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Scouting Syracuse’s Allies

Scouting Syracuse’s Allies

SYRACUSE, NY – Most have heard that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” That saying actually has a fascinating history, as summed up by columnist Forrest Wickman in this article about Star Trek into Darkness:

In the Arthashastra, a foundational text of military strategy written in Sanskrit around the 4th century B.C., Kautilya puts it this way: “A king whose territory has a common boundary with that of an antagonist is an ally.” (Or, as his theory is commonly summarized: “Every neighboring state is an enemy and the enemy’s enemy is a friend.”)

“A king whose territory has a common boundary with that of an antagonist is an ally.”

Huh. Kind of sounds like a league I know.

The American Hockey League, especially up north on the East Coast, has a lot of teams packed into a relatively small geographic area. This means a lot of teams pretty much share a “common boundary” – at least in a loose, regional sense – with an antagonist. This definitely sets up some interesting dynamics.

By the way, I actually like “antagonist” better than “enemy” to describe rivalries in the league. I find it fascinating that both words have a primary definition that is exactly the same (at least according to Oxford Languages): “A person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something.” However, it is in their secondary definitions where the terms deviate. An enemy is specifically connected to “a time of war” and an idea of “weakening” or “harming” something or someone else, while an antagonist is connected more to “struggle” and “inhibiting action.” I appreciate the subtle differences here.

Anyway, nerdy semantics aside, the AHL’s official site has a great team map that illustrates this beautifully (I drew the helpful circle):

AHL city map

This past season, the Crunch’s antagonists shrank to just three teams due to COVID-19-related travel concerns: Rochester, Utica, and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Syracuse’s regional boundary with Rochester (with about ~88 miles separating the two teams, arena to arena) and with Utica (~60 miles between their two arenas) has made for a great rivalry with both teams over the years. Although Rochester has a bit more history with Syracuse, dating back to the Crunch’s induction into the league in 1994, the Comets have sure made a pest out of themselves for the Crunch ever since they joined the league in 2013. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has, perhaps, been out the outskirts of what is generally considered to be a rival. Still, there has certainly been some underlying tension ever since the Crunch bested the Penguins in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals.

Rochester’s antagonists this past season were Syracuse, Cleveland, and Utica. Utica played Binghamton, Rochester, and Syracuse (and Providence, thanks to one random game played in April). Wilkes-Barre/Scranton picked up matches against Hershey, Lehigh Valley, Binghamton, and Syracuse.

Where am I going with this? Well, here’s the thing: The Crunch is going to have a lot of potential roster holes this upcoming season. The Tampa Bay Lightning, Syracuse’s parent club, is up against a tight cap ceiling (as they are seemingly every year). They currently have 13 pending unrestricted free agents (UFAs) throughout the entire organization, including Ben Thomas, Luke Schenn, Gemel Smith, Andreas Borgman, and Luke Witkowski, all players who have spent time with Syracuse. Tampa’s pending restricted free agents – including AHL powerhouses Ross Colton, Alex Barre-Boulet, Taylor Raddysh, and Boris Katchouk – will probably be re-signed with contracts that make them instantly able to slot in with the Lightning (not with Syracuse).

Depending on what happens this off-season, that is a pretty good chunk of the Crunch’s roster from this past season gone. With no dual affiliate available to help fill holes, the organization is going to have to go hunting for players to complete Syracuse’s roster. So, I got to thinking: Why not check out the pending UFAs from the antagonists of the Crunch’s antagonists?

Given all of this, I felt I had Cleveland (Columbus), Hershey (Washington), and Lehigh Valley (Philadelphia) to work with. Although both Utica and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton played Binghamton, the end result of the Vancouver-New Jersey-Utica-Binghamton-Abbotsford drama has made stealing from the New Jersey organization kind of awkward. In addition, Boston/Providence really didn’t have any pending UFAs that Tampa could sign to a two-way deal (other than Greg McKegg, who already passed through the organization once with little fanfare). That left those three organizations to look at.

Considering the Crunch didn’t play any of these teams this past season, talking about many of the following players would have been challenging. So, I reached out to a few people who know a lot about these organizations and their players: Our very own Deana Weinheimer (Cleveland) and Corey Swartz (Hershey), and Tony Androckitis, who owns and runs Inside AHL Hockey (and covers Lehigh Valley). Much gratitude to all three of them, especially considering the (very) short turnaround time I gave them to work with!

