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Syracuse Crunch Season Preview

Bring on the next wave

Scott Thomas Photography

Crunch fans, are you ready? Lightning fans eager to see how the next crop of middle-six forwards are developing, are you ready? Goodness knows I am ready. The Syracuse Crunch are back for the 2021-22 AHL season and it kicks off tonight. Old faces are back, new faces are ready to start their professional careers, and most importantly, fans are ready to fill the War Memorial Upstate Medical Arena at the OnCenter War Memorial to the brim again. Sorry about that, it’s been awhile since I covered the Crunch.

There is definitely plenty to get excited about this season. After a couple of seasons of not having playoff hockey in upstate New York, the Crunch are looking to return to a little postseason glory with what could be a pretty good team. Technically the Crunch have made it to the playoffs in every season Benoit Groulx has been their head coach and there is no reason to believe that shouldn’t be the case in 2021-22. (the playoffs were cancelled in 2019-20 and the Crunch, along with the entire Eastern Conference, opted out last season).

The season opens up later today with a two-game set in Cleveland where the Crunch welcome the Monsters to the North Division. Then they head to Rochester next Friday for a game before the home opener at Upstate Medical Arena against the Utica Comets on Saturday. It should be a fun week to kick off the season.

Last year was riddled with unique issues as they had to deal with losing players they would normally have to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s taxi squad. The Crunch also had to deal with a dual-affiliation as they worked in some of the Florida Panthers’ prospects as well. It was a bit of a roster mess and early on in the season the organization made it clear that they were more focused on making sure the players were safe and developing as opposed to shooting for the playoffs. There was a tremendous sense of “let’s just get through this”.

This season is different. Gone is the roster chaos and division-only schedule (kind of). Back are the fans, specialty one-off jerseys, and hopes for a long season. The Crunch will be playing 76 games (38 at home) against teams in the North and Atlantic Division. As usual it is an unbalanced schedule with the Crunch meeting up against Utica 14 times and Rochester 12 times. They will be heading back to Canada for games against Belleville, Laval, and Toronto as well.

The Questions

Who is going to score all of the goals?

The biggest question for the Crunch as they head into the season is how are they going to replace their two biggest scoring threats from last year. Both Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh graduated to the NHL and left behind a big hole to fill offensively. Katchouk (34 points) and Raddysh (29 points) were their top point producers in the shortened season last year.

Hopefully some of the new blood like Simon Ryfors, Maxim Cajkovic, Cole Koepke, and Gage Goncalves can quickly adapt to the AHL and provide some offensive relief. Meanwhile, they brought back old friend Gabriel Dumont to provide a veteran presence up front on the top line. Otto Somppi will be another key piece. The 23-year-old center had a strong season last year posting a career high in goals (12), assists (14), and points (26). They will need him to continue his development in order to keep up with the rest of the division.

How long will it take for the defense to settle in?

The second biggest question, and this seems to be a perennial one for the Crunch, is in regards to their revamped defense. The only returning defenseman are Alex Green and Sean Day. That in itself is a positive as they finished the season strongly. In the offseason they also brought in veterans Darren Raddysh and Brandon Crawley. Fredrik Claesson should take up a lot of ice time as well so if anything, the blueline has plenty of experience on it. That’s a good sign, although it certainly speaks to the lack of defensive prospects the Lightning have in their organization.

How will the veterans fare?

The organization brought back Gabriel Dumont and brought in Darren Raddysh to help mentor some of the younger players on the team. In the past, Syracuse has leaned a little veteran heavy, but this year it will be a little different as the next crop of Lightning prospects begin their careers. Coach Groulx leans heavily on his veterans to serve as a conduit to the younger players and this year it will be very important that they mesh well with the youngsters.

Daniel Walcott is another one of those valuable veterans that will help set the tone for the rest of the team. In addition to mentoring the players these more experienced players also need to perform on the ice. Dumont will likely center one of the top lines while Raddysh will be on a top defensive pair. The Crunch can’t afford for them to struggle.

Players to Watch

Hugo Alnefelt

It will be a big season for the goaltending prospect as he makes the transition from European hockey to North American. Some of the shine has dulled on the 2019 third round pick after he put up mediocre numbers with HV71 in the SHL last year and honestly wasn’t great in the Lightning prospect showcase this year. Still, it should be pointed out that he is only 20-years-old and spent the last two seasons in one of the top professional leagues in Europe.

