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Crunch Wrap: Prospect debuts and the competing goals of an AHL franchise

With the college season over, the Crunch see their roster bolstered with the next wave of prospects

Scott Thomas Photography

It was another successful week for the Syracuse Crunch as they picked up five out six points with a 2-0-1 record. Max Legace was strong in all three starts, including a 48-save shutout of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins on Saturday. The Crunch continue their march up the standings that started in the middle of February and are 4-1-1 in April and riding a four-game point streak.

The coaching staff seems to have figured out their line combinations and the players are finding their chemistry with each other as the run up to the playoffs, which in February seemed out of reach. However, this time of the year also throws a little wrinkle into the plans of all AHL coaches.

College hockey is over and the junior leagues in Canada are starting to wind their regular seasons down as well. Over the next few weeks you will see a lot of NHL teams signing their eligible prospects to entry-level deals and either playing them (Owen Power, Bobby Brink, Matty Beniers, etc) or having them sign ATO deals with their AHL franchises (the amateur tryout contracts allows the teams to slide their entry deals to next season).

For AHL coaches like Ben Groulx, they have to figure out how to expose these young players to the professional life without disrupting the season-long relationships the more experienced players have developed. For teams not in the playoff hunt that is a little easier said than done, but for Syracuse it’s a little tougher.

This season has been a grind. The stop-and-go nature of the first half that saw them struggle, but since the middle of February they have been of the hottest teams in the league. Having a healthy Max Legace in goal has helped, but so has the fact that Coach Groulx can roll out consistant line-ups.

He is looking to win now, to get Syracuse into the playoffs and hopefully off to a long run. However, he also has to work with the Lightning’s brass on how to develop that next wave of players that are just entering the professional phase of their careers. Jayden Dureau, Jack Finley, Sammy Walker, Cole Guttman, and Jack Thompson are all players you could see sign before this season is over.

Syracuse is a pretty veteran team this year, especially up front. The offense has been led by established players Gabriel Dumont, Charles Hudon, and Alex Barre-Boulet. After a lengthy absence Gemel Smith is now back in the rotation. While youngsters such as Cole Koepke and Gage Goncalves have certainly been productive, it’s the “old” guys that are leading the way.

At this point, there really isn’t much room to slide in another young player in the line-up. It’s already a daily fight for players like P.C. Labrie and Simon Ryfors to see the ice, there just isn’t room for Sammy Walker or Cole Guttman to come in and see meaningful playing time at this point.

If they do sign in the next couple of weeks (the Lightning have until August to sign draft picks who have ended their collegiate careers) there is a chance they still join the Crunch in order to be exposed to the daily life of the professional leagues. There is value to practicing at the AHL level even if a player doesn’t see the ice in a game.

There is the benefit of seeing what it’s like to be part of a team in a playoff race (and hopefully a playoff series). They can gauge from up close how the level of intensity increases from what they are used to, even if they are not in the games themselves.

There is also the off the ice stuff to worry about (how to find an apartment, how to set up a bank account, how to shop for groceries) that a lot of these young players, especially the ones coming from juniors may not have experience with. Even spending a couple of weeks in Syracuse to learn those things from teammates could be a good way to make sure they hit the ice ready to go next season.

Just over the past ten days or so, the Crunch did have a couple of younger prospects make their debut and they have been on slightly different paths. Declan Carlile was signed from Merrimack College on March 16th, but didn’t debut until April 1st. He’s appeared sparingly in five games since then, averaging about 10:19 per game according to InStat. Meanwhile, Nick Perbix was signed on March 31st, debuted on April 4th and has averaged about 13 minutes over the last two games while seeing time on the top power play unit.

The Crunch’s defense has been a bit of a mess lately, so it’s not as hard to crack that part of the team as it might be for young forwards. With the power play struggling, Coach Groulx is open to finding new ways to breathe a little life into it and having Perbix run the point instead of Darren Raddysh or Sean Day seems to be his current fix. To be honest, Perbix hasn’t looked out of place there either.

Carlile’s path is probably more indicative of how other rookies might get filtered into the line-up. A game here and there, especially on back-to-backs, playing 7 to 10 minutes a night on a lower line. It’ll be hard to bump anyone out of the top nine right now, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see Ryfors, Labrie, or Otto Somppi cycle out a game or two down the stretch.

