All season long, Coach Ben Groulx preached a “one day at a time” philosophy. The road to the success was to be measured in steps. First, establish an identity. Second, make the playoffs. Third, win home ice throughout the playoffs. Four, win in the playoffs. They accomplished three of those four tasks. Unfortunately, it was the biggest task that they failed to achieve.
That doesn’t mean the entire season should be forgotten.
Along the way, the Crunch celebrated their first 25 years of existence. They also celebrated their partnership with the Tampa Bay Lightning by extending their affiliation through the 2022-23 season. They also continued to supply the Lightning with talent as Mathieu Joseph and Anthony Cirelli made the team out of training camp. Erik Cernak joined them midway through the season while Eddie Pasquale, Connor Ingram, Jan Rutta and Cameron Gaunce also made appearances on the roster.
The next wave of rookies showed that they want to follow in the footsteps of players like Joseph, Cirelli, Cernak and Adam Erne. Alex Barre-Boulet, an undrafted free agent, led all rookies in the league in goals and was a sniper on the power play. Cal Foote steadily improved throughout the season, ending up on the top pairing of the AHL North Champions. Boris Katchouk showed signs of being an Ondrej Palat clone - a ferocious penalty killer who with a knack for scoring. Despite some slumps throughout the season, Taylor Raddysh still had 18 goals and 46 points.
It wasn’t just the rookies. Carter Verhaeghe, on his third organization despite being only 23-years-old, exploded offensively. He scored a league-leading 34 goals and set a franchise record with 82 points. He just never had a long streak of not scoring, a trait he has enjoyed throughout his brief Syracuse career. In 134 games with the Crunch he has 130 points. He didn’t let a teamwide slump stop him in the playoffs as he picked up another 6 points in the 4 games against the Cleveland Monsters.
On a team known for their offensive talent, the defense and goaltending was the best in the league. They only allowed 187 goals, the fewest in the league. The goaltenders combined for 12 shutouts. There were another 12 games when they allowed only one goal. They were shorthanded a league-high 368 times but still killed off 84.5% of their penalties. They also scored 16 times shorthanded.
This was a very, very good team that just couldn’t find their groove in the playoffs. It’s also still a very young team that hasn’t seen it’s window close just yet. The disappointment suffered in Cleveland could be just the catalyst they need to succeed and achieve that final step next season.
Awards and Milestones
When a team is bounced in the first round of the playoffs it’s easy to say the season was a disappointment. While the Crunch didn’t get to the ultimate goal, it was still far from a disappointing season. In fact, by many factors, it was the most successful season in their 25-year history.
Let’s check off some of their accomplishments:
47 wins - tied a franchise record
102 points - tied a franchise record
.671 winning percentage - franchise record
187 goals allowed - fewest in a season in franchise history
Third straight season in playoffs - first time since 1999-2002
AHL North Champions
Alex Barre-Boulet - League’s outstanding rookie
Barre-Boulet - franchise record for goals by a rookie
Eddie Pasquale - “Hap” Holmes award for goalie on the team that allowed the fewest goals
Carter Verhaeghe - Most points in the AHL
Verhaeghe - named to the First All-Star team
Verhaeghe - franchise record in points
Barre-Boulet - named to the All-Rookie team
Verhaeghe and Barre-Boulet - Top goal scorers in AHL
Cory Conacher - moved into fifth place all time in franchise history in points (167) and assists (109)
Dominik Masin - franchise record +36, moved into first place all time for the Crunch with a +58
That is an impressive list. While the success didn’t carry over into the postseason, you shouldn’t for one minute discount the regular season this team had. It wasn’t like they were adversity-free either. They had several key veterans miss most of, if not all of, the season. Their number one goaltender was recalled to the NHL several times. Their other number one goaltender was sent to the ECHL at the end of the season. Two of their top defenders spent the best part of the last two weeks in the NHL. Their other top defender spent half the season in the NHL.
They had four different goaltenders start and win at least one game for them. Heading into the final week of the season their goaltending duo consisted of a college signee (Atte Tolvanen) and a backup that had 24 games of ECHL experience (Corbin Boes). They managed to hold the fort until Pasquale was reassigned back to the Crunch for the last couple of games.
For the second year in a row they had to assimilate a multitude of rookies into the team and teach them the system. The Crunch had seven rookies skate in twenty games or more this season. Four of them contributed at least 30 points each. That’s a large chunk of offense from players that are learning not only the system, but how to be a professional hockey player.
