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Syracuse Crunch Season Preview: a focus on development and safety

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Everything you need to know about the Syracuse Crunch heading into the AHL season!

AHL: JAN 22 Syracuse Crunch at Laval Rocket
LAVAL, QC - JANUARY 22: Syracuse Crunch center Alex Barre-Boulet (12) waits for a faceoff during the Syracuse Crunch versus the Laval Rocket game on January 22, 2020, at Place Bell in Laval, QC
Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome to another season of Syracuse Crunch hockey. It took us a while to get here, but at least the wait is over. Hi, I’m Hardev, regular Raw Charge readers know me well for my stuff on the Lightning. This will be my first time being the primary reporter on the Crunch on this site.

I have done some stuff on the Crunch for the site in the past — my first ever interviews came with Benoit Groulx and Cory Conacher after a practice in Toronto, a memory I’ll always remember — but I haven’t committed to a full season until now. I’m a veteran of the AHL as I’ve been covering the Toronto Marlies for several seasons now.

What you’ll be getting from me are regular previews and recaps as the team traverses through a 32-game schedule. Of course, there will be articles on transactions and breaking news. I’m hoping there will be little related to COVID, but with the way every other league is suffering right now, the odds aren’t great.

On the COVID matter, I have appreciated the sentiments coming from the Crunch so far this season. Owner Howard Dolgon has publicly been on the reserved side among owners when it comes to fans in the stands, playoffs, number of games, and travel. He’s been very clear about following the strictest protocols and negating risk as much as possible.

Head coach Benoit Groulx has also spoken at length about earnestly following the rules, understanding the situation we are all in, and doing his best to show a good example and keep his players and staff as safe as they can be so the team can have a successful season.

In terms of what a successful season has been defined as, simply it is development and giving the team and fans a chance to have a season, regardless of how restrained it is. The roster the Crunch have is a full two years younger on average than last season (22.7 from 24.9).

Part of that is the junior prospects hanging around and soaking in information while the WHL is in stasis, but also due to a lack of money to sign veteran players. Last season, the Crunch had signed Cory Conacher, Chris Mueller, and Cameron Gaunce, among other veterans to provide the roster with oomf. Unfortunately for those players, there’s no revenue coming in this season to sign reasonable AHL contracts for their talents. All that there is from the Tampa Bay Lightning are the ELC prospects, and a few veterans who had multi-year deals or signed early in the summer when things were still up in the air.

Oh, and a company of Florida Panthers prospects!

Okay, that’s enough preamble, let’s have a look at this team.

Schedule

The season:

The Crunch have developed a very regular 32-game schedule, which has been great for me to plan around my classes (I’m a teacher by day, just like Blog-Aunt and former Crunch writer for us, Alexandra Ackerman).

Basically, if it’s a Wednesday or a Saturday within the next 15 weeks, the Crunch will probably be playing. There are a couple of Monday and Friday games, but that’s it. Here is as simple of a breakdown as I could make. Tracey did a great job organizing the schedule when it came out, I recommend go looking at that as well.

From now until May 15th the Crunch will be playing:

  • Every Saturday night — always at 7pm ET. All of these games will be at home except May 15th in Rochester.
  • Almost every Wednesday (13 of 14) — mostly at 7pm ET. There are two games at 5pm (first and fourth week of March and both in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton).
  • Twice on Friday — March 12th in Utica and April 2nd in Rochester at 7pm ET. The team will then travel home to play the next night for the second half of a home-and-home.
  • Twice on Monday — April 19th vs. Utica and May 10th at Utica at 7pm ET.

In terms of team breakdown, the Crunch will be playing the Utica Comets, Rochester Americans, and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins exclusively. No other teams for 32 games. Here is a breakdown of games against each team.

  • Utica Comets: Seven at home, seven in Utica. Four times a month in February, March, and April, three times in May. Three home-and-homes, one triple-header at the end of the season (that actually takes place over the course of six days).
  • Rochester Americans: Six at home, six in Rochester. Three games in February, two in March, five in April, and two in May. One home-and-home, one triple-header at the beginning of April (that also takes place over six days).
  • Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins: Three at home, three in WBS. Once in February, April, and May, three times in March (including both 5pm games). No extended sets.

While these are the only teams the Crunch play this season, the other three teams have other opponents as well. Utica will play four teams (us, Rochester, Providence, and Binghamton). Rochester will play three teams (us, Utica, and Cleveland). And WBS will play four teams (us, Binghamton, LeHigh Valley, and Hershey).

