SYRACUSE, N.Y. – If there was one word to sum up the Syracuse Crunch organization going into the 2021-22 season, that word would be “optimistic.” Some variation on that theme has been said so much over this past summer by various members of Syracuse’s front office that it’s almost become a tagline. After a condensed season played without home fans in 2020-21 and a season cut short in 2019-20, everyone could probably use a little bit of optimism, so perhaps it’s a fitting theme.
What’s there to be optimistic about? Well, there are the changes made to the Crunch’s roster this past summer, to start. “Tampa is very confident that this may be the best team they’ve given since we got together,” team owner Howard Dolgon enthused recently during a Facebook Town Hall. “We’re going in with a lot of optimism.” Those changes include the (anticipated) additions of forwards Charles Hudon and Gabriel Dumont, the latter of whom is a very familiar face to Crunch fans. Dumont played in 98 regular-season games with Syracuse between 2016 and 2019, and appeared in 30 playoff games with Syracuse during that time. He was also captain of the team in 2018-19. AHL defenseman Darren Raddysh, brother of newly-minted Tampa Bay Lightning forward Taylor Raddysh, was also a welcome addition to the team this past summer, as was veteran netminder Maxime Lagace. It’s expected that Lagace will split time with Lightning prospect Hugo Alnefelt this upcoming season. Alnefelt was drafted by the Lightning in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft and will be playing his first season of professional hockey in Syracuse.
Perhaps the biggest addition to the organization, though – and the biggest reason for optimism – is the return of the Crunch faithful to the Upstate Medical Arena at the Onondaga County War Memorial. Crunch Chief Operating Officer Jim Sarosy recently reminisced about what last season was like to Family Times CNY:
“…What we had to go through last year really just makes it that much more special. I’ll never forget the first game in the empty building last year. We did 32 games, 16 at home with no fans. It was a very emotional moment right when the first puck dropped in that empty building. My thoughts went to all the folks who wanted to be here but couldn’t, whether it was someone who’s been a season ticket holder for 25 plus years and had never missed a game up until that point or some of our newer young fans, and what was being taken away from them – the ability to come see live sports. It was very emotional in that regard.”
Last Season in Review
2020-21 Record: 19-10-3-0, Third Place, North Division
Playoff appearances the last three seasons:
- 2020-21: Opted out of the AHL playoffs (along with the rest of the Eastern Conference)
- 2019-20: AHL Playoffs cancelled
- 2018-19: Out in the first round against Cleveland, 1-3-0-0 record
2020-21 Season Summary:
Syracuse’s season was certainly unique this past winter. Insulated from most of the Taxi Club complications and roster dramas by a dual affiliation with both Tampa and the Florida Panthers, the Crunch was able to put a fairly potent team on the ice nearly every single game night. A consistent schedule of three opponents – Rochester, Utica, and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton – kept things fairly predictable during a season that could have been marred by a high level of COVID-19-related uncertainties.
Syracuse’s final record and season percentage of 0.641 was their third-best in recent history. The team made it clear from the start that their goals were to develop and stay healthy while doing it, something the organization achieved in spades. The team didn’t see one positive COVID test because of a regime that was among the most rigorous and expensive in the league, as Dolgon recently explained:
“…we chose the more expensive and more accurate PCR test — (and tested) every day of the season…unlike several other teams, our organization was not responsible for the cancellation of any games. And our players were able to practice and develop in a safe setting.”
On the development side of things, forward Boris Katchouk ended the season tenth in the league in points with 34. He led all Crunch skaters in points and assists (23). He was named the CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending April 25, 2021, and was voted the CCM/AHL Player of the Month for April. He was also named to the 2020-21 North Division AHL All-Star team, along with linemate Raddysh. Raddysh also had a great season, ending second on the Crunch in points (29) and assists (17), and tied for first in goals (12). He was voted the CCM/AHL Player of the Week for the period ending April 18, 2021. The third member of the Raddysh-Katchouk line, Otto Somppi, also saw his efforts pay off in 2021-21. Somppi finished the season tied with Raddysh for the team lead in goals, and netted more points – 26 total – in 32 games with the Crunch than he did in all of his previous 72 regular-season games in Syracuse (where he totaled 22 points).
Coming off of that strong season, Katchouk and Raddysh were both considered strong contenders for spots with the Lightning this upcoming season. The same could have been said of forward Alex Barre-Boulet, who netted 12 points (8g, 4a) in only ten games with the Crunch in 2020-21. Once training camp shook out, Katchouk and Raddysh skated away with spots, while Barre-Boulet was placed on waivers (more on this later).
