Crunch Corner: Handing out some awards
The season may not be officially over, but it’s never too early to hand out virtual trophies.
As of right now, the AHL continues to hold out hope that the 2019-20 season will continue. How do we know that? Well, because they haven’t started issuing refunds for AHL.TV yet. Which, honestly, is pretty cool, because now is the perfect time to go back and watch all of the games from early this season to see what we missed. Everyone’s doing that, right?
While the AHL is holding out hope that more games will be played, Crunch Corner is ready to wrap up the 2019-20 season. The logistics of getting things back and running just seem too great at this point and even the best scenarios will start infringing on the off-season or the beginning of next season.
So, with the season declared over (at least unofficially by us), let’s hand out some awards for the Syracuse Crunch. It might not have been the season the Crunch wanted, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find some positives in a fourth place season.
Rookie of the Year - Peter Abbandonato
Through 62 games, the Crunch had eight rookies appear for the team. Four of them didn’t record a point (Alexey Lipanov, Oleg Sosunov, T.J. Melancon, and Sami Tavernier). Two more played less than 15 games (Logan Roe and Tyler Bird). That leaves only two for consideration for this away - Jimmy Huntington and Peter Abbandonato.
Both players were undrafted free agents signed in the off-season. Both were speedy forwards known for putting up offense in the QMJHL, Huntington had 92 points (40 goals, 52 assists) for Rimouski in his final year while Abbadonato put up 111 (29 goals, 82 assists) with Rouyn-Noranda.
The Crunch were probably hoping that at least one of them would follow in the footsteps of last year’s super rookie Alex Barre-Boulet. Unfortunately, the organization wasn’t able to catch lightning in a bottle two years in a row. Both Abbandonato and Huntington had their ups and downs throughout the season (literally, as they were shuffled back and forth from Orlando and Syracuse a few times each) while struggling to find consistent playing time when they were with the Crunch.
In the end, Abbandonato edged out Huntington for the award due to a late season surge in productivity that saw him on the Crunch roster when the season halted. His scoring had picked up a bit (2 goals, 2 assists in his last 6 games) as he found himself getting more and more ice time, including some looks on the power play.
Most Improved Player - Otto Somppi
With a host of second year players on the roster you would think this award would be hotly contested. In the end, it really came down to just one player. Several of the sophomores showed little to no improvement over their rookie years, which may go down as the biggest disappointment of the 2019-20 season. Had the year played out, Taylor Raddysh might have worked his way into the conversation as he was a completely different player from January onwards, but it was a little too late to wrest the honor away from Otto Somppi.
The Finnish forward ended his second season with career highs in games played (45), goals (5), assists (13), points (18) and power play goals (1). On the whole, those numbers may not be overly impressive, but he put those up in only 45 games while mostly playing a bottom-six role.
Last season he was obviously not ready for the AHL. He went down to Orlando and had a pretty good year and came to camp ready to compete for a spot on the Crunch’s roster this season. From the start he was much more confident on the ice and with the puck. What was the most eye-opening was how good of a passer he is in the offensive zone. His head is always up and he’s always looking for the open player. Sometimes he tries a little too hard to force a pass, but for the most part he makes good decisions on the ice. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him compete for a spot in the top-six next season.
Unsung Player of the Year - It’s a tie!
This is a bit of a tricky award to hand out because throughout a season every player on the roster contributes to the overall success of the team. Whether it’s Logan Roe coming up late in the season to plug a hole on the blueline or Daniel Walcott playing defense for two games to plug a hole in the defense or Patrick Sieloff coming over in a midseason trade to well...plug a hole in the defense, there could be quite a few players that qualify.
We’ve narrowed it down to two: Ben Thomas and Ross Colton. In fact, we’re going to call them co-winners of this award.
It was a crossroads season for Thomas. Entering his fourth full season in the organization, he seemed to have stagnated a bit in his development. There were enough turnovers or erratic decisions to make you wonder if he was ever going to get it. In fact, even early in the season it looked like it would be a little more of the same, but then he really turned it around - especially at a time when the Crunch needed it.
As alluded to early in this section, the defense was a bit of a mess. Then in February things got even messier with injuries and recalls. During that time, Thomas really stepped up and started to show a little of the potential that makes him an intriguing prospect. With the added playing time he started making better reads on the ice.
Threading the needle #UTIvsSYR pic.twitter.com/K5t455GbZF— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) February 15, 2020
Ross Colton, on the other hand, was one of the more consistent players all season long for the Crunch. While there are other forwards in the organization that get a little more press, Colton may emerge as the most impressive. He’s one of those players that doesn’t seem to excel at any one skill other than being in the right place at the right time and making the right play. When Mitchell Stephens was called up by the Lightning, Colton stepped up into the number two center role and prospered. He appears to be another player in the mold of Anthony Cirelli and Stephens - a solid 200ft player with excellent hockey IQ and just enough offense to be dangerous.
Most Valuable Player - Gemel Smith
On a nightly basis, there is no player as talented as Alex Barre-Boulet on the roster. For the second straight season he led the team in goals, and if the season hadn’t ended early would have posted back-to-back 30 goal seasons. He is an excellent puck handler and has a surprisingly effective slapshot.
If his effort level matched his innate skills then he would be the slam dunk MVP for this season. In our opinion he was just edged out by the play of Gemel Smith. The five-year veteran had the best season of his AHL career, notching 40 points (22 goals, 18 assists) in just 50 games. He took over as the number one center and filled the void on offense created by the off-season departure of Andy Andreoff and Carter Verhaeghe.
Not only did he produce almost every night (he only had one stretch all season where he went more than three games without a point) he seemed to be involved on almost every shift. He was fast enough to outskate defenses and he forechecked well enough to create turnovers such as this one:
Smitty out here putting in all the work.#SYRvsTOR pic.twitter.com/8mIIc8MGT5— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) March 8, 2020
He was also a steady contributor throughout the game. Six times he scored the first goal for the Crunch and he also added four empty net goals - showing that Coach Groulx trusted him to be on the ice to finish off close games. Of the forwards, it seemed he was on the ice most (again without time on ice statistics it’s hard to say for certain). He was one of the team’s top penalty killers and added 10 points (5 goals, 5 assists) on the power play.
It will be interesting to see if he comes back next season or if another organization gives him a shot at some NHL playing time.