If you want to make an AHL coach laugh, tell him you’ve figured out his lines in July.
There may be nothing more fluid in hockey than an AHL roster prior to the start of the season. Just last year at this time Coach Ben Groulx was probably thinking he’d have Kevin Lynch, Daniel Walcott and Mathieu Joseph as big parts of his roster, yet he ended up with basically nothing. Lynch missed the entire season, Walcott only played in five games, and Joseph made the Lightning after a strong training camp.
So, it’s a bit of a fool’s errand to start talking about lines and depth for the Syracuse Crunch at this point in the summer, but we can at least take the temperature on how they look after the opening of free agency.
In short, not bad.
The organization addressed the team’s biggest need (goaltending), added some experience to the defense, and prepared to plug in some holes up front if needed. In fact, the majority of the moves made this summer, especially on July 1st, addressed the needs of the Crunch specifically.
Heading into July 1st, the Crunch had exactly zero goaltenders on the roster. By the end of the day they, for all intents and purposes, had three. For their starter they stayed in the AHL North and signed veteran Scott Wedgewood. The long time Albany/Binghamton Devil and, more recently, Rochester American, slots in as the number one goalie for the Crunch. He’s coming off a season in which he played in 48 games with a 2.68 GAA and .908 SV%. If he can duplicate those numbers and stay healthy, the season will be just fine.
Backing him up with be 24-year-old Spencer Martin. The former third round pick of the Colorado Avalanche was the backup for their AHL affiliate last season and should serve the same role with the Crunch. Expect Coach Groulx to give plenty of playing time to both as he will try to foster a 1a-and-1b relationship between the two netminders.
Late in the day, the Lightning/Crunch announced that they had signed Zach Fucale to a one-year AHL deal as well. The former Canadian prospect will get a shot at the back-up role, but his signing mostly serves as a bit of an insurance policy. Both Wedgewood and Martin were signed to NHL contracts and will have to pass through waivers in order to be assigned to the Crunch. Based on their overall lack of NHL experience (Wedgewood has 24 games and Martin has 4), they should pass through without a problem.
However, most people thought that the Toronto Maple Leafs would be able to get Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard to clear waivers last season only to see both players claimed, and the Toronto Marlies were left scrambling to find a goaltender. Since Fucale is on an AHL contract, the organization doesn’t have to worry about waivers. Should one or both of Wedgewood and Martin get claimed, the Crunch still have a reasonably decent goaltender in net.
Should both of the goalies clear the waivers hurdle, Fucale still has a chance to battle Martin for the back up spot, but most likely will find playing time in Orlando. While that may be frustrating for the goaltender, past history shows that he will still get a shot at some AHL playing time. There’s bound to be an injury to a goaltender at some point in the season.
As for the defense, there is still some work to do, but for the most part the Crunch should have a fairly veteran blueline. The signing of Luke Schenn and re-signing of Jan Rutta in Tampa should allow the Crunch to keep their top pairing of Cameron Gaunce and Cal Foote for at least the beginning of the season.
July 1st signing Luke Witkowski should pair up with Dominik Masin on the second unit with the third pairing consisting of some combination of Ben Thomas, Matt Spencer, Oleg Sosunov or Nolan Valleau (if the club exercised their option on him). Barring any unforeseen roster moves, that’s actually a pretty stable transition from last season. There is still plenty of time and plenty of options available for the Crunch to sign some veteran defensemen to round out the defensive corps.
If Masin, Foote or Gaunce somehow end up on the Lightning roster at the beginning of the season, or if Valleau doesn’t come back, things on that blue line become thin awfully quick (especially with the Hubert Labrie option now off the table). It’s not likely that the Lightning deviate from what they already have on the roster, but an injury to any of those players could shake things up in a hurry.
Things are a little more up in the air on the forward side of the roster. First of all they need to replace some offense. Andy Andreoff and Gabriel Dumont combined for 41 goals and 57 assists last season while logging some serious playing time. Should Carter Verhaeghe either stick in Tampa Bay or get claimed on waivers, that’s another 34 goals and 48 assists from last year’s offense that needs to be replaced.
