senators, 8-2.
Prior to the Binghamton game, Coach Ben Groulx had talked about needing the ability to win games in bunches. He had for the most part liked the way the team was playing. The Crunch jumped back on the ice after Christmas with the perfect stretch of games to start putting those wins together as they are in the middle of a 10-game stretch against AHL North Division teams. Win a bunch of those games and they should zoom right up the standings.
After the first four games in the stretch, they have managed to pick up a total of three out of the possible eight points. All three points were against Binghamton, currently the worst team in the division. It’s not quite time to hit the panic button, but they should at least start looking around to see where they put it.
The positive news is that it is still just December 31st and the Crunch have time to sort this out. While they are in sixth place right now, they are only four points out of the fourth and final spot in the playoffs. Four of the next six games are against teams ahead of them in the standings (the other two are against Binghamton).
Syracuse has shown that they can put together a full-sixty minute effort against good teams (the win against Providence being a prime example), they just need to do it on a consistent basis. That’s the frustrating part about the team: the back and forth nature of their effort. Alex mentioned it on her podcast, one day they’re the team we’re used to seeing over the past two seasons, the next they look like they’re playing together for the first time. If they can fix that issue and string together consistent efforts then those wins will start coming in bunches.
Coming and Going
Let’s rename this the Mathieu Joseph section for this week, as he’s currently trailing but catching up quickly to Cory Conacher in the frequent flyer miles category. Since we last posted a Crunch Corner (December 17th) Joseph has been:
Loaned to Syracuse (December 18th)
Recalled to Tampa Bay (December 23rd)
Loaned to Syracuse (December 23rd)
Recalled to Tampa Bay (December 23rd)
Loaned to Syracuse (December 30th)
That’s a pretty hefty travel schedule. In that time, he’s only appeared in two games for the Crunch, picking up an empty net goal against Binghamton. Barring any more illness or injury in Tampa, Joseph will most likely see a little more action during this most recent loan.
On Monday the Lightning/Crunch made an interesting trade. They traded Chris Mueller to Anaheim for Pat Sieloff. Mueller was second on the team in scoring with 23 points (11 goals, 12 assists) but was also a -19. Brought in to replace some of the scoring they lost in the off-season and provide a little veteran leadership, Mueller was having an alright season, but might have been a little expendable due to the depth in forward the organization has.
Sieloff brings some veteran experience to the blueline for the Crunch. He may not provide much offense (49 points in 290 career AHL games) but he is a physical presence on defense. That’s something that the Crunch lost with the injury to Luke Witkowski. At 6’2” and 205 lbs. he has the size to keep the front of his own net clear.
Nothing new to report from the weekend. Luke Witkowski and Scott Wedgewood remain out for a few more weeks. With all of the forwards healthy, Coach Groulx has been going with a veteran line-up, scratching Peter Abbadonato and Jimmy Huntington over the last few games.
Players of the Week
Tough one with only two games this week and one of them a complete team letdown. There were a couple of candidates: Gemel Smith played fairly well in both games (2 assists) as did Ross Colton (1 assist, 6 shots, a couple of near misses on deflections that don’t count as shots). Cal Foote provided the only offense in the game against Belleville with a booming slapshot goal and a nifty shot-pass for an assist.
But I’m going to go with Spencer Martin. The goaltender appeared in both games (not by design) and despite giving up four goals against Belleville in just over two periods of play, had a pretty good week. The more he plays, the more he looks like a number one goaltender. He turned aside 29 of the 30 shots he saw against Binghamton and was spectacular in the second period of that game. That start alone was enough to earn him the honors this week.
The AHL is set to announce it’s All Star roster this week. Those selected will head out to Southern California to participate in the 2020 All Star Classic hosted by the Ontario Reign on January 26th and 27th. Every team is represented in the two-day event (skills competition on the 26th and a round-robin style tournament on the 27th.
Last season, Connor Ingram and Cory Conacher were the two players that were chosen for the Crunch. Chances are the Crunch are only going to have one representative that gets to enjoy a few days in California at the end of January. So who might it be?