It’s a delicate balancing act between playing for success now and integrating future prospects for the betterment of the franchise. We’ll have to see how Coach Groulx does down the stretch.

Game 65

Marlies 4, Crunch 3 (OT)

A big time North Division match-up ended up being a really, really good hockey game. The Crunch went with an 11/7 line-up as Coach Groulx worked rookie Nick Perbix into the game. With Declan Carlile also playing, the head coach wanted to make sure he could protect the minutes of the young kids.

Syracuse jumped to an early game as Cole Koepke scored just 14 seconds into the game. Despite doubling their lead in the middle frame with a Darren Raddysh goal, it wasn’t the best period for the Crunch as Toronto clawed their way back into things and took the lead with three consecutive goals.

The Crunch righted the ship in the third and eventually tied it late on a goal from Riley Nash (who has been a point machine since joining the club). As Coach Groulx mentioned after the game, they had three really good chances in overtime, but just couldn’t find the back of the net. The Marlies had one opportunity and they cashed it in as Mikhail Abramov finished off a 2-on-0 rush. Still a point is a point, especially in the tight battle for the playoffs.

Cole Koepke (Fredrik Claeson, Gabe Fortier)

Darren Raddysh (Alex Barre-Boulet)

Riley Nash (Alex Barre-Boulet)

Game 66

Crunch 5, Thunderbirds 3

Take care of the puck. That was the directive from head coach Ben Groulx prior to the match-up against the Springfield Thunderbirds. The Crunch’s opponent boasts one of the best transition offenses in the Eastern Conference so not turning over the puck would be key to keeping them grounded.

The Crunch took the advice to heed for the majority of the first period as they limited Springfield’s offense by limiting their access to the puck. A strong forecheck and tight marking in the defensive zone kept the Thunderbirds from getting their offense going.

After a scoreless first, things opened up a bit in the second as some cracks appeared in the Syracuse defense.

The first goal for the Thunderbirds, well, it was just some player movement away from the puck combined with the Crunch getting caught puck watching a bit. That allowed Brady Lyle to get open down low and old friend Matthew Peca found him with the cross-ice pass that Lyle tapped in easily.

It looked like the lead would be doubled shortly after as Ryan Jones turned the puck over but Hugh McGing missed a wide open net. A moment later Jones stumbled on an entry play that allowed a good chance for Springfield (and a collision at the net that left Legace flexing his right leg).

Lagace had to kick that right leg out to deny Matt Peca on a two-on-one a few minutes later. Gage Goncalves took a penalty on the play that led to the Thunderbirds doing something the Crunch couldn’t, scoring on the power play. Tommy Cross hammered a loose puck in the slot past Legace for the 2-0 lead.

Over the last month or so, this Crunch team has shown resiliency and despite having less than two minutes on the clock after the conceded goal, they got one back. Sean Day entered the zone cleanly and fired off a shot that was sticked aside. The rebound came to Springfield, but Day and Barre-Boulet converged to force a turnover and Day’s second wrister beat Joel Hofer cleanly.

Early in the third Springfield reestablished the two-goal lead by converting on the power play (again). Nathan Todd tipped a shot from the slot by McGing after a lengthy amount of possession time in the zone.

Down two, the Crunch ramped up their forecheck and it paid off as Anthony Richard created a turnover, fed the puck to Riley Nash, who beat Hofer with a nifty move to once again close the gap to one goal.

They wouldn’t be down much longer. Darren Raddysh made a nice read to cut through the middle of the ice and took a pass from Fredrik Claesson. By stepping up, Raddysh created a two-on-one with Richard. A quick shot off of a quick pass beat Hofer (who would most definitely want that one back) and it was tied.

Richard then drew a penalty with 2:43 left in the game. After some lackluster earlier opportunities, the Crunch didn’t wait long to convert on this one. Nash and Barre-Boulet conspired to win the face-off and it was bumped back to Perbix. The rookie quickly fed it over to Goncalves who stepped in and wired a shot past Hofer to give Syracuse the lead.

