Lightning & Crunch Have a Promising Future

Tyler Johnson, Andrej Sustr, Richard Panik, Ondrej Palat, Vladislav Namestnikov, Brett Connolly, Radko Gudas. These names are familiar to most if not all hockey fans. While they may not still be with the Tampa Bay Lightning, they are all products of the Lightning’s development system and they were all on the Syracuse Crunch team that made a run to the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Final in 2013.

Four years later, the Lightning/Crunch relationship looks similarly deep as Tampa Bay’s scouting staff has well stocked the organization’s coffers yet again. The club has benefitted from some of this new crop of talent already seeing time with the team. On top of the time these players have already seen in the NHL, the Lightning hope that things following the Crunch’s 2017 Calder Cup Final appearance go just as well as the last time.

Hoping for History to Repeat Itself

In 2013, the Crunch faced the Grand Rapids Griffins, the AHL affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings. Syracuse fell in the series four games to two. In 2017, the Crunch again faced the Griffins and again fell in six games. Of the 34 players listed on the Crunch’s 2013 Calder Cup Final roster, 17 players (one goalie, seven defensemen, and nine forwards) have seen time in the NHL and, even if they don’t play for the team now, all of those have seen time with the Lightning.

Yanni Gourde (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Any NHL team would be ecstatic to see 17 players from their AHL team, especially a team which just made their way to the Calder Cup Final a year after the AHL team (then in Norfolk) won the Calder Cup, make their way into the big club’s roster. The NHL team would especially love it if some of those guys turned out to be players like Johnson, Sustr, Panik, Palat, Namestinikov, etc.

The Lightning are hoping that list will soon be comprised of names like Gourde, Peca, Thomas, Koekkoek, Dotchin, etc. And the list may include those names as early as next year.

From Injury Fill-ins to Key Pieces

Some of those guys listed above have already seen time with the Lightning and they didn’t just fill a roster spot and sit in the press box every night. Thirteen Syracuse skaters saw time with the Lightning in 2016-17 and 11 of those played in at least 10 games. Some were experienced hands like Cory Conacher and Erik Condra while others like Yanni Gourde, Matthew Peca, Jake Dotchin, and the like made either their NHL debuts or saw their first stint of extended NHL time. They adapted to the NHL game and contributed quickly.

Gourde, a diminutive and speedy forward, played with the big club for the second season in a row. While only 25, he just completed his fifth season of professional hockey and has worked himself from being a slightly above point-per-game ECHL player to NHL contributor. This season, Gourde scored not only his first NHL goal but five others for six goals and two assists in 20 games.

Matthew Peca (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Peca is another diminutive forward (both he and Gourde are listed at 5’ 9”) and a former four-year star at Quinnipiac University. In just his second professional season, Peca made his NHL debut and scored his first NHL goal. He coupled it with an assist for two points in 10 games.

Dotchin was the biggest surprise of all for many. He’s a two-way defenseman and was strong defensively for the Crunch. He appeared in 35 games for Syracuse and had 13 points (four goals, nine assists). With the Lightning defense corps depleted, he was called up to make his NHL debut. He then made it nearly impossible for the organization to take him out of the lineup. He was smart and sound defensively, as evidenced by his plus-10, while also contributing to the offense and racking up 11 assists in 35 games.

It seems the Lightning’s cupboard of prospects is as fully stocked as ever and due to recent events, it looks like these players will be needed. Over the off-season, I’ll be writing a series of profile pieces, both on players briefly covered here and those not mentioned, looking at likely candidates.