Steve Yzerman wasted little time after the free agency window opened in signing a number of minor league veterans to two-way contracts presumably to fill out the roster for the Syracuse Crunch. Looking at the signings, it’s apparent that Yzerman wanted to add both size and skill to the forward group. Meanwhile, no additions from free agency have occurred on the blue line… for the moment.
The biggest forward subtractions from the roster are former captain Mike Angelidis, Mike Blunden, and Jeff Tambellini. Angelidis and Blunden have been great for the organization, but were both starting to get older with Angelidis just turning 31 and Blunden turning 30 in December. While Tambellini had a successful year with Syracuse as the 2nd leading scorer, he never received a recall to Tampa and has returned to Europe to play in the SHL. Additionally, lower line forwards Philippe Paradis and David Broll were let go.
On defense, the Crunch are losing Anthony DeAngelo and Slater Koekkoek as well as veteran Joey Mormina who was traded mid-season. DeAngelo was the top point producer from the blue line and was tied for 5th overall on the Crunch. He was also tied for dead last in plus-minus with an ugly minus-18. He was traded to the Arizona Coyotes at the draft for a 2nd round pick. Koekkoek meanwhile did not have the highest point production in Syracuse, but he was one of the better defensive blue liners for the team. During the NHL playoffs, he moved up the depth chart and eventually earned head coach Jon Cooper’s trust. With Matt Carle bought out, Koekkoek’s path to the NHL appears clear and he should be in Tampa full time this season.
Let’s examine the free agents that are joining the Crunch this season and then we can take a look at a sample roster that we might see in Syracuse.
A left handed winger that can play either side, Bournival came up through the Montreal system after originally being drafted by Colorado in the 3rd round in 2010. At 24 years old, he’s still fairly young. He has dealt with concussion issues that have limited his playing time over the previous two seasons. In 2014-15, he only played in 41 games between the AHL and NHL and in 2015-16, he played in only 20 games in the AHL.
When he’s healthy, Bournival is a speedster that is tenacious on the forecheck. He is a disciplined player that doesn’t take very many penalties. Bournival was a point per game player in the QMJHL and has been around a half point per game player in the AHL. During his NHL playing time, his offense has been limited, but that is to be expected by a player that will mostly play a fourth line role in the NHL.
In Bournival, the Crunch have added a fast player that can keep up with the highly skilled centers the Crunch will have next season. If he can stay healthy and get past his concussion issues, not only is he a depth option for the Lightning, but he should be good for 30-40 points for the Crunch in a middle six role.
Another player to come through the Montreal system, Dumont has gotten limited NHL time. He was a 5th round pick of Montreal in 2009. As an older draft eligible player, he only played in the QMJHL one more season after his draft year before moving on to the AHL. He has appeared in 18 NHL games spread out over four seasons where he has only 3 points. In the AHL though, he has had 203 points in 389 games. Additionally, he was the Captain of the Hamilton Bulldogs and St. Johns Icecaps the past two seasons.
Much like Bournival, Dumont brings a tenacious game. Despite his smaller size (listed at 5’10” and 181 pounds), he plays a tough game with a lot of energy. He’s averaged around a half point per game in his AHL career, but the past two seasons he produced 45 and 49 points in 66 and 71 games respectively putting him at 0.68 points per game in that span.
Dumont should be another player that will bring offensive ability and leadership to the Syracuse Crunch while being a lower man on the depth chart for a recall. Most likely, he’ll spend the entire season in Syracuse.
Morin going to Syracuse will be a bit of a homecoming as he was born in Auburn, NY, a small town less than 40 minutes away from Syracuse. Morin has been a player that has moved from organization to organization throughout his career with the Lightning being his 6th organization since being drafted in 2009.
Morin was drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2nd round, 45th overall. A year later, he was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Dustin Byfuglien deal. He remained in the Chicago organization for most of five seasons before being traded to the Blue Jackets. He was then traded back to the Blackhawks in the Brandon Saad and Artem Anisimov deal. During last season, he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs for former Lightning player Richard Panik, then to the San Jose Sharks by Toronto in the James Reimer deal. The Sharks then declined to tender him a contract making him a free agent.
That’s a lot of movement for a player just in the past year. At 25 years old though, he’s not far from his ceiling. He’s had 82 games in the NHL and had 22 points mostly with the Blackhawks. In the AHL though, he’s provided some offensive punch with 200 points in 267 games. He could fill a similar role as Jonathan Marchessault has the past few years. He’ll be one of the top offensive producers for the Crunch and if the Lightning need a player that can spot on the power play and provide some offensive upside in the bottom of the line up, he could get the call.
Morin is certainly one of if not the top right winger that will be in Syracuse. Perhaps with his situation being a bit more settled, he can develop some chemistry in the top six forward group and provide the Crunch with some offensive punch while making himself attractive for an NHL spot in the event of injuries.
Let’s just call him PL3 since that’s what everyone else in the AHL calls him. PL3 is a fighter, nothing more, nothing less. It’s been a few years since the Crunch had a pure fighter. While they’ve had players like Luke Witkowski that can fight, PL3 is a specialist. A 7th round pick of the New Jersey Devils in 2004, PL3 has only 41 games of NHL experience.
But he does bring a lot of AHL experience with 448 games to his name. He also has a grand total of 65 points. Oh, and 1,692 penalty minutes. The new fighting rules in the AHL may bring down his penalty minutes this season, but he has had numerous seasons in the past with more than 10 fights.