He will likely start the season as the back-up to the more experienced Maxime Lagace who was signed in the offseason to be the starter. The beauty of the AHL schedule is that with so many back-to-back games on the weekend, teams really do need two goaltenders in order to be successful. Even if he isn’t the starter, Alnefelt will get plenty of work throughout the season.

Gage Goncalves

Goncalves made his debut last season with the Crunch, appearing in two games and picking up an assist. The second round pick of the Lightning back in 2020 had a really strong prospects showcase this fall and should be a big part of the Crunch’s offense this year. He was a steady scorer over the last two seasons with the Everett Silvertips recording 105 points (45 goals, 60 assists) in 83 games and hopefully that translates to the AHL ice.

Adapting to the speed at the professional level will be his biggest adjustment and though he was drafted as a center, expect him to see some time on the wings as well. We all know that Coach Groulx loves to move his forward pieces around.

Maxim Cajkovic

The 20-year-old is ready to make his professional debut for the Crunch and could be one of those players that surprises people. We often bemoan the lack of top-six prospects in the Lightning system, but if Cajkovic can control some of the temperamental issues that have plagued him from time to time, he has the physical skills to be a scorer at the NHL level. I was really impressed with his shot release in the recent prospect showcase and with a playmaker like Goncalves or Somppi feeding him pucks he could be in for a strong rookie season.

Prediction Time

I refrained from making any Tampa Bay Lightning predictions this year because I’ve been so off in the past, but let’s see if I can do any better for the Crunch.

Crunch finish second in their division, make the playoffs, and win at least one round.

While Syracuse has been a regular in the playoffs, they haven’t advanced very far under Coach Groulx save for his first year when they went to the Calder Cup Finals. They lost in the second round in his next season and then the first round in 2018-19 when Cleveland bounced them around the same time Columbus was sweeping the Lightning. Yeah, that was a great couple of weeks, right?

On paper this team has the talent to put a pretty good run together once they figure things out. Expect them to start slowly, then start piling up wins once they find their rhythm. That seems to be a staple for Coach Groulx-led teams.

Otto Somppi leads the team in scoring

At 23-years-old, after a stint in Orlando and a loan to a Finnish league, the young center seemed to figure things out last year. Maintaining the consistency he displayed last season will be key because he has all of the physical skills needed to achieve success in this league. Now that Alex Barré-Boulet is toiling away in Seattle, Somppi might be the best passer in the organization not currently on the Lightning roster. With spots open all over the roster for the Crunch he should see some time on the first power play unit as well. It could be a good season for Mr. Somppi.

Gemel Smith comes back and adds a boost to the offense

We don’t know exactly what kind of injury Smith is dealing with or how long he is going to be off the ice. When he is healthy, chances are he will be re-assigned to Syracuse and if that happens he should provide a tremendous boost to the offense on one of the top lines. He’s put up 40 points twice in the AHL (once with Providence in 2018-19 and once with Syracuse in 2019-20) and has 172 points in 286 career AHL games.

Simon Ryfors is named AHL Player of the Week at least once

He really impressed in the prospect showcase and showed well in the Lightning training camp before being sent to Syracuse. He has a step on some of the other prospects since he’s played in the SHL since 2016-17. I doubt it will take him long to adjust to the North American game and he should be a consistent force for the Crunch.

Darren Raddysh will get at least one call up to the Lightning and take the ice with his brother

The Bolts and the Crunch are good about things like that, after all they brought back Alex Killorn’s best social media media buddy, Andrej Sustr, this offseason. It’s rare that brothers get to done the same jersey (off the top of my head I don’t think it’s ever happened in Lightning history) so it would make for a pretty cool moment.

The Roster

That’s all I got for this preview. I look forward to recapping the season on a weekly basis and seeing how this team develops along the way. Hardev will be popping in from time to time to share his thoughts as well. We will be posting a recap and preview column throughout the week, much like last season. As always, we appreciate the photos provided by Scott Thomas. If you have any questions or suggestions don’t hesitate to reach out and let us know.

What are your feelings about the Crunch this year? Share in the comments!