Lightning: Checking in on the Struggling Crunch

Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects of the Tampa Bay Lightning as an organization has been the success of their American Hockey League affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch. As the Lightning were fighting for the Stanley Cup while trying to stay under the cap, the Crunch just kept pumping out young, NHL-caliber players who could fill in the gaps on the NHL roster when needed.

Due to all of this talent coming through the AHL, Syracuse has seen a decent amount of success over the last few years. Even in seasons when they were starting more than 10 rookies each night, they still found ways to reach the playoffs and even threaten to win the Calder Cup.

Mathieu Joseph Tampa Bay Lightning
After playing for the Syracuse Crunch during the 2017-18 season, Mathieu Joseph took over a starting role with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2018-19. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Despite all of this success in years past, the 2019-20 season has been a bit rough in Syracuse. As key players made the step into full-time NHL roles with the Lightning, the roster has been drained of the top-end talent that carried them in the past.

Now, with the AHL All-Star game just over the horizon, let’s look into what’s been happening so far throughout the 2019-20 season for the Crunch.

Assessing the Goaltending Mess in Syracuse

With the trade of Connor Ingham and the departure of Edward Pasquale in the 2019 offseason, the Lightning had all of the goaltending depth ripped from the organization. In order to rectify this, general manager Julien BriseBois took a “throw it all at the wall and see what sticks” approach to fix the situation, signing Scott Wedgewood, Zach Fucale and Spencer Martin while acquiring Mike Condon in a trade.

The hope with all of these acquisitions was for at least one goaltender to rejuvenate their career in Syracuse, giving the franchise a stable and cheap presence in net while younger prospects aged into the AHL.

Unfortunately, this has not been the case. As I previously wrote for THW:

However, Tampa Bay’s AHL goaltending has been, to put it bluntly, abysmal. As we crossed the halfway point in the season, no goaltender with the Crunch has a save percentage (SV%) above .900 or a goals-against average (GAA) below 3.00.

This bad goaltending has cost the Crunch time after time this season, as they’ve watched winnable games slip away. Unless if something changes, this lack of consistent goaltending will be a major contributor to Syracuse missing the 2020 playoffs.

Crunch Players the Lightning Should Watch

One of the real problems with building a successful AHL team is that, eventually, the big club will start peeling off the best parts of your roster to make their team better. To start the season, the Crunch lost Carter Verhaeghe, the AHL’s top goalscorer in 2018-19, to the Lightning while having six players split time with the franchise. If things continue as expected, players like Mitchell Stephens will further cement themselves in Tampa Bay, taking more talent off of Syracuse’s roster.

While some scoring talent has been lost, the Crunch have continued to find ways to get goals from their best players. Alex Barre-Boulet currently leads the team with 17 goals and 37 points, while making the case for NHL ice-time in his own right. Veterans Cory Conacher and Gemel Smith both have more than 10 goals and 30 points each as well, showing that they could be a valuable call-up to the Lightning come playoff time.

Alex Barre-Boulet Syracuse Crunch
Alex Barre-Boulet leads the Crunch in scoring this season, posting 17 goals and 37 points. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Also of note is Cal Foote, the Lightning’s top defensive prospect. In his second full season with the Crunch, he has taken on a big role on the blue line while looking ready to make his NHL debut sooner rather than later. If Foote doesn’t get a shot this season, expect him to make his debut in Tampa Bay to start off the 2020-21 season.

Despite Losses, Crunch Still Finding Modest Success

The 2019-20 season has been a real mixed bag for the Crunch, with poor goaltending costing them valuable games. Despite their struggles, however, they still find themselves within striking distance of the playoffs. If they can stabilize their play, even a modest winning streak would put them right back in contention.

Most importantly for the Lightning, Syracuse has continued to pump out high-quality players that the franchise needs. With Verhaeghe and Stevens taking over a starting role, along with players like Barre-Boulet and Foote looking ready to make that next step soon, Tampa Bay should continue to add needed youth to their roster.

Cal Foote Syracuse Crunch
As the Lightning’s top defensive prospect, Cal Foote has been one of the Crunch’s leaders on the blue line as he developed his overall game. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

However, the one thing BriseBois has to fix for the Crunch is goaltending, as the moves he made in 2019 have failed to stick. If he can stabilize that aspect of the team, Syracuse and by extension, the Lightning, will be set to go for years to come.