- Leading Scorer: Boris Katchouk (11g, 23a, 34p)
- Goals For/League Rank: 120 GF, 1st in the North Division, 6th in the AHL
- Goals Against/League Rank: 93 GA, 4th in the North Division, 9th in the AHL
- PP %/League Rank: 20.0%, 2nd in the North Division, 9th in the AHL
- PK %/League Rank: 79.8%, 5th in the North Division, 20th in the AHL
- Gabriel Dumont: Dumont is a key veteran acquisition for Syracuse. He has appeared in 90 NHL games and more than 550 AHL games. He has played with Syracuse previously for the better part of three seasons. His best season with the Crunch came during the 2018-19 season, when Dumont served as captain of the team. That season, he scored 15 goals and added 28 assists for 43 points in 59 regular-season games. His most memorable Crunch moment, though, came during game four of the first round of the 2017 Calder Cup playoffs, when Dumont scored in overtime against the St. John’s IceCaps. That goal sent Syracuse on to the second round. Dumont cleared waivers this past week and is set to play for Syracuse.
- Charles Hudon: Hudon is an AHL veteran who has played over 200 games in the league. He has played 125 regular-season NHL games, with 56 points, all with Montreal. During his last AHL season in 2019-20 – Hudon played in the Swiss-A league in 2020-21 – Hudon totaled 35 points (27g, 8a). He also played in 15 NHL games with a goal and an assist. Hudon cleared waivers this past week and was assigned to the Crunch.
- Andrej Sustr: Sustr is another familiar face, although he played more with the Lightning than with Syracuse during his first stint with the organization. Sustr joined the Crunch for the first time in 2012-13, playing in eight regular-season games (and even getting in two with the Lightning). He would go on to play in 18 games for Syracuse during the playoffs that season, netting seven points as the Crunch crashed the Calder Cup finals for the first time in the team’s history. He spent the majority of the next five seasons up with the Lightning, and totaled 323 career NHL games with Tampa and the Anaheim Ducks over seven seasons. Sustr spent last season in the KHL. So far, Sustr has impressed with the Lightning, so it will be interesting to see where he actually lands:
Jon Cooper said he told Andrej Sustr today how impressed he is w/ his skating and body control. “Sustr played in the Stanley Cup Final and did great for us. But he really, his skating’s improved. He’s really in control of things out there. I’ve really been impressed with Shu.”
— Bryan Burns (@BBurnsNHL) September 25, 2021
- Luke Witkowski: The team’s captain from 2019-20 and 2020-21 was not re-signed by the Lightning this past summer and has since been re-signed by the Detroit organization. Witkowski had played the better part of seven total seasons with the Crunch throughout his career, and was named captain twice during that time span. He totaled 47 points during those seasons with the Crunch.
- Ben Thomas: Thomas had been with the Crunch organization since 2015-16. During that span, he totaled 88 points during the regular season, and 13 points during the playoffs (all amassed in 2017). Throughout his career with Syracuse, he worked his way up from a bottom-pairing rookie to a first-pairing veteran, and finally got his cup of coffee with Tampa in 2021, skating in five games. Thomas is playing with the Swedish Hockey League in 2021-22.
- Special Mention – All of the Panthers organizational players: The dual affiliation with Florida last season put Syracuse in a special position to benefit from the talent of two organizations. However, that arrangement was only temporary, so all of those players are gone. Among those who made an impact in Syracuse were:
- Goalie Samuel Montembeault, who went 8-4-1-1 for the Crunch, with a 2.86 GAA and a .898 save percentage.
- Forward Henry Bowlby, who had 14 points in 23 games and ended the season eighth on the team in points.
- Forward Grigori Denisenko, who ended the season with nine points in 15 games.
- Defenseman Chase Priskie, who missed almost half the season with injury but who still amassed seven points in 15 games.
2021-22 Schedule Breakdown
Syracuse will play the upcoming season in a reunited and redesigned North Division featuring Rochester, Laval, Belleville, Utica (newly aligned with the New Jersey Devils), Toronto, and Cleveland. Not all of the teams in the North Division will be playing the same amount of games this season. Previously, this scheduling quirk was limited to the Pacific Division, but with the AHL’s goal of getting down to a flat 72-game schedule for all of its teams in 2022-23 getting the green light, some teams elected to make the shift this season. In the North, those teams are Belleville, Laval, Toronto, and Utica, all of whom will play 72 games.
