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Syracuse Crunch 2020-21 Season Preview

Syracuse Crunch 2020-21 Season Preview

SYRACUSE, NY – Welcome to the 2020-21 AHL season.

Yes, it’s actually here!

The Syracuse Crunch get their season rolling this weekend against in-state rival Utica. Syracuse will play a total of 32 regular season games: 16 home and 16 away. The contests will be against just three teams in the new AHL North Division: Utica (14 games), Rochester (12), and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (6). The abbreviated schedule was created with geographic closeness in mind, as all three teams are within 2.5 hours from Syracuse. The Binghamton Devils, a team that usually plays in New York, will be playing in New Jersey this season, and that move to place them in their parent club’s practice facility put them too far away for travel. The Lehigh Valley Phantoms and the Hershey Bears make up the rest of the 2020-21 North, but they are too far away for Syracuse to feel comfortable traveling to.

The Crunch is expected to play about two games a week. With just a few exceptions, this works out to one weekend game and one game during the week. This cuts down on travel and allows for rescheduling should coronavirus protocols require it.

Initial Schedule:

  • 2/6/21: Syracuse Crunch vs. Utica Comets, 7:00 PM EST
  • 2/10/21: Syracuse Crunch at Rochester Americans, 7:05 PM EST
  • 2/13/21: Syracuse Crunch vs. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, 7:00 PM EST
  • 2/17/21:  Syracuse Crunch at Utica Comets, 7 PM EST
  • 2/20/21: Syracuse Crunch vs. Rochester Americans, 7:00 PM EST
  • 2/24/21: Syracuse Crunch vs. Rochester Americans, 7:00 PM EST
  • 2/27/21: Syracuse Crunch vs. Utica Comets, 7:00 PM EST
  • 3/3/21: Syracuse Crunch at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, 5:00 PM EST
  • 3/6/21: Syracuse Crunch vs. Rochester Americans, 7:00 PM EST

Head Coach: Benoit Groulx

  • Five years with the team
  • 161-90 record, 251 games coached
  • Second most-winning coach in team history

Captain: Luke Witkowski (assumed; this hasn’t been officially announced) 

  • Third season as captain
  • Was captain for part of the 2016-17 season before a permanent call up ended his tenure
  • Was Syracuse’s captain in 2019-20

Last Season: 30-23-4-5 record

  • 5th in the North Division
  • 9th in the Eastern Conference

2019-20 Season Summary: Full transparency: I left this section until the end.

However, if I really think about it, I can acknowledge that remembering last season with such despair is probably more a symptom of what the entirety of 2020 turned out to be and not what the Crunch’s 2019-20 season actually was. After all, Syracuse was on the brink of a playoff spot when the season was cut short in March of 2020. The team was finally starting to gather some of the consistency it had been missing for a good chunk of their season. Sure, the goaltending was still kind of wonky, and, sure, the defense never quite got it together, but things were looking up.

Syracuse ended the truncated 2019-20 season just three points out of playoff contention. Their penalty minutes, while still high when compared to their own division (second with 817, right behind Cleveland), were not as high in comparison to the rest of the league, which was a change from previous seasons. This could have been taken as a sign of more responsible hockey being played. Their goals-against total – 210, second-worst in the league – certainly spoke to the team’s struggles in net and on the blue line, but with the team so close to playoff contention, one could make the case for an improvement in this area. Their 202 goals-for total marked them fourth in the North, a respectable result for a team in a division with powerhouses like Reid Boucher in Utica (34-33-67 in 53 games) and rookie Josh Norris in Belleville (31-30-61 in 56 games).

Really, I think I can say now the most frustrating thing about Syracuse’s season in 2019-20 is/was the unknowns. Would the last month and a half had made the true difference? Had the players finally figured out a way to be on the same page? Could the team have put together a solid push and then go deep into the playoffs? So many questions that we’ll just never be able to answer.

Hot or Not?: Hot, but not in a “they’re born with it” kind of way. This is definitely a Maybelline moment if I ever saw one.

The dual affiliation between the Tampa Bay Lightning, Syracuse’s normal NHL affiliate, and the Florida Panthers, brought on by AHL Charlotte electing to opt-out of this season, has given the Crunch’s roster a rather interesting makeover. Fourteen of the players invited to the Crunch’s training camp – 11 were original invitees, three more were added later – were from the Florida organization. Notable names in Syracuse thanks to this partnership include forwards Grigori Denisenko (first-round pick in the NHL draft in 2018) and Jonathan Ang, defensemen Riley Stillman and Chase Priskie, and goalie Sam Montembeault. 

On the Lightning side of things, Tampa went to the juniors’ department to add new faces. Forward Gage Goncalves, a second-round pick by the Lightning in 2020, is looking to make a splash, as is defenseman Alex Green, who has already played five games with the Orlando Solar Bears (1-1-2 in five games, with a +6).

Who’s Back?:

