A team signing an extension with their American Hockey League (AHL) partner is usually not a big issue. In the case of the Tampa Bay Lightning, re-signing with the Syracuse Crunch is more significant than what meets the eye. Since 2012, this partnership has allowed both franchises to succeed at their respective levels.
Last week, the Lightning jointly announced a five-year affiliation extension that will allow Tampa Bay’s top prospects to continue to develop their talents in Syracuse through the 2026-27 season. This is important for the Lightning because they have frequently traded high draft picks to get talent that would help them make multiple playoff runs, including two Stanley Cups. This relationship has allowed them to develop mid to late-draft picks that later became impact players during their recent playoff success.
This relationship has not only allowed the Lightning to develop prospects but has also allowed the Crunch to succeed. Since the start of their partnership in 2012, the Crunch have boasted seven Calder Cup Playoff series wins, plus two berths in the Finals in 2013 and 2017. In addition, Syracuse has allowed the Lightning to be associated with a stable franchise, as the Crunch began their 29th year of operation in the 2022-23 season and boasts the longest independent ownership group in the AHL.
Head Coach Jon Cooper Was Promoted From Syracuse
Jon Cooper became the head coach with the Crunch after the Lightning changed the affiliation from Norfolk to Syracuse after the 2011-12 season. During his time with the team, he compiled a 39-18-3-5 record, the best in the AHL, before he was hired as head coach of the Lightning on March 25, 2013. The former defense attorney continued his successful AHL stint after winning the Calder Cup with Norfolk the previous season. That continued success was a major factor in his hiring by the Lightning. “He has had success at every level he has coached and is extremely familiar with our organization, as well as our players,” former Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said in a statement at the time of the hiring.
Cooper and the Lightning’s penchant for developing talent runs through Syracuse. One former Crunch and Lightning player knows just how important Cooper was in his development. Ondrej Palat has said regarding his time in the AHL with his former head coach, “Cooper taught me how to play big-boy hockey.” What the Lightning, Crunch, and Cooper have done is build a culture and chemistry throughout the organizations that have allowed many players to be developed into quality NHL talent.
Lightning Succeed Without Blue Chip Talent
While the Lightning do have some first-round draft picks on their roster, such as Steven Stamkos and Andrei Vasilevskiy, they have also found several mid-round draft picks and undrafted players, and have developed them into elite skaters for the team, with Syracuse serving as an important part of the pipeline for this development. One such player is Ross Colton, who started the 2020-21 season with the Crunch but finished it with a game-winning goal in the Stanley Cup Final. He is just one example of third and fourth-round draft picks that have been developed by the team and who also honed their skills as members of the Crunch.
Other mid-round picks that skated for the Crunch and later won Stanley Cup rings include Anthony Cirelli, Brayden Point, and Alex Killorn, in addition to Colton and Palat. Part of the recent success in Syracuse starts with coach Ben Groulx, who is the winningest coach in Crunch history. While wins are important, he realizes that a large part of his job is helping a player reach his full potential, as he believes that most players don’t know how good they can be and how hard they can work to get there.
In addition to Groulx, the other members that help develop players in Syracuse include Mike Ellis, the team’s director of skill development, Lightning assistant general manager and Crunch general manager Stacy Roest, and organizational skating coach Barb Underhill. Quality staff members throughout the Syracuse-Tampa Bay partnership have been one of the defining factors on why this partnership has worked so well throughout the last 10 years.
Related: Lightning’s Cal Foote Ready to Be a Top-Pair Defenseman
It cannot be overstated just how much of an impact strong development systems have made in building the Lightning into the team they are today. The ability to find and develop their talent has been a huge part of who they are as a team, with the Crunch playing a major role in building the talented NHL teams that have allowed them to be so successful. With the new agreement, the Lightning and the Crunch will attempt to continue this success for at least the next five years.