Syracuse will play in-state rival Utica 14 times, split evenly between seven home games and seven away games. Utica was the Crunch’s toughest rival last season, although the Crunch still bested them with a 7-5-2-0 record by the end of the season. Syracuse will play rival Rochester 12 times. Last season, Syracuse went 7-4-1-0 against the Amerks. Syracuse will see the other team they played last season, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, four times in 2021-22. The Crunch won the season series against them in 2020-21 with a 5-1-0-0 record. The Crunch will face Cleveland, Belleville, and Laval eight times each, four games each against Charlotte and Hershey, and two each against Bridgeport, Hartford, Lehigh Valley, Providence, and Springfield.
For the 2021-22 season, December, January, March, and April will be the Crunch’s busiest months, with 12 games scheduled each month. Traditionally, Dolgon has favored a home-heavy end of the season, preferring the comforts of the War Memorial during that final, harried playoff push. This has been the team’s tradition for pretty much as long as memory serves. For whatever reason though, the upcoming season will deviate from that plan. Not only does Syracuse have a four-game road trip in April, where the team visits Utica, Hartford, Providence, and Toronto in six days, the final month of the AHL season will actually hold the most road contests with seven. The most home games in a month the team will see fall in November and January when Syracuse hosts seven each month.
Top Storylines for 2021-22
- How will the breaking of the Talented Trio affect Syracuse? One of the biggest questions facing the Crunch this upcoming season was the question of where the talented trio of Katchouk, T. Raddysh, and Barre-Boulet were going to land. All of them seemed to be short-listed for any space not already filled on the Lightning, and all three also required waivers to be returned the AHL. Going into Tampa’s pre-season, many felt the Lightning wouldn’t risk Barre-Boulet on waivers, and would stick with either Katchouk or Raddysh and Barre-Boulet. Surprisingly, that isn’t how things turned out. The Lightning placed Barre-Boulet on waivers on Sunday, with the clear intention of sending him to Syracuse. However, that plan was foiled when Seattle claimed him. With Raddysh looking to be on the Opening Night roster for Tampa and Katchouk also waiting in the wings for his chance in the NHL, Syracuse has been left without any of them. How the Crunch will adjust to this loss will absolutely be something to watch.
Judging from who’s here, who’s not for today’s practice, looks like Raddysh and Katchouk have made the Opening Night roster, and Raddysh has won the open forward spot in the lineup. #Bolts
— Bryan Burns (@BBurnsNHL) October 11, 2021
- Will COVID-19 rear its ugly head? The 2020-21 AHL season schedule was intentionally built spaced out, both because of the lesser amount of games and so that any cancellations or rescheduling related to the pandemic could be accommodated. It was a good thing, too, as teams like Utica saw an entire month of games need to be rescheduled because of a COVID outbreak in their organization. This affected Utica most of all, but it also affected all of the teams the organization played, including Syracuse. The 2021-22 AHL schedule doesn’t have this luxury. Any team facing a cancellation of even one game is going to have a tough time rescheduling, especially as buildings begin to be used by other organizations, concerts, and events again. It will be interesting – and potentially really stressful – to see what happens if COVID starts to circulate within the league.
Prediction Sure to Go Right
- The Crunch will have a new captain! (But…) With the departure of Witkowski from the organization, Syracuse is in need of a new captain. Going into the summer, the shoo-in was most certainly fan favorite Daniel Walcott. Walcott has played for Syracuse since 2015 and owns a home in the city, a rarity in the AHL. He’s played in over 200 AHL games, and finally saw time with the Lightning this past season, where he made history as part of the first all-Black line in the NHL. His credentials are long, but can they beat newly re-signed former captain Gabriel Dumont? One thing is clear: Syracuse will have a new captain. Who will it be, though? Time will tell.
Prediction Sure to Go Wrong
- Defenseman Chase Priskie will be acquired in a trade. Priskie was a member of the Florida contingent playing in Syracuse. Although an injury sidelined him for much of the season, his jump at the start and his energetic finish at the end impressed Crunch fans. The Lightning organization is forever in need of defensive depth, and a player like Priskie – who has the added benefit of already being familiar with the team, city, some of the players, and the coaching staff – would slot right in immediately.
Fan Vote – You decide!
Well? After everything is said and done, how do you think the Crunch will do this season?
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