3 Syracuse Crunch Players to Watch in the Calder Cup Playoffs

The Tampa Bay Lightning’s AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, finished second in the North Division and will face the Rochester Americans in the North Division Semifinals. In doing so, the Crunch secured their 17th playoff berth in franchise history, with the best-of-five series starting on Friday, April 21, in Syracuse.

With this accomplishment, Crunch players will get some valuable playoff experience that the Lightning hope will prove to be valuable should they make their NHL roster. As the Lightning have only two late-round draft picks and little salary cap room to pick up free agents, some players on the Crunch roster will have the opportunity to make the Lightning roster in the 2023-24 season. We will focus on three players in Syracuse who are worth watching during the Calder Cup Playoffs to see how they and the team perform.

Jack Finley

The Crunch recently gave the Lightning’s second-round pick in 2020 the “Brightest Prospect”/Rookie of the Year Award. In the 2022-23 regular season, Finley played in 67 games for Syracuse and had 21 points on 12 goals and nine assists. Before that, he was injured for most of the 2020-21 season but returned in 2021-22 with 50 points in 60 games, playing for the Spokane Chiefs and Winnipeg Ice of the Western Hockey League.

Jack Finley Spokane Chiefs
Jack Finley of the Spokane Chiefs. (Larry Brunt/Spokane Chiefs)

The intriguing part of Finley’s game is the combination of size and skating ability he brings to the ice. The latest scouting report by Dobber Prospects states that the 6-foot-5, 221-pounder is “a big-framed, smooth-skating centerman who can play a solid role on the defensive side of the game, but does have a strong offensive upside as well.” While he may need another year of seasoning in the AHL before having a realistic shot to make the Lightning, it will be quite interesting to see what he can bring to the Crunch in this year’s playoffs.

Alex Barre-Boulet

The 25-year-old just put everyone on notice that he deserves another shot in the NHL. This season in Syracuse, Barre-Boulet set new all-time Crunch franchise records for goals (109), assists (174), and points (283). He also established a single-season franchise record with 84 points (24g, 60a), beating the record of current Florida Panther forward Carter Verhaeghe. For this effort, he was given the team award for MVP as well as being named to the AHL’s First All-Star Team, along with current Lightning defenseman Darren Raddysh.

Alex Barre-Boulet Syracuse Crunch
Alex Barre-Boulet, Syracuse Crunch (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The season before this was an interesting one for Barre-Boulet, as the fifth-year pro had a brief NHL opportunity last season after getting claimed off waivers by the Seattle Kraken, only to land back with the Lightning organization after only 11 days. Syracuse Crunch head coach Ben Groulx feels that Barre-Boulet is primed for another return to the NHL. “He understands more than ever what he has to do to play in the NHL,” Groulx said. “I think Alex is doing a great job at staying hungry and showing the way for his teammates.”

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Groulx makes comparisons of Barre-Boulet with other undersized forwards like former Lighting players Yanni Gourde and Verhaege, who also spent more than a few years in the AHL before getting a chance and succeeding at the NHL level. Barré-Boulet still has one more season left on a three-year deal he signed with the Lightning in 2021. While it appears that he will have a good chance to make the team next season, he may get a chance sooner if injuries continue to mount for Lightning forwards in their playoff series.

Rudolfs Balcers

In November of 2022, the Lightning claimed Balcers off waivers from the Florida Panthers. The native of Latvia signed a one-year deal with Florida this past summer after being bought out by the San Jose Sharks despite putting up 11 goals and 12 assists in 61 games last season, all career highs. He had four points for the Panthers and had one goal in his three Lightning appearances before getting injured. He was sent to Syracuse for a conditioning stint in January but stayed there after clearing waivers in February.

Rudolfs Balcers Tampa Bay Lightning
Rudolfs Balcers, Tampa Bay Lightning (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images)

Balcers brought a veteran presence to the Crunch and was a key contributor down the stretch to help them get and then solidify their playoff position. When the salary cap hinders the Lightning from re-signing some of their free agents, the 26-year-old will be in line to get the first crack at any open roster spot. Like Barre-Boulet, he could also be called up if injuries continue to keep players out of the lineup during the Lightning’s playoff run. Balcers’ experience at the NHL level, 170 games with the Lightning, Panthers, Sharks, and Ottawa Senators, will be a major factor for whomever he skates with.

The “TampaCuse” connection has helped send plenty of players to the Lightning, many of whom have been instrumental in helping the team reach four Stanley Cup Finals and winning two of them. As the playoffs progress for the Crunch, it will be interesting to see how these three players perform in this setting as they someday hope to join the Lightning and participate in a playoff series with them.

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