Their veterans led the way as Carter Verhaeghe, Andy Andreoff and Cameron Gaunce all had career seasons. The Crunch seemingly had the perfect blend of veteran leadership and youthful exuberance to make a deep run into the playoffs. It just didn’t happen.
A fatally flawed team
For all of the accolades and successes they had during the regular season, this team did have some glaring weaknesses. They struggled to score on the road and were prone to bouts of streaky offense. Their habit of piling up penalties killed their offensive flow at times and forced them to defend way more than they wanted to. Their turnovers also killed their offense.
At times they relied too much on their top lines and if they weren’t scoring, neither was the team. Most surprising was their occasional lack of discipline. Too often they took retaliatory or careless penalties. There was a stretch in January and February where they must have had six or seven too many men on the ice penalties. Overall, those penalties showed a frustrating lack of attention to detail.
What was extremely frustrating was that a lot of the penalties came from veterans like Cory Conacher, Gabriel Dumont and Andy Andreoff. Part of what made them so valuable to the Crunch was the passion that they played with, but there is a line that they crossed too often that ventured into recklessness. Finishing a check or mixing it up to protect a teammate is fine, hitting someone in the neutral zone well away from the play because they slashed you 30 seconds prior is not. There were just too many times that they took a penalty like that and it haunted them throughout the season.
They actually did a fairly decent job of curtailing the power plays against in the playoffs, as they were shorthanded only 15 times in 4 games. Of those 15 power plays they faced, Cleveland only scored once. Unfortunately, it was perhaps the biggest goal of the series. In Game One, the Crunch were down 2-1 midway through the second period when Conacher scored on the power play. On the next shift, in the offensive zone, Alex Volkov went barrelling into a scrum in the corner and drilled a Monster player. He was assessed a boarding call and Cleveland took the lead back on the ensuing power play. Cleveland added another goal a minute later and Syracuse was on their heels for the rest of the series.
If the Crunch don’t take the penalty do they come back to win Game One? Possibly. They certainly played well enough and the series was a lot closer than the 3-1 victory for Cleveland indicated. There were just too many moments like that throughout the season.
So what can we expect next year from the Syracuse Crunch? Another good regular season and then a postseason flameout? A team ravaged by roster moves? Rookie upon rookie upon rookie like the last two years?
The good (or bad) news is that next season’s team should resemble this season’s. For the first time in a couple of seasons there shouldn’t be an influx of rookies coming into the league. There will be a few, like Gabriel Fortier and Ryan Lohin, who should be done with the junior or European careers, but for the most part the players on the team should be pretty familiar.
Predicting what an AHL roster will look like in May is a bit like guessing the Powerball numbers for a random week in 2047. Yeah, we can throw some names out there and may get one or two right, but there is no way to predict 100% accuracy. A lot will depend on what Julien BriseBois does with the Lightning and what opportunities are ahead for some of the free agents.
The biggest question will be in net. Will a career year (and some NHL playing time) cause some other organization to lure Eddie Pasquale away from the Crunch? As it looks, should he return, he would be the undisputed number one netminder in Syracuse. Outside of Louis Domingue and Andrei Vasilevskiy, the only goaltender under contract for next season is Connor Ingram. Based on what happened this past season, Ingram may be on the trading block despite having another year left on his entry-level contract.
Atte Tolvanen, who played decent in a couple of appearances at the end of the season, has already signed a contract to play with the Lahden Pelicans in the Finnish league. Martin Ouellette could be a possibility as well should he come back from his broken leg. Ouellette played well in his limited time with the Crunch. In three of his four complete games he allowed one or fewer goals In six games he posted a 1.61 GAA and a .939 SV%. Those numbers should warrant a one-year deal at least.
The hope is that Pasquale loves living in Syracuse and wants to stay. He set career highs in games played (45), wins (27) and shutouts (4). It was a bit of a surprise that he re-signed early with the Crunch/Lightning last summer and if he does the same this season it’ll be one less thing the new general manager will have to worry about.
Defense will be the second biggest question mark for the Crunch next season. Three of their biggest contributors (Cameron Gaunce, Jan Rutta, and Hubert Labrie) are unrestricted free agents. Cal Foote had a really strong rookie season and could be in the mix to fill a vacated spot in Tampa Bay (who could also lose three key players on the blue line in Anton Stralman, Braydon Coburn and Dan Girardi). Unlike in the forward department, there aren’t fresh names ready to step up from the juniors to fill any holes in the Crunch defense.