Signing Chris Mueller and his history of AHL success helped staunch some of the damage to the offense as he should slot into the number one center role vacated by Dumont. A full season from Mitchell Stephens will help offset some of the loss as well. Still, they will need an uptick of production from second year players Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh if they want to stay among the elite teams in the Eastern Conference.
Bringing in a veteran like Mueller is important in another way as well. A lot of fans view AHL affiliates as a holding pen for an organization’s prospects. The roster should be stocked with nothing but potential NHL players and any journeyman or veteran AHLer is just blocking a prospect from getting playing time.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. AHL teams need veterans. Not only do they have value on the ice - Mueller did have 33 goals last year for the Marlies - they are also tremendously valuable off the ice. Often they are the bridge between the young players and the coaching staff (Coach Groulx often leans heavily on his veteran players to make sure the rookies are doing things the correct way) and mentors in regards to non-hockey things, as well.
It’s not always an easy adjustment to come from junior hockey to the professional ranks. It just isn’t the action on the ice and learning how to play against larger and better competition, it’s also the day-to-day life. A lot of the rookies have never lived on their own. They don’t know how to rent an apartment or open a bank account. They may never have gone grocery shopping for themselves in their life.
The veterans help make that off-ice transition easier and also help the rookies learn how to get ready for a long, professional season. Advice on nutrition and working out not only comes from the coaching staff, but also from the players that have been doing it for years. That’s why losing a player like Dumont or Andreoff hurts in ways not seen on the scoresheet. Luckily the Crunch still have Gaunce and Cory Conacher on their roster, and by all accounts Mueller is cut from the same cloth.
One of the young players they may be mentoring over the next season is undrafted free agent signing Peter Abbandonato. The Crunch are obviously hoping he can duplicate the success fellow QMJHL alumni Alex Barre-Boulet enjoyed in his rookie season. That may be a bit of a high bar to clear. Having a rookie jump in and score 30+ goals for the second straight year is a bit unrealistic.
As for Barre-Boulet, year two is going to be a big adjustment for him as well. He may find himself on the top line and the focus of a lot of team’s top defensive units. There is a lot more video of him and his tendencies out there now and he has to show that he can adjust his game when the opposition takes away some of his looks. Based on what he displayed last season, there is a good chance he can do that, but he’ll have to prove it on the ice.
The recent signing of Gemel Smith is a great move that can help replace some missing offense and plug in some holes should the Lightning rely on filling their bottom lines with players from Syracuse such as Stephens or Alex Volkov.
Stop me if you’ve heard this description before, but Smith profiles as a small, speedy forward who works hard and is defensively responsible. The left-handed shooter can line up at center or on the wing and has 126 points (51 goals, 75 assists) in 233 AHL games. Sounds just like a prototypical Ben Groulx forward.
Smith would most likely slot in somewhere in the top nine which, along with Mueller’s signing, remains strong. The Crunch should be able to roll three lines that can find ways to put the puck in the net. His signing does, however, make it a little harder for some of the rookies like Jimmy Huntington and Ryan Lohin to make the squad.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Over the past two seasons the Crunch have a had a huge influx of rookies to start each of the last two seasons. In both seasons the team got off to average starts. Coincidence? Possibly. It’s more likely that the Crunch’s system has a steep learning curve and it takes a while for young players to adjust. With a little more seasoning on this year’s roster, expect a better start.
One thing to note with a veteran signing is that the AHL rules do limit the amount of players with a lot of professional experience. Of the 18 skaters (not counting goaltenders) on a game day roster, 12 of them have to have to have played in less than 260 professional games, while one has to played in fewer than 320 games. With Cory Conacher (547 games), Chris Mueller (764 games), Gemel Smith (313 games), Cameron Gaunce (628 games), and Luke Witkowski (337 games) all exceeding that threshold, expect whoever else the Crunch bring in to have played fewer than 260 games in their career.
The moves made by the Lightning during training camp will affect the Syracuse roster one way or another. While the reshaping of the Crunch roster is off to a good start (it’s always good to actually have goaltenders on the roster), it is a long way from being a finished product.