PL3 will bring size and fight and not much else to a fourth line and the press box this season for the Crunch. If he is getting recalled to the Lightning, something has gone horribly wrong.
The most recent free agent addition, Halmo is a winger that will bring size and jam to the Crunch. More of a middle six forward, he’s averaged a half point per game in his AHL career. He’s played in 20 NHL games and those all came in 2013-14 for the New York Islanders. Halmo also was an Alternate for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers the past two seasons.
Halmo likely will be a third line winger, but would provide some size to go along with a center like Brayden Point. If the team can get 40 or more points out of him, that’ll be a good season as last year was the only time he’s hit the 40 point mark in the AHL. His 22 goals were also a career high.
The beginning roster is a little bit hard to project simply because there is some uncertainty about who might make the team out of camp with there being a possible spot because of Ryan Callahan’s injury. There’s also the matter of the unsettled contracts for Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn, Vladislav Namestnikov, and Yanni Gourde.
A trade or a buyout could possibly happen prior to the start of the season that would make room for a prospect to move up. For now, I’m going to look a little further to the future and project the Crunch roster with a completely healthy Lightning line up, after Callahan’s return, with everybody signed and under the salary cap.
|Left Wing||Center||Right Wing|
|Adam Erne||Matt Peca||Jeremy Morin|
|Michael Bournival||Tanner Richard||Gabriel Dumont|
|Michael Halmo||Brayden Point||Joel Vermin|
|Tye McGinn||Cameron Darcy||Yanni Gourde|
The leftover forwards are Brian Hart, Henri Ikonen, and Jonne Tammela. Al Murray talked at Development Camp and indicated that Tammela will be going to Peterborough of the OHL for this season. That’s good for him because there’s not much of a spot for him in Syracuse and he’ll be a top line player for Peterborough with plenty of ice time. Ikonen has struggled in the AHL and hasn’t been much more than a fourth liner. Hart is also still a development project, but would be the next man into the line up if a forward was out with injury or recall. Ikonen and Hart are both still on Entry Level Contracts and can be assigned to the ECHL.
With the top line, you had a power forward in Erne to complement the solid two-way, playmaker Peca in the center and goal scorer Morin on the right side. The second line has some speed with Bournival in addition to Dumont’s skill to go with Richard’s playmaking ability. Halmo and Vermin would give the diminutive Point some size as well as offensive skills. Gourde is a mis-cast with Darcy and McGinn as he is a small, offensive forward while Darcy and McGinn or more grinders. Unfortunately, his subpar year and the signings of Morin and Dumont have pushed Gourde down the line up on the right side.
Dumont has experience playing right wing and center. If Tanner Richard makes the team out of camp or is recalled, Dumont can easily move inside on the second line with the right wingers behind him moving up. Additionally, if Vermin, Morin or McGinn were recalled, there are players ready to move up into their positions in the line up.
|Left Defense||Right Defense|
|Matt Taormina||Dylan Blujus|
|Dominik Masin||Luke Witkowski|
|Daniel Walcott||Jake Dotchin|
The only leftover defenseman here is Ben Thomas. While he showed well in his debut with Syracuse at the end of last season, he’s still a project. He would benefit from having plenty of ice time in the ECHL and I think it’s likely he’ll get assigned there. Walcott is also moving back to defense in this projection, but could as easily be a forward.
Taormina is the best offensive forward on the blue line and Blujus is a decent two-way presence that should pair well together. Masin will be a rookie and pairing him with the veteran Witkowski would be good for his development. The pair could develop into a shut down pairing for the Crunch. Walcott has offense in his stick, but his size is a question. Dotchin is similar to Blujus, but took a big step backward last year. He needs to improve his passing and positioning still to reach his ceiling. If he doesn’t improve, he could be on his way out of the organization after his entry level contract is up next summer.
|Kristers Gudlevskis||Adam Wilcox|
There isn’t much debate or question here. The number one job is Gudlevskis’ to lose. Unfortunately, his inconsistency in the past does make him vulnerable to losing his spot to Wilcox. The organization needs to see Gudlevskis play well throughout the season. When Ben Bishop leaves, he will be a leading candidate to back up Andrei Vasilevskiy in Tampa if the team doesn’t bring in a veteran backup.
More Moves Needed
It’s pretty clear that some more moves are needed, mostly for players on AHL deals since the 50 roster limit isn’t far from being filled up. The forward line up is pretty stacked, but it will only take a few injuries in Tampa for the forwards to be shaken up. Some depth on AHL deals, particularly at center, would be good, even if they spend most of the year in the ECHL or the press box.
The defense still needs major work. A veteran left handed defenseman to push Masin and Walcott down the depth chart is needed. Another vet or two on AHL deals to provide some depth is also needed to round out the roster.
The final piece will be finding a 5th goaltender to stash in the ECHL in case of recalls and injuries. You don’t want to be scrambling to find a goaltender to fill in when something happens.
Perhaps the biggest change for the Syracuse Crunch though is the coaching change. Benoit Groulx has two years of experience in the AHL and a lot of success in the QMJHL under his belt. I think with these signings, we are seeing some of Groulx’s influence with more players with size being brought in. It also appears that the team has listened to fans in Syrcause and has put more of an emphasis on being a winning team on the farm.
The forward line up is stacked with talent in the form of veterans and prospects. The blue line still needs some work. The goaltending has a lot of potential. I think it’s safe to say that we’ll see a very different Syracuse Crunch team this season. Weather or works out, though, is the question that remains to be answered.