SYRACUSE, N.Y. – A few weeks ago, this series took a look at the potential forward roster of the Syracuse Crunch for the 2020-21 AHL season. This time, I’m going to break down the team’s defense, and examine some of the looming question marks for the farm team of the Tampa Bay Lightning (all contract information comes from the amazing folks over at CapFriendly).
Unlike the team’s forward group last season, Syracuse’s blue line was a little bit older than Crunch fans are accustomed to seeing under the Lightning partnership. While around 70% of the forwards on Syracuse’s 2019-20 ending roster were still on their entry-level contracts (ELC), only 25% of their defensemen could claim the same. While the Crunch should have benefited from this older, more experienced group, Syracuse still struggled to put together a consistent defensive effort night in and night out. When the AHL called a halt to the season in March, Syracuse was allowing an average of 3.38 goals per game, and their 210 goals allowed was second-worst in the league behind only Toronto (212).
Let’s take a look at Syracuse’s blue line, taking in their unrestricted free agents (UFA), restricted free agents (RFA), and those still under contract. What do those struggles mean for the Crunch as it looks towards whatever 2020-21 is going to bring?
The Lightning organization has benefited from Gaunce’s experience and high hockey IQ for two seasons now. A veteran of 646 regular season AHL games and a Calder Cup champion with Texas in 2014, Gaunce’s drive and talent have certainly made a difference in Syracuse. In 111 games with the Crunch, he has amassed 14 goals and 64 assists.
Not too shabby for a player who just turned 30 this past March.
Gaunce led Syracuse in points among their defensemen this past season with 32 in 52 games. He tied fellow defenseman Luke Witkowski for the team’s +/- title.
Congratulations to Cameron Gaunce and Luke Witkowski.
These two are our NBT Bank Plus/Minus Players of Year.
Our blueliners led the team with a plus-12 this season. pic.twitter.com/hiyjpKhrhX
— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) May 29, 2020
Looking at the bigger picture, Gaunce has provided the Lightning with a steady go-to recall option. In five games with Tampa Bay over the past two seasons, Gaunce netted a goal and three assists while also displaying his flexibility — this past season, Gaunce played at both forward and defense for the Lightning. He scored his only goal for the Lightning organization on Feb 17, 2020.
Although Gaunce was usually a positive player who made time for the fans and the media, he was also well known for his candidness. A clear leader in the dressing room, Gaunce never shied away from brutal honesty when he felt the situation called for it. When speaking to the media after Syracuse’s 4-1 loss to the Springfield Thunderbirds on January 17, 2020, he had this to say when asked about the Crunch’s then-recent rough streak. His unusually clipped tone and tense demeanor pretty much said more than his words:
“Very frustrating…we can take positives out of two periods of a game, but taking positives and continuing to lose games is still losing games…No answers.”
Will the Lightning re-sign Gaunce? While that answer still might not be known for another two months or so, Gaunce had great things to say about the organization during his exit interview in 2019 (before the Lightning re-signed him for 2019-20):
“I like this organization. When they called me last year…they told me certain things that were going to happen, how they expected my year to go, how they expected to handle me, and they came through with everything they told me they were going to do. This organization does a wonderful job of developing people and players.”
If he isn’t re-signed, the Lightning will have a large hole to fill in Syracuse in terms of both leadership and talent.
Sieloff joined the Crunch through a trade this past December that saw the Lightning send forward Chris Mueller to Anaheim in exchange. At the time, Syracuse was allowing 3.42 goals per game (somehow that got worse as the season went on, but I digress), and was missing veteran defenseman Witkowski due to a high ankle sprain. The team was sixth in the North Division with a 16-14-2-1 record.
Brought in to help stabilize a sinking ship, Sieloff had a positive attitude about his journeyman travels bringing him to Syracuse to play for the home team:
“It wasn’t like I was just going somewhere where I was totally new. I know Syracuse is a good little town, I’ve been here a lot, so it will be fun.
“I’m familiar with this division and have played here a couple years (as an opponent). Syracuse has always been a team that’s been hard to play against and it’s a hard building to play in. I’m looking forward to it. I think we can go on a little run here and get back into the playoff picture.”