Columbus Blue Jackets/Cleveland Monsters

The Columbus organization currently has three UFAs the Lightning organization could be eyeing: two defensemen and a forward. Although all three of them spent time with the Blue Jackets’ taxi squad, Deana was able to give a thorough review of their unique skill sets.

Adam Clendening: (Not to be confused with Luke Glendening, which is exactly what my brain did at first, something that would have caused the tone of this section to be rather different for multiple reasons)

If the Tampa Bay organization wants a veteran defenseman at a friendly cap hit that will be a vocal leader on the ice and be serviceable for the odd callup, Clendening may be their guy. This past season, he spent the majority of the time on the Blue Jackets’ taxi squad, only playing nine games for Cleveland. Clendening is a good character guy in the locker room.

He is at home walking the blue line, sending in more than his fair share of rockets. Though, he can be counted on for the quick rush to help bail his goalie out of bad rebounds. He can read the play well and seems to have a knack for finding open forwards for a breakaway setup pass.

When in Cleveland, he’s on the top pairing most nights. Clendening knows how to be a professional and seems to be head coach Mike Eaves’ primary choice when it comes to finding a stable partner for younger players. He does have a bit of short fuse, which puts his team at a disadvantage at some inopportune times.

Gavin Bayreuther:

Bayreuther was a nice acquisition for the CBJ. Bayreuther filled several roles last season: ranging from being a confidence-building partner for his second-year defensive partner, to eventually helping bring youthful energy to a sputtering Jackets squad.

He is beyond serviceable on the power play. More than once, he was set up (and scored) on a one-timer. Also, more than once, I had to remind myself he actually is not a forward. Then, he sets up a heater from the point and then it is like, “Oh yea. He IS a d-man!”

Sometimes, his positioning on plays leaves a bit to be desired. Overall, a solid bubble player that could do well. Out of all three on this list, Bayreuther is the one I want to see back in Cleveland the most. He is so easy to interview and just seems like a grateful and nice guy.

Ryan MacInnis:

We didn’t get to see much of MacInnis this season either. Five whole games. Two points. I think sitting on the taxi squad was pretty detrimental to his confidence this past season.

He’s a hot and cold forward. When he’s on, he is ON. In traffic, breakaways… he can find and create opportunities pretty much anywhere. But when he is off, he can easily get lost. In the 2019-20 season, there was a point where he had 15 points in 18 games. Then, after an NHL recall, he seemed to sputter out.

When he’s feeling confident, he will dictate the pace. He will lay hits, get off shots, and just, in general, get involved. MacInnis has so much potential and I feel he could really break out in the right system.

Honestly? From Deana’s words here, I think MacInnis could be an interesting player for the Lightning to look at. Tampa has a bit of a history taking players who need a restart and giving them the chances they need within their farm system to turn their career around. Although it doesn’t always work out perfectly, their track record in that area is pretty good.

MacInnis is also just one of two forwards in this entire group of UFAs, and depending on how things work out with what the Lightning need and how training camp looks, the Crunch could potentially be reeling from the loss of Colton, Barre-Boulet, Raddysh, and Katchouk all at once. A player with his kind of potential could be just the ticket.

Washington Capitals/Hershey Bears

Two veteran defensemen here, ripe for the plucking by the Lightning organization. But with all things considered, would they fit?

Cameron Schilling: From Corey’s account of Schilling over on Bears Hockey Nation, the offensive defenseman would fit in well in Syracuse.  A veteran with almost a decade in the league, Corey considered Schilling “a massive boost” for Hershey in 2020-21. The defenseman was praised for his offensive production, his special teams contributions, and his consistency on the blue line.

Had the season played out in a normal fashion, it very well could have been a career year for Schilling, as he finished only 13 points out of his single season best season by tallying 19 points (four goals, 15 assists) to a 32 point season set with Manitoba in 2017-18…Schilling quickly earned the alternate captain’s emblem on his jersey for not only his familiarity with the organization but for his leadership qualities he’s demonstrated over his career. He’s very much an ideal defenseman at his stature, standing at 6’3, 190 pounds as he brings the complete package with his game and can match up against any opponent.

Whether the Lightning could pry Schilling away from the Washington organization is obviously unknown, but with the potential losses of veteran defensemen Witkowski and Thomas, Schilling could be a great get.

