One of the hardest things to do in the NHL is building a franchise that is able to have success at both the NHL and AHL level. Oftentimes, when a franchise’s AHL affiliate is contending for a Calder Cup, it means their NHL brethren are in the process of a rebuild, pumping high-level talent into the minor leagues as they prepare to overhaul their roster with young, affordable talent. Once the big club starts pulling that talent out of the minors, that team is likely to go through their own rebuild as they find a new identity with new players.
For the Tampa Bay Lightning, this might have been expected during the 2017 offseason. Despite their AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, reaching the Calder Cup Final that year, then general manager Steve Yzerman overhauled the roster to allow for an influx of rookie talent. With as many as 10 rookies starting each night for the Crunch, they had a 4-10-1 record to start the season. Once the Crunch sorted it out, though, the team caught fire, throwing that slow start to the wind while taking their strong play all the way to the second round of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
The 2018 Offseason Brought Change to Syracuse
In what has become an annual tradition, the Crunch had their roster again retooled in the 2018 offseason after their playoff run. Some of this change was expected, as Syracuse starters like Adam Erne and Anthony Cirelli earned extended call-ups with the Lightning at the end of the 2017-18 season and into the 2018 NHL playoffs. Mathieu Joseph, on the other hand, muscled his way into an NHL role after having a strong training camp, which was good for the Lightning but left the Crunch without their top scorer from the season prior.
All in all, the Crunch lost five of their top ten scorers from the previous season, meaning that their opening night roster looked very different from the one that made the 2018 playoffs.
The upside to all this change was it allowed for the next influx of talent from juniors, including Cal Foote, Taylor Raddysh and Alex Barre-Boulet. Many of these rookies had incredible success in juniors and showed that they could be fighting for an NHL roster spot in the near future. This, along with a veteran presence of Andy Andreoff, gave the Crunch faithful hope that the 2018-19 season would follow their previous success.
2018-19 Crunch Figuring It All Out
Despite their best intentions, the start to the 2018-19 season was not a good one for the Crunch. They started with a 2-5-0 record with a roster full of new faces trying to put it all together. They weren’t necessarily playing poorly, but they also weren’t doing enough to win. The offense wasn’t clicking, the defense was a step behind and their goaltending was shaky enough and unable to hide their mistakes.
Much like the 2017-18 season, when the Crunch pulled it together, they did so in a hurry. After their slow start, they went on a 13-game point streak, which included a seven-game winning streak. During this streak, they scored at least three goals each game, while having their goaltending post three shutouts. All of this occurred while key players like Eddie Pasquale and Erik Cernak were called up to Tampa Bay, meaning they were finding ways to win without some of their starters.
Veteran Presences Carrying Syracuse to Success
What carried the Crunch through this winning streak was a familiar name. After he started the year with the Lightning, Cory Conacher was assigned to Syracuse in order to make space for new players. Instead of feeling down about his demotion to the AHL, Conacher went on a scoring frenzy. In his first 15 games back in the AHL, he posted 10 goals and 27 points, en route to earning Player of the Month honors for November. Since then, he’s kept his hot hand, leading the team with 30 points in 20 games.
Carter Verhaeghe, another veteran presence in Syracuse, sits second in scoring with nine goals and 28 points in 24 games. In fact, four of the top five scorers for the Crunch this season are veterans, with Andreoff and Cameron Gaunce both near the top of the franchise’s scoring list. Even with a highly touted rookie class coming into the 2018-19 season, it’s the veterans who are keeping the team afloat through the early part of the season.
The Future Is Bright for the Crunch
This doesn’t mean that the Crunch rookies are playing poorly. Barre-Boulet sits third in the scoring race with 24 points, and Raddysh is sixth with 16 points. Foote is finding his footing as a professional defenseman and is starting to look more and more like the player the Lightning hoped for when they drafted him 14th-overall in 2017.
If their rookies continue to grow and their veterans carry the play when necessary, the Crunch should be able to continue their success from November. As of now, they are in a good spot to find their way back to the 2019 playoffs despite all the changes made over the last six months. That’s a feat by itself, especially when you consider how many players starting with the Lightning this season were rookies in Syracuse less than a year ago.
Eugene Helfrick is a Tampa Bay Lightning writer who is actually from Tampa Bay. He has written about the Lightning for six years, covering everything from their run to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, to their crushing first-round exit in 2019, to their redemption in the bubble in 2020. While he is happy to talk about just about anything from cows to cars to video games, hockey will always remain one of his favorite pastimes.