Alex Barre-Boulet - 31 games, 12 goals, 15 assists. The Crunch’s leading scorer and last year’s rookie of the year in the league seems to be the obvious choice. He’s slightly behind his scoring pace from last season (.87 points per game vs. .92 ppg) but not that much. Barre-Boulet has been more effective at 5v5 scoring and while still being dangerous on the power play (5 goals and 3 assists) isn’t relying on it as heavily as he did last season. Among centers in the North Division, he has the second most points behind Ben Street of Binghamton.
Cameron Gaunce - 31 games, 3 goals, 19 assists. Another choice that would be perfectly fine, Gaunce is second in the North among defensemen in scoring and fifth overall in the league. Those are pretty good numbers and a huge advantage in a three-on-three setting.
One of those two will most likely be the first choice by the league, but if for some reason they can’t make it, Gemel Smith should warrant some consideration as a replacement. He has 21 points (10 goals. 11 assists) in 24 games and has been the team’s most consistent player all season long.
Who is to blame for the inconsistency?
Earlier this season, back when this was just a quirk and before it turned into a full-blown potentially fatal flaw, the players talked about how it was their job to be prepared for games. That the slow starts weren’t physical, but mental. So, are they, seasoned professional athletes, the ones to also blame for the maddening inconsistency that has plagued the team all season long?
Yes and no. It is indeed on them to realize the way they’ve played so far this season is on them. It’s still not a physical problem. This team has as much talent, if not more, than any other team in the league. It is on them to figure out what they need to do to give a consistent effort from game to game.
At the same time, the coaching staff has to realize that whatever they’re doing isn’t working as well. If they are coaching the same way, going through the same preparations, and expecting different results, well, that’s on them. They need to realize that, for whatever reason, this isn’t the same team as last season or the one before it. There has to be a different way to motivate them.
Is it time that a veteran player or two watches a couple of games from the press box? Coach Groulx has used this in the past with rookies, but there haven’t been too many times when he’s put a veteran in the box for a game as an example. It is a bit of a last ditch measure, as it does risk alienating the locker room a bit. Still, playing time is the most important thing, especially for players who are trying to get to the next level.
Two of their last three games have been rather embarrassing and it could be the perfect time to play that card. After all, there aren’t many excuses the players can use to justify their performance as a team on Saturday night. If the coaching staff chooses to insert Huntington or Abbadonato in place of Boris Katchouk or Taylor Raddysh, maybe that will send a lesson to the rest of the team.
The trade of Chris Mueller comes at an interesting time as well. Stacey Roest and Julien BriseBois may have decided that it’s time to shake up the line-up a bit. Moving the second leading scorer, and perhaps the biggest free agent signing this summer, for a stay-at-home defender shows that they’re not afraid to sacrifice one of the team leaders in order to make the team better.
It is possible that the players themselves take the loss as a wake-up call without benchings or trades. Maybe they were coasting a bit, relying on their talent to get them through the regular season and then they would turn it on for the playoffs. Damaged pride can be a huge motivator.
Getting beat up and down the ice may be the motivation they need to realize that showing up for every game and giving an effort is almost as important as talent. The coaches have more than likely been drilling that into their heads, but sometimes getting embarrassed on the ice is a stronger lesson.
The good news is that there is time for them to turn it around. Coach Groulx has been big on “turning the page” after bad performances this season. Perhaps it is time they pick up a new book as they head into the new year.
It’s a big week to end 2019 and kick-off 2020. The Crunch have three games against North Division opponents highlighted by their Friday matchup against the Marlies. Syracuse is in the middle of a run of 10 straight games within their division, an excellent chance to make up ground as they try to work their way into a playoff spot. It’s important that they pick up as many points as possible (and deny as many to their opponents) during this stretch.
December 31st at Binghamton, Devils 6:05 p.m.
Friday, January 3rd vs. Toronto Marlies, 7:00 p.m.
Saturday, January 4th at Laval Rocket, 7:00 p.m.