It’s the final weekend before the NHL trade deadline and the Syracuse Crunch have a big series against the Toronto Marlies. Syracuse enters Friday’s game with a scant two-point lead on Toronto for second place in the North Division. When the dust settles on the ice, there could be big changes off the ice.
With the Tampa Bay Lightning running away with the regular season title, there would seem to be little need to shake up their roster. Still, no General Manager worth his weight in future considerations would ignore the chance to improve their roster if presented with the opportunity. Tampa managed to make their blockbuster deal last year without including any Syracuse players, but with the prospect cupboard a little barer this year, any deal the Lightning make would dip into the Crunch roster.
With the Crunch fighting for home ice in the playoffs, removing any players from the roster will make things a little more challenging. Unfortunately, that’s part of the curse of being affiliated with an NHL team. Sometimes AHL teams have to sacrifice a player or two for the greater good of the organization.
So, just who would rival GMs target? Is there any player that Julien BriseBois would consider off-limits?
The two players that would most likely be considered untouchable would be Cal Foote and Connor Ingram. Foote, a rookie defenseman, is one of the organization’s most important prospects. The Lightning defense is going to go through some changes in the next year due to the salary cap and the fact that they have three unrestricted free agents. Foote could fill one of those roles. Even if he doesn’t break camp with them he could, like Erik Cernak did this year, play his way onto the roster due to an injury call up.
Ingram, in his second year of professional hockey, has had a breakout season. He leads the league in shutouts and is top three in goals against and save percentage. With Louis Domingue set to be an UFA at the end of next season, Ingram is in line to back up Andrei Vasilevskiy in net in Tampa. Plus, after Ingram, the depth chart in net is pretty bare. Trading Ingram would leave a tandem of Eddie Pasquale and Martin Ouellette for the remainder of the season, and then a big question mark starting next year. None of the other goaltenders in the system (Magnus Chrona, Ty Taylor, or Kris Oldham) are projected to be ready or even under contract currently.
Alex Volkov is hovering in this territory, as well. It would have to be a heck of a deal for BriseBois to surrender the Russian who has shown the ability to put the puck in the net (35 goals in 125 AHL games) and has vastly improved his defensive game. With some roster changes coming to the NHL club, Volkov has a better than average chance to make the Lightning next season and be a key factor on the bottom two lines.
There is a large group of players that other organizations may be interested in that would have a harmful effect on the current state of the Crunch. Carter Verhaeghe, Andy Andreoff, Cameron Gaunce, Cory Conacher and Gabriel Dumont are the types of players that would only be available if Syracuse was out of the playoff picture. While they have established themselves as excellent AHL players, their future with the Lightning isn’t as clear as the first three players mentioned. Despite that, it’s a little harder seeing them being traded with the Crunch firmly in playoff contention.
If all of those players are sticking around, just who might BriseBois be willing to give up in a deal and who might be enticing to a struggling team looking to improve?
Two forwards come to mind - Boris Katchouk and Mitchell Stephens.
Katchouk has 17 points (7 goals, 10 assists) in his rookie season and has emerged as a solid defensive forward that has some offensive potential. He’s an excellent penalty killer and plays a very physical game. He’s also a forward that plays on the left side in an organization that has three leftwingers signed to long term deals (Ondrej Palat, JT Miller, and Alex Killorn), along with another cheap young forward already in Tampa (Adam Erne), and a teammate who has a similar style with more offensive skills (Alex Volkov). A team looking to add a versatile forward with excellent hockey sense should be very interested in acquiring Katchouk as part of a larger package.
Mitchell Stephens is another forward along those lines, with the added bonus of being almost NHL-ready. A speedy center with excellent hockey instincts, Stephens has returned from his mid-season injury with 4 points (3 goals, 1 assist) in seven games. In 91 games with the Crunch he has 25 goals and 29 assists while also contributing to the penalty kill and power play units. He’s another jack-of-all trades forward that the Lightning excel in finding and promoting in the mold of Matthew Peca, Anthony Cirelli, and Mathieu Joseph. Much like Katchouk, Stephens faces a logjam of competition in front of him in his current organization.
A dark horse candidate that Brisbois might be willing to move at the deadline if the deal is right is Eddie Pasquale. An organization looking to bolster its AHL goaltending would be hard-pressed to find a better candidate. The veteran netminder has been nothing but outstanding since his arrival in Syracuse over a year ago, both on the ice and as a mentor to Connor Ingram. Trading him would weaken one of the best goaltending duos in the AHL, but if the organization thinks Ingram is ready to be the undisputed number one goalie, they might be fine riding him down the stretch.
It’s unlikely that the organization makes any type of deal this weekend. In the last two seasons, they haven’t taken from Syracuse to improve the Lightning. All of the deals either involved players still in juniors or draft picks. In fact, the deals made involving Syracuse served only to better the team (Adam Wilcox for Mike McKenna, for example). So, don’t expect that to change.
Still, if Brisebois thinks he can get closer to a Stanley Cup ring by making a deal, he shouldn’t avoid it. While losing any of those three players would be a blow to the Crunch’s depth, it wouldn’t be a fatal one.
Carter Verhaeghe - Gabriel Dumont - Alex Barre-Boulet
Alex Volkov - Andy Andreoff - Cory Conacher
Boris Katchouk - Ross Colton - Taylor Raddysh
Troy Bourke - Brady Brassart - Mitchell Stephens
Cameron Gaunce - Cal Foote
Dominik Masin - Jan Rutta
Nolan Valleau - Ben Thomas
Notes: It’s surprising that Mitchell Stephens has mostly been lining up on the wing after his return to the roster. Earlier in the season, he had been playing center, with Andreoff moving back to his traditional left-wing position. Apparently, Coach Groulx likes how Andreoff has centered a line with Cory Conacher and is hesitant to change that around.