Springfield struggled to keep control of the puck, delaying their ability to pull Hofer, but once they did, Nash banged one into the empty net for the 5-3 lead and eventual victory.

Sean Day (Alex Barre-Boulet)

Riley Nash (Anthony Richard)

Anthony Richard (Darren Raddysh, Fredrik Claesson)

Gage Goncalves (Nick Perbix, Alex Barre-Boulet) Power Play

Game 67

Crunch 1, Penguins 0

Anthony Richard had the best look early for the Crunch as he got behind the defense but his attempt was thwarted by a PO Joseph hook. It appeared that the Crunch had scored on the ensuing power play when a Riley Nash shot ricocheted off of Louis Domingue and then Gage Goncalves before heading over the goal line. The refs immediately waived it off as they ruled that Goncalves had intentionally directed it in with his arm. Okay.

Unfortunately, over the first 15 minutes of play or so that power play was one of the few forays into the Penguins zone for the Crunch. The first ten minutes or so of the game was as bad as they’ve played over the last month. They looked sluggish and WBS outworked them for loose pucks and along the walls. Things did get better towards the end as the Crunch kind of found their groove after a successful penalty kill.

It was a whistle-filled start to the second period so the play was quite choppy. Despite the stop-and-start nature, the Crunch found the scoreboard first as Nick Perbix made a nice move behind the Penguins’ net and found Gemel Smith with a cross-crease pass. The veteran who just returned from injury tapped it easily into the open net.

That was the lone goal of the period and if you peeked at the box score you would think that Syracuse scored against the run of play since the shots were 21-12 in favor of the Penguins. You’d be right to a degree. There were a few stretches where WBS controlled play, including a stretch of nine out of ten shots on goal. However except for a nice sprawling save with 9 minutes to go by Legace on Drew O’Conner and then another off of the glove on an odd-man rush, there weren’t a ton of dangerous shots by the Penguins.

At the other end of the ice, the Crunch were getting some looks but the road team was pretty aggressive blocking shots and limiting Syracuse to short stints in the zone.

Maintaining a one-goal lead through the final 20 minutes of the game is one of the traits that separates average teams from playoff teams. There is a balance between committing to defense, but also exploiting any offensive opportunities that present themselves. The Crunch did a pretty good job of walking that line in the third period against the Penguins.

WBS did add another 14 shots to eclipse the 40-shot barrier (they ended with 48), but that included two power plays, and like the first two periods, there weren’t many second opportunities. The Crunch did have their share of opportunities to extend their lead - most notably Claesson on a two-on-one pushed the puck off the post.

Over the final four minutes or so, the Crunch did a really clean job of bottling up the neutral zone. They either picked off passes, forced dump-ins, or broke up entry attempts - all things that surely put a smile on Coach Groulx’s face.

The game ended with a little bit of a scrum as Alex Green had the stick slashed out of his hands. He turned and shoved a Penguin touching off a scrum that ended with Cole Koepke and Jonathan Gruden tussling. Each was hit with a continuing altercation misconduct along with their roughing penalties.

A solid win that keeps that good times rolling in Syracuse.

Gemel Smith (Nick Perbix, Daniel Walcott)

Coming and Going


Nick Perbix (D) - With his college career over, Nick Perbix joined the Crunch on an ATO and almost immediately jumped into the line-up.


Amir Miftakhov (G) - The rookie’s yo-yo season continued as he was re-assigned to Orlando. With the move it looks like Hugo Alnefelt may be ready to return to action as Max Lagace’s back-up.

Shawn Element (F) - With Gemel Smith returning to health, the Crunch once again had a surplus of forwards and Element was the odd-player out. He appeared in three games after his recall on March 10th, posting zero points with two shots on net.

Upcoming Schedule

The Crunch kick off the week with a rematch against the Thunderbirds before heading into Utica hoping to improve upon their 3-9-1 record against the Comets. They finish off the weekend with a Saturday night affair against the Marlies, one of the teams they are fighting for playoff position in the North.

Wednesday April 13th at Springfield Thunderbirds, 7:05 PM EST

Friday April 15th at Utica Comets, 7:00 PM EST

Saturday April 16th vs. Toronto Marlies, 7:00 PM EST