At the time of the trade, Sieloff had played in 290 career AHL games with San Diego, Belleville/Binghamton, and Stockton/Adirondack/Abbotsford, totaling nine goals and 49 points. He played decently on the Crunch’s blue line, even scoring a goal on January 11, 2020.
Unfortunately, Sieloff’s season was sidelined due to injury on January 31, and he wasn’t able to get healthy before the AHL called off the remainder of the contests. The big question here, then, is whether or not his 13-game tryout with Syracuse was enough to earn him another look in 2020-21.
Sieloff did fine. However, rumors at the time indicated that the trade was less about getting Syracuse a defenseman and more about moving Mueller, who wasn’t producing as expected and didn’t seem to be gelling with his teammates. Sieloff probably isn’t very high on Tampa’s priority list, but he could be an inexpensive option to keep around.
Valleau has been around the Crunch for two seasons on an AHL contract. Originally, he looked to be an impressive find by the Lightning organization in 2018-19, but the excitement around him has cooled a bit after a series of healthy scratches and an injury this past season. In 103 games with Syracuse over two seasons, Valleau amassed five goals and 21 assists, the majority of which were earned in 2018-19 (3g, 17a). Valleau was injured during a game on February 1, 2020 and sat out the rest of the season.
Valleau could be an easy target for another AHL contract in 2020-21. His re-signing would be inexpensive, and would provide the Crunch with a depth player that is used to the organization’s systems, and is familiar with the coaching staff and the city. He is also familiar with the Crunch’s ECHL club, Orlando, so it’d be an easy transition if he was sent down for a bit. Of course, that probably wouldn’t be needed if Valleau could get himself back to the player fans watched in 2018-19.
Although these are in no particular order, I’m getting Masin out of the way first because he has the potential to be the most complicated.
Masin has been in the Lightning prospect pool for a while now. Originally drafted by Tampa Bay in the second round (35th overall) at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, he has gone through his three-year ELC and an additional year-long “show me” contract that he played under last season. He has played in a 273 regular season AHL games, all with Syracuse, totaling 58 points (16g, 42a).
At the time the Lightning drafted him, Kyle Alexander over at Raw Charge said that Masin was “dependable and consistent” but didn’t appear to have a very high NHL ceiling. Prior to the 2015-16 season, Hockey’s Future stated that, “Long-term, his size and skating ability suggest he can be an effective defender at the NHL level one day”, but also pointed out Masin’s liabilities, including an injury history that seems to have slowed down Masin’s overall development path. Last summer, Masin was ranked at #16 on Raw Charge’s Top 25 Under 25, and writer Hardev Lad pointed out several other unexpected barriers:
“While the third-year pro was still tasked with playing on the left side of the two primary defensemen, his role in the offensive zone was diminished. Combine that with his shooting luck falling to a third of what it was and Masin’s 24-point season in 2018 fell to 12 points in 2019.”
Masin’s points up-ticked in 2019-20, where he managed 14 points in 59 games. Had the season continued, it probably would have been safe to assume he’d surpass his previous career high of 24 points set in 2017-18. However, the season did end early, and there is still much uncertainty to the upcoming AHL season. In all honesty, Masin is probably no closer to an NHL spot than he was at the start of his career.
Why is all of this important? Well, Amur Khabarovsk of the KHL recently announced that they have signed Masin to a contract for the 2020-21 season. Tampa has a history of re-signing their RFA’s, and it could be assumed that the Lightning will re-sign Masin and either let him play out next season in the KHL or bring him back to Syracuse once the AHL restarts. However, The Peterborough Examiner recently went so far as to say that Masin is leaving the Lightning organization as a free agent. Although that has not been confirmed by Tampa Bay, it certainly is conceivable that both the Lightning and Masin have realized it’s time to part ways.
Masin has been a consistent presence in the top-two pairings in Syracuse for the past few seasons. Although this will save the organization some money, it will be a challenge for Tampa if it has to replace the experience and talent Masin, Gaunce, and Sieloff all brought to Syracuse.
In a trade of struggling defensemen who needed a scenery change, Stephens was acquired by the Lightning from Buffalo on November 24, 2019 in exchange for Matt Spencer. Stephens, signed to an ELC, had yet to make much of a splash in the AHL and had played the majority of his professional career with ECHL Cincinnati.
