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Dominik Masin is reportedly heading to the KHL

Will other Crunch players follow?

Scott Thomas Photography

On Tuesday, a report surfaced that Syracuse Crunch defenseman Dominik Masin was going to sign with Amur Khabarovsk of the KHL. This has yet to be confirmed by either the Crunch or the Tampa Bay Lightning, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen. With the uncertainty facing the AHL next season he might not be the only member of the Crunch to choose the European/Russian option.

The Crunch/Lightning have a few players who are RFA’s heading into the offseason. Leading that group is Alexander Volkov. While reports have him as currently in Tampa as part of the taxi squad, there are no assurances he makes the Lightning’s roster next season and he may choose the certainty of playing in the KHL as opposed to waiting around for the AHL to start.

Rumours of Cory Conacher heading back to the Swiss league have been bouncing around since January and recent events probably haven’t weakened that possibility. Some of the other Canadian or U.S. players may also choose the European option as well as long as there is doubt concerning the AHL season. These players need to play in order to continue developing and few of them are ready to make the leap to the NHL, so overseas leagues are going to be their best option.

The AHL is kind of caught in a bind. Their best case scenario is that fans are allowed to enter arenas in the fall and they can sync their schedule to the NHL. Unfortunately, that takes time and some players may not be willing to gamble on that happening if the overseas leagues are offering them guaranteed money right now.

From the organization’s viewpoint, it might not be the worst thing in the world to let a few players head to Russia or Europe. Yes, they would suffer a bit in regards to overseeing the development of a prospect like Masin or Volkov, but they would still retain their rights. They would also save a few dollars. With the blow teams took to their wallets this season they may be more than willing to let a prospect head overseas in order to lessen their financial outlay in 2020-21.

If the reports are true and Masin does abscond to Russia (where he would team with former number one pick overall Nail Yakupov) and the Crunch do play a 2020-21 season, there is going to be a big hole to fill on the blueline. In 273 career AHL games (all with Syracuse) Masin has recorded 58 points (16 goals, 42 assists) and 303 penalty minutes. For the last two seasons he’s been a steady presence in whatever combination Coach Groulx rolled out as a top four defenseman, and he killed penalties (whenever he wasn’t in the box himself).

Masin was a player that you usually don’t notice on the ice and, for a defenseman logging a significant amount of minutes, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. He wasn’t expected to put up a lot of points, but was more of a safety valve for some of the more offensively ambitious blueliners on the team. With call-ups and injuries he spent plenty of nights as the part of the team’s top pairing and handled the increased workload with no glaring issues.

As for the effect on the Lightning for him moving to the KHL, the impact is relatively minimal. While he does still project out to play in the NHL, it would most likely be as a bottom pair blueliner. That being said he was still most likely the second best defensive prospect not in the NHL in the organization (for the record he was ranked 15th in Raw Charge’s latest Top 25 Under 25). So a thin defensive prospect pool gets a little thinner.

It’s never easy to piece together an AHL roster in the off-season and this summer may be triply difficult to figure out as there is no sense of when or if the 2020-21 season will begin. Looking at the players that occupied most of the time on defense last season, there are currently only two players under contract: Cal Foote and Luke Witkowski. Oleg Sosunov is also under contract but he may not be ready to play a consistent shift at the AHL level. The same goes for Dmitri Semykin, who signed a three-year entry contract right before sports went away.

Devante Stephens and Ben Thomas are restricted free agents who most likely will re-sign with the team and have no issues clearing waivers. As for their unrestricted free agents, hopefully Cameron Gaunce has found a home in Syracuse and re-signs. Patrick Sieloff was solid if unspectacular following his mid-season acquisition, but may look for an opportunity elsewhere. Nolan Valleau will be coming off a lower-body injury and may be an option if he’s fully recovered.

That leaves things pretty bare in the defensive cupboard (we’re not going to even mention the lack of goaltenders at this point). It’s unlikely that any of the holes in the roster are going to be plugged from within the organization, with the exception of possibly Semykin. Recent draft picks like Nick Perbix and Max Crozier are still developing in the college system and no one has been buried in Orlando over the past season.

A flood of AHL-level players heading to Europe in the summer would also weaken the free agent pool for GM Stacy Roest to find competent replacements, something the organization has been able to do over the last few seasons. Balancing the needs of an AHL team with the development of the NHL affiliate’s prospects is a difficult task in a normal year. Doing it during these times will be quite a challenge for the second year general manager.