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Lightning Round: Syracuse Crunch head coach Benoit Groulx on turning two teams into one

McElhinney, Coleman placed on NHL COVID protocol list.

Scott Thomas Photography

The Syracuse Crunch opened training camp on Monday, three weeks ahead of the first weekend of the 2021 regular season. The Crunch are in an unique situation in more ways than one this year. For one, they are under strict COVID-19 protocols as the pandemic rages on around the world. For another, the AHL team is being expected to meld two organizations together — the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers — after the three sides struck a deal to create a dual affiliate for this season. Oh, and I should also mention there’s about ten junior-eligible players on the team whole will be trying to learn the pro game as the CHL season is in limbo.

As head coach, Benoit Groulx is the man that will have to steer this mix-and-match ship through training camp so that it looks like a real boat once the season starts. He, along with his coaching staff and leadership group of veterans have a plan and a focus, and they seem excited to get started.

Groulx spoke to the media yesterday morning for about 25 minutes, touching on the privilege he and the team recognize being able to play hockey during a global pandemic, getting the team locked onto the system, and the learning he’s been able to take part in over the long break.

“We’re privileged to be in the ice. With this pandemic that’s everywhere in the world, all the sacrifices and all the pain the world’s going through, being here and having the opportunity to do what we love and do our passion is a privilege. We talked about it this morning with the players about how privileged we are. Wearing a mask, following protocol, it’s nothing compared to what people are going through — look next door [at Upstate University Health Care Center]. Before we talked about hockey, we talked about the situation we’re in — not only us but the world. We’re lucky to be here.”

Groulx went on to talk about the focus of this team from training camp onward, and his role in making sure the players learn, develop, and feel coalesce.

“We want to develop during this 32-game season and then we’ll worry about playoffs later. We’re a very, very young team with very young junior players on the ice with us, plus nine or ten guys from the Panthers with us. My goal in four months is for them to be better: better players, stronger players, and better people.”

He then spoke about adding in the people from the Panthers organization, including their head coach Geordie Kinnear as an assistant and representative from that team. Long story short: coaches are coaches and players are players, and developing a network in both directions to grow and learn is a great opportunity.

“The guys from Florida will get to develop their network and get to know people from another organization — and that works both ways. We already had a zoom call with [Charlotte Checkers head coach Geordie Kinnear], he’ll be another coach with us. We’re all coaches, we all know the game, our goal is the same: teach, have fun with the players, compete when the game is tight, and get better.

“I really like the fact that we can meet players from our organization that are playing at a different level — including the Florida kid (Serron Noel). They’re excited to be part of our program for however long they are. I approach this the same way: when the season starts, my goal is to put everybody on the same page as quickly as we can. At the end of the day when we start the season, we’re going to have one team.”

When it comes to creating a playable roster, Groulx says he and his group have a lot of runway to get there. First is getting the system in place, then it’s personnel evaluation, and then things will come down to finding best practices for roster size, goalies, and ice time. He says he’s been talking with coaches from all over to figure out what can work best. The team has no taxi squad, but also roster sizes in the AHL are not limited. Groulx personally expects the CHL to start again, so all he can do is teach them so that when they leave, they’re better in all areas than when they walked in.

“Tactically, technically, systematically, physically, and having the right mindset, this is what we want. It’s always those five things we’re looking for. We’re going to try to put [the system] together as quick as we can and then evaluate the personnel we have, make the best team we can, and be very competitive to play some pretty good hockey teams after.

The Crunch have one of the longest training camps I’ve ever seen. Groulx is using that time he has to go slow and teach more meaningfully so that he doesn’t have to go back and teach something again. He gives a really great life lesson here.

“This morning we got into the system right away. It’s going to be the first two days. We have time — we have almost three weeks before we start — it’ll help us go slowly. The more you take your time, the better it is. You don’t have to come back and work at it again. In hockey, when you teach something and the players really understand, you don’t have to touch on it again for the entire year. You might have a conversation or a practice or two, but the fundamentals are in place.”

Steven Stamkos was named the league’s third star of the week after a blistering five points in the team’s first two games of the season. The Captain came to play. [Raw Charge]

“Stamkos’ core muscles must be feeling pretty good because he isn’t hesitating to take shots with nine of them through the first two games. His linemates have done an excellent job of setting him up in the spots where he likes to take shots - the left circle.”

Curtis McElhinney and Blake Coleman were placed on the NHL’s COVID protocol list in the last few days, meaning they will be away from the team for the foreseeable future. How long that is we don’t know. Christopher Gibson and Mathieu Joseph skated in their places at practice. [NHL dot com]

Lightning backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney was placed on the list Saturday and wasn’t allowed to participate when the team returned to practice Monday at the TGH Ice Plex following two days off for the team over the weekend. Bolts forward Blake Coleman also didn’t skate Monday, the team announcing during practice he would also be placed on the Covid-related protocol list.