The change of scenery worked well for Stephens, who played in 38 games for the Crunch before the season halted. He netted 6 assists and yielded a minus-seven rating. He probably will want to work on that last stat, but, as stated, the Crunch’s blue line was kind of a disaster as a whole last season, so…
Stephens will be an inexpensive option for the Lightning that will keep some depth in Syracuse.
Much like Masin, Thomas was drafted by the Lightning at the 2014 NHL Draft (fourth round, 119th overall). Also like Masin, Thomas has played in Syracuse for four seasons, pushing through his ELC and into a one-year “show me” contract, which he was signed to last July. One final similarity: Thomas is probably no closer to his cup of coffee in the NHL.
However, Thomas seemed to come into his own a bit this past season with the Crunch, at least enough to get noticed a bit more by those who cover the team. In his end of the season awards article, writer Justin G. of Raw Charge considered Thomas his “Unsung Player of the Year” (in a tie with forward Ross Colton):
“It was a crossroads season for Thomas. Entering his fourth full season in the organization, he seemed to have stagnated a bit in his development. There were enough turnovers or erratic decisions to make you wonder if he was ever going to get it. In fact, even early in the season it looked like it would be a little more of the same, but then he really turned it around – especially at a time when the Crunch needed it.
“…the defense [last season] was a bit of a mess. Then in February, things got even messier with injuries and recalls. During that time, Thomas really stepped up and started to show a little of the potential that makes him an intriguing prospect. With the added playing time, he started making better reads on the ice.”
— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) February 15, 2020
Thomas finished the 2019-20 season with three goals and 13 assists in 56 games with Syracuse. He probably won’t be cracking the Lightning lineup this season if Tampa does decide to retain him, but he’d be another inexpensive option to keep around. If he continues on the path he started on towards the end of last season, the Crunch could certainly continue to use him as a depth player. And, with four seasons under his belt, he has the potential to develop into a leader in the dressing room.
THE CONTRACTED PLAYERS
Foote is the defensive prospect closest to the NHL in the organization. His ELC lasts one more season, so he’d be a great option for a cash-strapped Lightning to use in 2020-21. Foote was second in points among those on Syracuse’s blue line in 2019-20, with 28 points (6g, 22a) in 62 games. He led all defensemen on the team in power play goals with three, although that wasn’t a difficult feat, as the only other defenseman to score a power play goal for Syracuse last season was Gaunce (he scored one).
Foote was part of the handful of Crunch players invited to Tampa’s Phase 3 training camp this past July. Although he didn’t make it onto the final roster, he made a positive impression on those who watched him during the training camp. He participated in several scrimmages throughout that time, and Justin G. had the following to say about Foots’ performance in a recap for Raw Charge:
“Cal Foote had a couple of solid plays. His play was reminiscent of the first few games he played in Syracuse as a rookie. It was a little tentative at times, almost as if he’s overthinking things and trying not to make a mistake. Then there are flashes where you can see the inherent talent. He made a nice play in traffic behind the net to get the puck out of danger and his positioning was pretty good throughout the game. It’s not unreasonable to think he has a shot to make the team out of camp next season.”
During his final interviews with media after the AHL season was declared over, Crunch Head Coach Ben Groulx discussed Foote’s progress:
“Very good second year for Footer…more mature in his game, better reads on the ice. I think he had a slow start this year. You know, second year…you want to do too much. So many guys go through that, second year…I remember we sat down with him at one point, and we talked about his positioning on the ice, and he acknowledged it…he understood quickly what he had to do, and from that I believe he was a much better player…he was more physical in our zone, better gas, better stick, better at finding the net.
“He’s got a great shot, and he’s gotta put the puck on net more often…he’s a young player…I think he’s another guy that needs two or three years. Skating’s gotta get better, no doubt about it, but good person, he wants to play in the NHL, and he’s another guy that understands more and more that nothing will be given to (him).”
Many are hoping Foote is ready to make the jump. If he doesn’t right away, it’s probably only a matter of time, which will be another large blow to a defense that was clearly not up to snuff last season to start with. Foote has 6o points (17g, 43a) over his career with Syracuse. That total includes six power play goals. He also had a plus-11 rating during that span.