Paul LaDue: LaDue split time between Washington and Hershey, so if the Lightning are looking for potential call-up fodder, LaDue has the edge over Schilling. LaDue seems like the kind of energy guy Tampa likes to see mentor their young prospects, a player who, much like former Syracuse captain Mike Angelidis, comes in when it counts:

…his tallies tended to come at pivotal moments. Two of LaDue’s goals helped shift the tide in Hershey wins, with his last goal in Hershey’s May 15 win over Binghamton tying the game in the second, the start of a momentum shift that led to a 3-2 decision at Giant Center.

Overall, my gut feeling says Schilling might have the edge here, but probably only because my AHL-centric brain likes Syracuse’s veterans to be just that – in Syracuse.

Philadelphia Flyers/Lehigh Valley Phantoms

Andy Andreoff: Much like the aforementioned McKegg, Andreoff has also been through the organization once before, in 2018-19. The difference is that Andreoff played for Syracuse, while McKegg never suited up for the Crunch. Andreoff’s veteran status positioned him as a leader on the ice and in the Crunch’s dressing room, and his physical play won him over with the fans. He finished 4th on the team in scoring that season with 55 points. Although the Lightning never got him into a game, he was a willing candidate, something that Philadelphia clearly saw and valued: During his two years in the Flyers organization, he played in 20 NHL games.

So, the question is, would the pending UFA return to the Lightning organization if given the opportunity? The forward is still exactly the kind of veteran the Lightning looks for: hardworking, community-oriented, and a player with a physical edge that gives prospects space on the ice. Andreoff is two years older now than he was when he left the organization, and he could be looking for a bit more stability in his career. A solid AHL spot with an organization, a city, and a head coach he knows well could be just what he had in mind.

Am I stretching a little here? Probably. But I can dream!

Derrick Pouliot: Pouliot is 27. Another veteran defenseman potentially available this summer, Tony’s description of Pouliot makes it seem like he’d fit in well with a younger group in Syracuse:

Pouliot is an offensive, puck-moving blue liner who’s more than capable of QB’ing an AHL power play unit. He was a key cog of the Phantoms’ man advantage, and he also was tied for the team lead in points by a defenseman (3G-11A in 25GP) as well despite being stuck on the Flyers’ taxi squad during their COVID-related pause for three weeks this past season. He’s an elite offensive player at the AHL level, and capable of filling in at the NHL level (202 NHL games of experience & 197 AHL GP). He’ll count as a veteran by AHL standards (more than 320 pro games played entering 2021-22), but he will almost definitely be commanding a two-way NHL contract with a higher end salary at the AHL level wherever he signs this offseason.

Money for veteran AHL players has never really been an issue with the Lightning organization (remember that Cory Conacher contract from a few seasons ago?), but with the cap getting tighter, paying top dollar for AHL vets could become a bit more challenging.

Tyler Wotherspoon: Wotherspoon is yet another potential veteran UFA defenseman. There’s certainly no shortage of those there for teams looking to shore up their blueline. Tony had a lot to say about Wotherspoon, too:

Wotherspoon is a more prototypical two-way defender, but that’s not to say he can’t move the puck well up ice. He’s also able to help chip in offensively on occasion. At the AHL level, he’s a perfect candidate to pair with a younger more raw prospect because he sees the ice well and can be a stabilizing factor to help transition a rookie/2nd player into the pro game. The Phantoms young blueliners this past season raved about Wotherspoon’s leadership and how much he helped them adapt. With Wotherspoon, you’re getting a solid minutes eating defender that you can play in all situations at the AHL level, including the PK and late-game situations protecting a one goal lead as well as any shift beginning in the defensive zone. Of note: He is also a veteran by AHL rule (433 AHL games + 30 career NHL appearances)

Much like the difference between Ladue and Schilling, it seems here the decision between these two might be based on what the Lightning needs. If Tampa wants a potential “next man up” defenseman, Pouliot, who spent time on Philadelphia’s taxi squad, is probably the better bet. But if they’re looking for a solid AHL leader to mostly stay with Syracuse – much like Witkowski these past two seasons – then Wotherspoon might be someone to take a close look at.

Download the Field Pass Hockey app from the iTunes or Google Play stores or follow @FieldPassHockey on Twitter for the latest news on the AHL, ECHL, and SPHL throughout the 2021 season!

    Alex Ackerman covers the Syracuse Crunch for Field Pass Hockey. Follow and interact with her on Twitter @FPHCrunch.

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