SYRACUSE, NY – Four weeks ago, when the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Return to Play leaped from theory to reality, one of the bigger storylines to dominate discussions was the partnership between the juniors leagues and the AHL. Normally, players coming from juniors leagues who are under 20 years of age are not eligible for the AHL, but with many of their own seasons in flux because of COVID-19, the Western Hockey League (WHL) and the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) decided to open up players’ options and allow them to join the AHL. I felt that this was a positive move, one that would not only allow these players to possibly fast-forward their development (and get paid more while doing it), but would also help to fill gaps made in AHL rosters by the NHL’s taxi squads.
A month later, the AHL season is in full swing. The Syracuse Crunch have only had one game rescheduled because of COVID-19 protocols, so they’re chugging right along. Although a 3-4-1 start hasn’t exactly been stellar, Syracuse’s struggles can’t really be linked to the younger players that have joined the team. In fact, I’d argue that some of these players – in both Syracuse’s case and in many others – have been a saving grace so far this season.
As the WHL gets their season going, and with the OHL potentially not far behind, let’s take a deeper look into who these players are/were for the Crunch and how they’ve performed. A reminder that the Crunch currently has two NHL partners – the Tampa Bay Lightning, Syracuse’s primary affiliate, and the Florida Panthers – so the team is drawing from both prospect pools.
Position: Left wing
History: Jaydon Dureau was selected in the 5th round of the 2020 NHL draft by Tampa Bay. He played with the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL, first suiting up for them during the 2017-18 season. In 134 regular-season games for Portland, Dureau totaled 99 points (31g, 68a). When the WHL delayed the start of the 2020-21 season, Dureau got in some games with the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. Playing with the Melville Millionaires, he had seven goals and four assists in six games.
Games played for Syracuse: One
Highlights/opinions: Dureau made his Crunch debut February 27th. He was relatively sheltered during his time with the Crunch, and didn’t see game action until Syracuse’s bench started to shrivel under the pressure of injuries and call-ups from their two different NHL partners. With one shot on net and a -2, it’s hard to say much about Dureau’s professional debut.
Where is he now: Dureau has been returned to Portland. The Winterhawks get their season going on Thursday, March 18th at Tri-City.
History: Jack Finley was picked in the second round (57th) of the 2020 draft by Tampa Bay. Drafted out of the WHL, he has spent his juniors career with the Spokane Chiefs, playing in 131 regular season career games so far. He has totaled 77 points (28g, 49a)
Games played for Syracuse: Two
Highlights/opinions: Finley was also relatively sheltered during his time with the Crunch. At just 18 years old, Finley was among the youngest players on the roster, so adjusting to the pro game and figuring out how to compete at the AHL was his main focus.
“In practice itself, the compete level is crazy. It’s really high…and then I think in the couple scrimmages we’ve had, there’s way less time and space."
Jack Finley on adjusting to the pro game at 18 years old compared to junior hockey. pic.twitter.com/Qf3HjnbDDJ
— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) January 27, 2021
Where is he now: Finley was returned to the Chiefs this week. The Chiefs begin their 2020-21 regular season on Friday, March 19th at Seattle.
History: Gage Goncalves was selected by the Lightning in the second round (62nd overall) in the 2020 NHL Draft. He was originally acquired by the Everett Silvertips as a listed player and signed with them in 2018. In 128 games with Everett, Goncalves had 86 points (34g, 52a).
Games played for Syracuse: One
Points: 1 (0g, 1a)
Highlights/opinions: Like Finley, Goncalves also was sheltered during his time with the Crunch. However, he made his one game in a Syracuse uniform count, nabbing his first professional point with an assist on the Crunch’s first goal of the game. Although the result of the match was a loss, it was a valuable experience for Goncalves before heading back to the WHL.
— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) February 28, 2021
Where is he now: Goncalves has gone back to Everett for the start of their season. Their season starts Saturday, March 20th against Spokane, which means he’ll be facing off against a former Crunch teammate – Finley.
Position: Right wing
History: Declan McDonnel was selected by the Lightning with their last pick of the 2020 NHL Draft. He went 217th overall out of the OHL. Playing with the Kitchener Rangers in 2019-20, he went 21-21-42 in 63 regular-season games.
Games played for Syracuse: Four
Highlights/opinions: McDonnel made his Crunch debut on February 17th. He has continued to earn himself playing time, and has spent time on Syracuse’s power play as the coaching staff has struggled to find an effective combination. Currently, he is playing on the team’s 4th line with Jimmy Huntington and Nikita Pavlychev.
Where is he now: McDonnel remains with Syracuse.
History: Quinn Schmiemann was drafted by the Lightning in the sixth round in 2019. In 118 games with the Kamloops Blazers of the WHL, he totaled 10 goals and 55 assists. During the 2019-20 season, he finished second on the team in scoring by a defenseman.
Games played for Syracuse: Zero
Highlights/opinions: Schmiemann has yet to get into a game for the Crunch, so… (insert shrug emoji here)
Where is he now: Schmiemann is still with the Crunch as of writing this, but Kamloops announced their return to play plan this past week. He will need to return to them.
History: Cole Schwindt was originally selected by Florida in the third round (81st overall) of the 2019 NHL Draft. Schwindt has spent the last three seasons with the Mississauga Steelheads of the OHL, amassing 55 goals and 83 assists in 191 regular-season games. He was named the OHL’s “Player of the Month” for December 2019 after leading the league with 21 points (12-9-21) over 12 games.
Games played for Syracuse: Five
Points: 1 (1g,0a)
Highlights/opinions: Going into Syracuse’s game in Wilkes/Barre-Scranton just this past Wednesday, Schwindt had a big ol’ goose egg in points, something that might have loomed large as an indicator of how he has performed for the Crunch. However, that stat apparently didn’t tell the whole story. Just a game or two ago, Schwindt spent some time anchoring the Crunch’s first line, centered in between veteran Scott Wilson and team alternate captain Taylor Raddysh. Clearly, the coaching staff are liking what they’re seeing in him, or else they wouldn’t be trusting him with such big minutes, even with the Crunch’s depleted state. Schwindt made his professional debut February 17th on the fourth line and has been slotted into multiple lines throughout his time with the Crunch. He has also seen time on the team’s penalty kill. His goal this past week was his first pro goal.
— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) March 3, 2021
Where is he now: Schwindt is still with Syracuse.
How or if the time these players spent in the AHL before their twentieth birthday affects their careers might never be truly known. The sample size is relatively small, and it should also be pointed out that the 2020-21 AHL season is not “normal” by any stretch of the imagination. None of them lit up the AHL or burnt up any scoresheets. But the fact is, almost all of these players earned playing time, and the majority of them earned extended looks. They were not liabilities by any stretch of the imagination. As someone wishing the AHL would push a little against the traditional aged-based agreement, I think this little experiment is working out pretty well.
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