Witkowski’s history with the organization is a bit complicated. Originally drafted 160th overall by the Lightning in 2008, his first full season with Syracuse was in 2013-14. He played the better part of three seasons with the Crunch (while also getting some solid NHL time) until 2016-17. That season, Witkowski was elected as team captain, but his tenure was short-lived: he only played 19 games with the C on his sweater before a recall by Tampa kept him in the NHL for the remainder of the season. The Lightning elected not to re-sign him after that season, and Witkowski went on to play sparingly for the Detroit Red Wings for two seasons.
The Lightning brought Witkowski back into the fold for 2019-20, signing him to a two-year contract. The expectation from the start was that he’d go down to Syracuse and lead — indeed, he was elected team captain for a second time this past December — but his trip back to the Salt City was delayed due to injuries and some initial start-of-the-season tinkering in Tampa Bay.
By the time he finally did arrive, Syracuse was already struggling, and it seemed a bit too late to get firm leadership into place. That high ankle sprain he suffered around Sieloff’s arrival at the end of December didn’t help the team’s efforts to get things back on track. The late arrival, the injury, and the early end to the AHL’s season limited Witkowski’s presence on the ice in Syracuse to 29 games.
Hopefully Witkowski and the Crunch will be able to set competitive expectations right from the start of this upcoming season, especially with so many potential changes at defense. It’s very possible that Witkowski will be one of the few familiar faces remaining on Syracuse’s blue line in 2020-21, but it’s also possible that the Lightning decides to keep him around as a depth option (either on defense or at forward, a switch Witkowski has been known to make throughout his career). Witkowski managed six points (2g, 4a) during his shorted regular season with Syracuse, but has 45 career points with the team during the regular season (9g, 36a). Witkowski has 131 career NHL games (66 of which were with the Lightning), two goals, and 11 assists.
Day was signed to a one-year, two-way contract this past July, so he is a bit of an unknown at this point. Day was contracted with the New York Rangers, but had his entry-level deal terminated a year early. He has skated in 62 AHL games with the Hartford Wolf Pack (totaling four goals and 18 points) and 55 ECHL games with Maine (totaling nine goals and 35 points). He’s expected to provide depth, something the Crunch will clearly need.
The biggest unknown of the group, Semykin was signed to his ELC by the Lightning this past May. It has been rumored that Semykin, who was drafted by the Lightning in 2018 (3rd round, 90th overall), was coming over to North America this upcoming season. However, it’s very possible that those plans have changed with so much uncertainty in the league. Semykin will remain a big question mark until more information is available.
NO LONGER UNDER CONTRACT
News broke just last week that the Lightning have decided to part ways with Sosunov with a year remaining on his ELC. Sosunov never managed to figure out a way to crack Syracuse’s lineup consistently and, more importantly, never really managed to stay healthy.
Tampa Bay #Lightning have placed LD Oleg Sosunov on 'Unconditional Waivers' for the purpose of contract termination.
— CapFriendly (@CapFriendly) August 15, 2020
Sosunov was drafted by Tampa Bay in 2016 (#178 overall). He got in four games with Syracuse this past season, and played in 20 games in Syracuse during the 2018-19 season, scoring one goal and five assists over those two seasons. He has spent the majority of his professional career so far with ECHL Orlando.
In 2018-19, he found his time in Syracuse cut short by injuries. Sosunov again ran into some injury trouble this past November, suffering a knee injury that kept him out of the Crunch’s lineup for a month and a half. He returned for two games before being sent to Orlando. Although he was reassigned to Syracuse in February, he didn’t get a chance to get a game in before the season was halted.
A year ago, NHL.com Correspondent Corey Long talked to Lightning Assistant General Manager and Crunch General Manager Stacy Roest about Susunov during Tampa Bay’s development camp. Roest commented on the need for Sosunov to get ice time in 2019-20.
“That was kind of our plan from Day One, to use [last season] as kind of a learning year. Now you can see he’s skating better, he’s obviously big and strong (6-foot-9, 236 pounds). We are happy with where he is development-wise, but he’s going to have to play this year [2019-20].”
Unfortunately, Sosunov didn’t really get the chance to play last season, and apparently two seasons of fractured play without much progress was enough for Tampa to show him the door. Hopefully things will be different for him with another organization.
|???||Probably back (but…)||Gone|
|Valleau||Foote (could be slated for NHL)|
|Semykin||Witkowski (could be slated for NHL)|
Can I end an article with just, woof?