SYRACUSE, N.Y. – The free agency period has been kind of an adventure since the Syracuse Crunch partnered with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Sometimes it’s a relatively quiet period, with the first day of free agency marked by a precious few signings automatically earmarked for the AHL. Other years it’s been fairly intense. Every year has brought something different, but nothing really prepared Crunch fans for what the Lightning had in store for the organization this summer.
The rather surprising deluge started with a seemingly innocuous dribble on July 17th. The Lightning announced they had re-signed defenseman Fredrik Claesson to a one-year, two-way contract. At the time of the signing, Claesson was viewed as the potential seventh defenseman in the organization, a role he served in since he was traded to the organization in exchange for goalie prospect Magnus Chrona last April. Crunch fans knew enough to keep an eye on him but weren’t counting on him being with Syracuse.
On July 23rd, Tampa re-signed forward Gemel Smith to a two-year, two-way contract. Smith has spent time with both Syracuse and Tampa over the past two seasons, although this past season he spent more time on the taxi squad than anything. The re-signing was potentially good news for Syracuse. Come this fall, Smith could either knock training camp out of the park and earn a spot with the Lightning – which could push a player like Boris Katchouk, Taylor Raddysh, or Alex Barre-Boulet down to Syracuse. Of course, one of those aforementioned forwards could perform well enough that Smith himself lands in Syracuse for a bit, which would give the Crunch a veteran leader who has performed well in the past. In 2019-20, Smith played in 50 games for Syracuse, scoring 40 points (22g, 18a). Either option would work nicely for the Crunch.
Then, ’twas the Night Before Free Agency on July 27th when the Lightning gave Crunch fans a bit of an early gift: the re-signing of restricted free agent Otto Somppi. Somppi’s success story this past season has been well documented. The forward tied Raddysh for the team lead in goals for the season 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). Due in part to the use of taxi squads, Somppi saw more minutes on the top line with Taylor Raddysh and Katchouk than he might have during a normal AHL season, and he took the chance to be seen and ran with it. The forward’s new contract is the standard “show me” post-entry level contract amount, a one-year, two-way contract, but this one seems to have a bit more riding on it than usual given Somppi’s recent emergence. Regardless of what a more normal season might bring this fall, it was pleasing to see this contract get figured out before free agency began.
The morning of free agency dawned quiet, at least in Syracuse. The Lightning started the day by signing goalie Brian Elliott to backup Andrei Vasilevskiy, and then signed defenseman Zach Bogosian, who had previously been with the Lightning during their 2020 Stanley Cup championship. That signing spelled out possible good things for Syracuse, as adding a defenseman to their ranks could mean pushing someone like Claesson down to the Crunch. Still, though, for a team with no shortage of holes – defensive free agents Ben Thomas, Luke Schenn, Andreas Borgman, and Luke Witkowski, all players who had helped fill out Syracuse’s roster in 2020-21, were let go by the Lightning – one potential defenseman wasn’t going to be enough.
Then, a little after 1 PM, the news of five signings rippled across social media. The players were all signed to one-year, two-way contracts, and were clearly meant, at least on paper, to help fill out the Crunch:
Gabriel Dumont – Perhaps the most well-known of the bunch to the AHL branch of the organization, Dumont is a veteran of 554 career AHL games. Over 100 of those games were spent in Syracuse. He has 137 career goals and 323 points. Dumont was a huge part of Syracuse’s run to the Calder Cup finals in 2017, and served as captain of the Syracuse Crunch during the 2018-19 season. He has 90 career NHL games and nine NHL points, so although he could be a depth player if the Lightning need him, bets are on Syracuse being his primary focus. Of note also is that with the departure of Witkowski, Syracuse will be in need of a new captain for this upcoming season.
Charles Hudon – The forward has appeared in 253 career AHL games, recording 102 goals and 197 points. Hudon last played in the AHL during the 2019-20 season, where he led Laval and tied for fifth in the AHL for goals with 27. He has also played in 125 career NHL games, all with Montreal. So, much as with the Bogosian signing, Hudon could be depth for the Lightning, or he could be up front with the Crunch. Wherever he lands, his presence in the organization gives the Lightning options, all of which benefit Syracuse, especially since the Talented Trio (Katchouk, T. Raddysh, and Barre-Boulet) will all require waivers this upcoming season.
Darren Raddysh – Brother to Taylor Raddysh, the elder Raddysh has appeared in 228 career AHL games over four seasons, splitting time with the Rockford IceHogs and the Hartford Wolfpack. The defenseman has 22 goals and 95 points. The brothers played on the same Erie Otters team in 2017, and played against each other in the AHL for the first time in 2019. At the time, Taylor had this to say about their brotherly rivalry:
“It’s kind of like mixed emotions. You are always rooting for your brother and want him to do well,” Taylor said. “Once your team plays against him, you still want him to do well but you want the team to do well and yourself to do well. It’s kind of different, but at the same time it’s a lot of fun for us.
“He’s kind of the same way, even a little more. He really wants me to do well. But at the same time he’s got to perform for himself. I’m sure he’s happy to see me score but I think he’d hope they’d win and it wasn’t against him.”
Clearly, the Lightning organization felt his performance has been pretty good. It obviously remains to be seen if the brothers will be reunited on the same ice and on the same team once more, but it will certainly be a fun story to keep an eye on.
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.
Maxime Lagace – Lagace was probably one of the more intriguing signings of the day, simply because it seemed to put fellow netminder Spencer Martin, who had been with the organization for the better part of three seasons, on the outside looking in. Indeed, just a few days later Martin would be traded to Vancouver for future considerations, with the news that Lagace would be splitting time in Syracuse with Lightning prospect Hugo Alnefelt this upcoming season:
— Bryan Burns (@BBurnsNHL) July 31, 2021
Lagace has played in 167 career AHL games over seven seasons, with a record of 86-47-27 to go along with a 2.76 goals-against average and .908 save percentage. He also has 18 career NHL games and is clearly someone the Lightning feel more comfortable being in that third organizational spot over Martin (who has no NHL experience).
After that, it was hard to believe the Lightning weren’t done, but they were, in fact, not done. After shoring up some of their own business – including an eight-year extension for Crunch alum Brayden Point – they signed forward Remi Elie to a one-year, two-way contract. The signing almost seemed to get lost, but Elie – who had been with in-state rival Rochester for the past three seasons – was immediately recognized as a player who has always played hard against Syracuse. Another potential depth player with 108 NHL games under his belt, Elie has appeared in 208 career AHL games with Rochester and the Texas Stars, notching 42 goals and 92 points. He has also skated 26 career Calder Cup playoff games with nine points. He led Rochester in goals last season with 10.
Overall, the 2021 free agency period has shaped Syracuse’s roster much more than it has in previous seasons. Up against a tight cap ceiling, the Lightning has had to let go of some major talent, including players with Syracuse connections like Tyler Johnson and Mitchell Stephens.
The prediction is that the team is going to go young and cheap, which was, up until a few days ago, scary news for the Crunch. However, this slew of depth signings and familiar faces sure is comforting, even if it’s only on paper right now. Hopefully, waivers will be kind to Syracuse this fall and allow all of the Crunch’s veterans to settle in where the Lightning intends them to.
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