Losing Gaunce to another organization and Foote to the Lightning would be utterly devastating to the power play. They really don’t have someone that has the skillset to run point on the man advantage (all apologies to Ben Thomas). Nolan Valleau is probably best suited to fill in should those two leave, but he would have huge skates to fill in order for the Crunch to remain a top-five power play unit.
Up front, the bulk of their young core are still under contract for next season. While some, like Alex Volkov and Mitchell Stephens, may battle for a spot on the Lightning roster in training camp, most will be returning. Two key veterans that might have opportunities elsewhere are Gabriel Dumont and Andy Andreoff. Both were the ultimate professionals, swallowing any disappointment at not being in the NHL, and they were veteran mentors to their younger teammates. It had to be especially tough for Andreoff, who had spent the last three seasons on the Kings roster, to spend an entire season in the AHL. His production (26 goals, 55 points) should have at least a couple of NHL teams willing to give him a shot at a roster spot.
Hopefully next year will see the return of three players who had forgettable 2018-19 seasons. Kevin Lynch missed the entire season due to a myriad of injuries. Michael Bournival and Daniel Walcott only appeared in a handful of games before their injuries sidelined them again. All three are unrestricted free agents, but should re-sign in Syracuse in order to make contributions in 2019-20.
While the GM and coaching positions have a little bit of mystery to them, don’t expect much of a change of philosophy should they be filled by outside hires. There is a good chance that Coach Groulx returns and that the GM is an internal hire. So, for those of you expecting a return to the 90s style of roughhouse, heavy hockey, don’t hold your breath. The future of hockey is played with skill and the Lightning aren’t changing that. Therefore, the Crunch aren’t changing.
The Raw Charge Awards for the Syracuse Crunch (The Chargies?)
The writers who covered the Crunch and AHL for the season got together and had a vote for some major awards. There are no prizes associated with these accomplishments. The winners may never even be aware that they won them.
27-12-6 record, 4 shutouts, 2.35 GAA, .916 Sv%
Pasquale edged out out Carter Verhaeghe for the MVP award. Following Ingram’s reassignment to Orlando, Pasquale became the undisputed number one netminder on the team after splitting time between the pipes for most of his tenure with the team. He responded with a career season.
Also receiving votes: Carter Verhaeghe, Cory Conacher, Cameron Gaunce, Andy Andreoff
Most Outstanding Rookie
74 GP, 34 goals, 34 assists, 17 power play goals
There wasn’t much debate about this one. As the league’s leading rookie, Barre-Boulet ran away with the voting. A gifted offensive player from the start, Barre-Boulet steadily improved his defense and five-on-five play as the season progressed.
Also receiving votes: Cal Foote, Taylor Raddysh, Boris Katchouk
76 GP, 34 goals, 48 assists, +26
Another runaway winner in the voting, Verhaeghe had one of the greatest seasons a player has ever had in a Syracuse uniform. It’s a testament to the depth of the Lightning forward group that he didn’t even get a sniff of playing time with the NHL club. The 23-year-old has found a home in Ben Groulx’s system and has been a model of consistency. Only three times all season did he go three or more games without recording a point.
Also receiving votes: Alex Barre-Boulet, Cory Conacher, Andy Andreoff
59 GP, 10 goals, 36 assists, 2 GWG
Gaunce was brought in to provide some veteran leadership to a revamped blue line and ended up setting career highs in almost every statistical category. He was part of the top pairing and ran the point on the power play. He also filled in for a few games when the Lightning were ravaged with injuries. Not a bad season for the veteran.
Also receiving votes: Cal Foote, Dominik Masin
There is no need to put this one out to a vote. It’s all Eddie Pasquale.
(Editor’s note: He’s serious about not putting this out to a vote. He literally didn't even tell us this was in his article. - Alex)
Underrated Player of the Year
74 GP, 23 goals, 25 assists, 7 GWG
Despite finishing fourth on the team in goals, Volkov didn’t get much press for his offense. In his second season it was obvious that he had been given a directive to work on the defensive side of his game. It took a little while for his offense to come around, but with a bit of a hot streak at the end of the season he ended up matching his rookie season total of 23 goals. He killed penalties and sometimes found himself on a checking line. All in all a good learning season for the forward.
Also receiving votes: Gabriel Dumont, Dominik Masin, Cal Foote, Nolan Valleau, Boris Katchouk, Ross Colton.
What are your thoughts? Do you agree with the awards? Leave your thoughts and comments below!