Obviously, if/when games get affected due to COVID, these schedules will change. I expect Sunday, Monday, and Thursday to be good days to reschedule any lost games, there aren’t many games scheduled on those days. Utica is pretty much empty on Sunday, Rochester on Monday, and WBS on Thursday.

This weekend:

The Crunch open their season tomorrow night (Saturday) at home against the Utica Comets at 7pm ET. All games will be streamed on AHL.TV this season, if you don’t have a subscription I would highly recommend getting one, the opening weekend of the AHL season is being streamed on that platform for free if you want to check it out first. The Crunch have also landed a local TV deal with CW6 to broadcast all 14 Saturday home games.

My Schedule:

I’ll have a recap of the first game ready for Monday morning on this platform, so stay tuned for it! Recaps will go out every Monday morning except the two times the team plays on that day, those recaps will go out on Tuesday. I’ll publish a preview every Wednesday morning to get you set for the action that week.

The Roster

I have taken the lineup from last week’s preseason game against the Comets (the team iced 11F/7D) and I’ve filled it out with all the scratches and their likely spot on the depth chart. I’ve included numbers as well as there are a lot of new faces. Those in italics are rookies that will have to be sent to the WHL or OHL once their seasons start.

Forwards (19)

Grigori Denisenko - Ross Colton - Alex Barré-Boulet
Boris Katchouk - Boo Nieves - Taylor Raddysh
Gabriel Fortier - Otto Somppi - Daniel Walcott
Henry Bowlby - Jimmy Huntington - Serron Noel

Ryan Lohin - Peter Abbandonato - Cole Schwindt
Jack Finley - Gage Goncalves - Declan McDonnell
Jaydon Dureau

Defense (11)

John Ludvig - Brady Keeper
Riley Stillman-Chase Priskie
Max Gildon - Alex Green
Sean Day - Luke Witkowski

Dmitri Semykin - Ben Thomas
Quinn Schmiemann

Goalies (2)

Samuel Montembeault
Clint Windsor

Me, staring at this roster.
WiffleGIF.com

If you want to know where all these 32 names have come from, I covered that for the full training camp roster a few weeks ago. I lay out who’s coming from Tampa, Florida, and within those two organizations players from Springfield, Orlando, Canadian Junior, and the NCAA. From my list of 35, Devante Stephens was sent to the ECHL Solar Bears, Patrick Bajkov was sent to the ECHL Swamp Rabbits, Jonathan Ang had his contract terminated, and I genuinely have no idea where Scott Wilson is (he was assigned to the Crunch but wasn’t on the training camp roster).

The Leadership Group

While a captain has yet to be announced yet, Luke Witkowski was the man with the “C” last season and he is still with the team this year. Daniel Walcott has absolutely stepped up so far in training camp. He’s been a very vocal mentor to the young guys and players new to the Syracuse area. I really feel like his influence will be felt this season. Boo Nieves is the second-oldest player on the team at the ripe age of 27 (Walcott is 26). He won a contract at Lightning camp and is expected to be a reliable professional presence for the Crunch this season. The oldest player from the Panthers organization that is on the team is Chase Priskie, he is only 24 and has one year of AHL/pro experience under his belt.

Potential Taxi Squad Call-ups

More this season than any other time the Crunch should expect to see some of their players leaving to go fill roles on the Taxi Squad of the Lightning or Panthers. Here’s a list of players with NHL experience and could see themselves in Florida during the season:

  • Lightning: Luke Witkowski (D), Ben Thomas (D), Boo Nieves (F), Alex Barre-Boulet (F), Ross Colton (F).
  • Panthers: Samuel Montembeault (G), Brady Keeper (D), Chase Priskie (D), Riley Stillman (D).

UPDATE:

The Crunch released their opening night roster this morning. It has some new faces I didn’t have while writing this:

  1. Maxim Cajkovic has come over from Slovakia and is with the team (you’ll remember him as the guy who got kicked off the WJC team for a dirty hit on his teammate in practice). We’ll watch his season with interest.
  2. The Crunch appear to have signed goaltender Tyler Johnson. He comes from Canadian University and has spent time in the USHL and OHL. He’s a NY native so it sounds like they pretty much just picked him up off the street to be a third goalie. 6’4” with reasonable numbers.
  3. The Panthers have sent down forward Aleksi Heponiemi (who has been playing for them in the NHL)