  • Daniel Walcott (F): Walcott has been a stalwart in Syracuse’s dressing room since the 2015-16 season. Acquired in a trade from the New York Rangers in June 2015, the then-defenseman quickly made a name for himself with his tough brand of play (perhaps encouraged by the football he played as a youth). His heart-on-his-sleeve mentality went a long way towards making friends (or enemies, depending on perspective) in the Salt City. Now in his sixth season with the team, Walcott has emerged as both a flexible player – his change to forward out of need a few seasons ago stuck – and a man who is integral to the heart of the Crunch. Walcott played in 55 games for Syracuse last season, going 7-12-19, with a +3 and 86 penalty minutes.
  • Spencer Martin (G): Martin was half of an unexpected tandem in net for Syracuse last season. Last season, Scott Wedgewood and Mike Condon were expected to share the net in Syracuse, with Martin and Zachary Fucale acting as insurance in the ECHL. However, Tampa’s best-laid plans went sideways when Condon, who was trying to resurrect his career after injury had thrown it in doubt, got hurt again and was sidelined for much of the season. Martin got the call to stick with the Crunch, going 12-11-5 in Syracuse last season, with a 3.00 goals-against average and .897 save percentage. Tampa re-signed him this past October.
  • Ross Colton (F): Colton was also re-signed this past October by the Lightning to a one-year contract after a 2019-20 season where he set some personal career bests. Colton recorded 11 goals and 42 points in 62 games for Syracuse, ranking first on the Crunch in assists with 31 and second in points. Colton also tallied five power-play goals, which tied for third. He set career highs for assists, points, power-play goals, penalty minutes and game-winning goals (two) during the 2019-20 season. Colton was someone many observes had penciled into the Lightning’s taxi squad, so it is definitely a boon for Syracuse to have him on the roster (for as long as it lasts, anyway).

Who’s Through?:

  • Cameron Gaunce (D): this veteran defenseman had spent two seasons with the Crunch, playing in 111 contests. He also saw time with Tampa, suiting up for five games. Gaunce totaled 14 goals and 64 assists over those two seasons with Syracuse. Gaunce signed on with the Ontario Reign for 2020-21.
  • Dominik Masin (D): Masin was signed to a contract with Amur Khabarovsk of the KHL back in August when things with professional hockey in North America were quite up in the air. Although the Lightning are retaining his rights through a qualifying offer, for all intents and purposes, the defenseman won’t be back (at least not this season). Masin had played in 273 regular-season AHL games, all with Syracuse, totaling 58 points (16g, 42a).
  • Scott Wedgewood (G): Wedgewood spent much of the 2019-20 season injured, so although on paper he was the Crunch’s number one netminder, he ended up playing in fewer games than his partner Martin. At the premature closure of the AHL season, Wedgewood had a 13-8-3 record with a 0.893 save percentage and a 3.01 goals-against average for Syracuse. He is currently under contract with the New Jersey Devils organization.

Who’s New?:

  • Gabriel Fortier (F): Fortier is one of the more anticipated Lightning prospects joining Syracuse this season. Being 20, he was scheduled to join the Crunch anyway, but the delayed start to the season saw him re-join the Moncton Wildcats, where he was named captain. He was able to go 6-2-8 in 13 games before the QMJHL suspended their own season. According to Lauren Kelly over at Raw Charge, Fortier has speed and a solid defensive game that should be a boost to Syracuse.
  • Clint Windsor (G): The Crunch signed Windsor to an AHL contract this past March. Windsor is someone the Lightning organization has had an eye on for a while now after joining the organization’s ECHL club in Orlando in January 2019. His performance was good enough to pique Tampa’s interest, and he was invited to Tampa’s development camp in July of 2019. During the shortened 2019-20 ECHL season, Windsor skated in 30 games with the Orlando Solar Bears. He totaled a 2.45 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage with a 15-12-2 record. With the addition of Montembeault from the Florida organization, Windsor will probably find himself bouncing back and forth between the ECHL and the Crunch.
  • Sean Day (D): Day is new to the Lightning organization. He had his contract terminated by the New York Rangers at the end of May, and the Lightning snapped him up as some much-needed defensive depth. In this third season now as a professional hockey player, he has skated in 62 AHL games with four goals and 18 points, and 55 ECHL games with nine goals and 35 points.

What to Watch For?:

  • How will the dual affiliation play out?: Dual affiliations are often not kind to AHL clubs. Patrick Williams and I recently touched on this topic in my Crunch podcast Syracuse Speaks, but just to elaborate a little: One of the worst seasons in Crunch history – if not the worst – was during 1998-99. The Crunch was affiliated with both Vancouver and Pittsburgh and ended the season with a devastating 18–50–9–3 record. One of those 50 losses was a 14-2 blowout against Providence in November. However, there is all the reason in the world to hope that the dual affiliation for this season should go more smoothly. With Charlotte out, their coach Geordie Kinnear has been added to the team’s coaching staff, creating a true partnership between all involved. The addition of Florida’s players is beneficial to Syracuse, as it helps fill out a roster that would, in other circumstances, be filled with holes and professional try-out contracts. The Crunch is even looking into creating some special merchandise featuring both affiliates.
  • How will the “Under 20” group do?: With many juniors teams finding their seasons on hold because of the pandemic, the AHL and the CHL have entered into a temporary agreement to allow those under 20 to play in the AHL. Normally the CHL requires these players to be kept for their own teams whether the players seem ready for professional hockey or not. Adding these young-but-talented players to AHL rosters will be a fascinating experiment that may hopefully pave the way for a more flexible agreement between the leagues in the future.
  • What will be the true measures of success?: It has been confirmed by Crunch owner Howard Dolgon that the Calder Cup itself will not be awarded this season. The Cup is, quite obviously, the usual measure of absolute success in an AHL season. Some form of playoffs might take place, but Dolgon has cast doubt on Syracuse participating even if their season is good enough to qualify. With these usual measures of success potentially off the table, how should fans view the team’s season? By player growth (goal totals, assist totals, etc.) or individual player performance (career highs/lows, for instance)? By the number of prospects who make – and stick with – the team? By how many players join the taxi squad and/or get called up for the first time? By regular season divisional placing (even though Syracuse only plays three of their divisional rivals)? It will be interesting to see how fans react to whatever happens on the ice this season and how they’ll rank it all when everything is said and done.

 

Alexandra Ackerman covers the Syracuse Crunch for The Sin Bin and is the host of the Syracuse Speaks podcast. Follow and interact with her on Twitter @SinBinCrunch.

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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