SYRACUSE, N.Y. – There’s a lot right now that isn’t known about the 2020-21 AHL season. Scheduling, opening nights, arena capacities, sponsors, and (in many cases) even what AHL front offices will look like in a few months are all unknowns. COVID-19 has turned much more than just sports upside down, but for the many who take comfort in the familiarity of their favorite team, it’s all too easy to be (very) concerned about the future of it all.
With things so uncertain, wanting something concrete to hold onto is completely understandable. The official offseason for hockey is still months away (writing that in July will never stop being weird), but I’m sure I’m not the only one obsessing over anything that is already confirmed. In my case, this basically translates into thinking a lot about who will still be with the Crunch and who won’t be.
Over my next three posts (minus whatever August brings for my podcast Syracuse Speaks), I’m going to break down what’s known about Syracuse’s roster for the 2020-21 season. I’ll also speculate a little. However, full disclosure, I’ve never been comfortable making educated guesses under the best of circumstances, so I readily admit that I’ll probably be proven wrong with whatever predictions I’m making during these unprecedented times. (Side note – how sick are we of hearing these unprecedented times?)
First up for this look at the Crunch’s roster: the forwards. All contract information comes from the amazing folks over at CapFriendly.
One of the things I noticed when looking at Syracuse’s potential roster is how young the team’s forward core was last season. Nine of the team’s 13 rostered forwards at the end of the 2019-20 season were still playing under their entry-level contracts. Baby-faced players like Alex Barre-Boulet, Boris Katchouk, Jimmy Huntington, Otto Somppi, and Taylor Raddysh were still at the start of their professional careers, although some were further ahead than others. AHL-contracted Peter Abbandonato, who is still young in hockey years at 22, brought the total of younglings to 10.
Out of all of the forwards to play for Syracuse last season, only Cory Conacher (unrestricted free agent), Daniel Walcott (re-signed this past April), and Gemel Smith (restricted free agent) had birthdays before the year 1996. Syracuse will “age up” a little next season, if only because of the fairly large class of restricted free agents (RFAs) the team has coming up. Alexander Volkov, Ross Colton, Dennis Yan, Mathieu Joseph, and Smith are all in the Tampa Bay Lightning’s minor league RFA class for the 2020 offseason. Smith is the only player in that group who is not at the end of his entry-level contract.
Whether the Lightning will chose to re-sign those in their RFA group or not is always a good debate, but history has me leaning on the side of all of those players continuing in the Lightning organization. Where they will be once re-signed, however, is the more interesting question, and gives us a good starting place to begin breaking this all down. For now, let’s lay all COVID-19 concerns and what a delayed start to the AHL season might do to players desire to stay in North America aside.
RFA #1: VOLKOV
Volkov is chomping at the bit to make the NHL full time. His cup of coffee with the Lightning this past season was certainly enough to cement his mentality that the NHL is where he wants to be. Volkov went with the Lightning on their trip to the 2019 NHL Global Series games in Stockholm, during which Daria Tuboltseva from Sport24.ru and Igor Eronko from Sport-Express interviewed him. The translation, painstakingly put together by Igor Nikonov of Raw Charge, made it quite clear that Volkov, in his third season of starting in Syracuse, was aiming high.
“I think you will definitely stop growing as a player on the third year. I started this season in Syracuse and it wasn’t already interesting for me, I got tired of playing hockey in the AHL.”
The real question now is whether Volkov is ready to make the full-time jump to the NHL. The forward’s inclusion on Tampa’s Phase 3 training camp roster and their Phase 4 “return to play” roster may be a positive indication in that direction.
— Tampa Bay Lightning (@TBLightning) July 26, 2020
Matthew Esteves is a credentialed writer for Raw Charge who attended almost all of Tampa’s recent camp. He had the opportunity to observe Volkov during this time, and shared some of his impressions with me.
“The young winger came into camp looking to impress the coaching staff after a so-so performance during his call-up this season. He played in nine games and registered one point during that stretch.
“Volkov’s skating still needs some improvement, but he isn’t far from where he needs to be. He’s surprisingly strong (on) the puck and isn’t afraid to get physical. His skill is easy to see, but he does have a propensity to sit back and not engage in the play at times.
“Defensively, he’s still a work in progress at the NHL level. During in-team scrimmages, Volkov’s sense and vision allowed for a few impressive plays, but there were some situations that I felt he was gripping the stick too hard.
“I feel like there are two ways for Volkov to improve. Either he is sent to Syracuse next season for at least half the year to regain his confidence, or he’s thrust into a top-six role in Tampa and allowed to go through his growing pains. There is no in between with him anymore, in my opinion.”
Assuming Volkov makes the jump next season, Syracuse/Tampa will have some work to do replacing him. The forward has 123 points (55g, 68a) in 195 games over those three seasons with the Crunch.
RFA #2: JOSEPH
Like Volkov, Joseph is a RFA who is at the end of his entry-level deal. Unlike Volkov, who was actually injured to start the 2019-20 season, He started the season in Tampa before being sent to the Crunch in December with orders to get some consistent time in and work on his game. Joseph kept his head up despite the change in leagues and played well for the Crunch, totaling six goals and 15 assists in 29 games.
His dedication while in Syracuse clearly impressed the Lightning, as Joseph has gone with Tampa to Toronto for the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Joseph, who played the entirety of the 2018-19 season with the Lightning (totaling 26 points in 70 games), is clearly angling to get back into their roster for next season. But will he be able to do it? I asked Esteves again for his opinion.
“The speedy winger was unfortunately sent back to Syracuse part way through the season due to a crowded forward corps that doesn’t allow for a lot of breathing room for extended slumps.
“He played in 37 games and scored seven points this season. Joseph’s issue appeared to be confidence to start the season, and in camp, he looked like the same speedy winger that Lightning fans fell in love with last season.
“The speed is there; it’ll always be there. but Joseph has added a bit more lateral quickness to his game. Joseph struggled to deal with defenders who would give him space and just push him to the outside of the (offensive zone) and he didn’t adapt to that (which is what hurt him this season).
“In team scrimmages, Joseph started to adapt a bit more and stopped forcing north south skating while also managing to control the puck more effectively.
“His shot is solid, nothing spectacular at the NHL level. He’s still a bit of a wildcard in the (defensive Zone), but he does appear to be a little more disciplined than before.
“Joseph deserves a spot on a NHL roster, but the only way for him to find consistency is to get playing time, and with the forward corps that TB boasts, he has to either find a niche that no one else can do or straight up outplay one of them. Both are a hard ask, but not something I feel is out of reach for Joseph.”
RFAs #3 AND #4: COLTON AND YAN
Colton really came into his own this past season in Syracuse, easily eclipsing his 2018-19 season total of 31 points. In 62 games with Syracuse during the 2019-20 shortened season, he had 42 points (11g, 31a) under his belt when the season halted at the start of March. The coaching staff was comfortable with giving him more responsibilities, including special teams play — five of Colton’s goals came on the power play.
Yan’s path has been less flashy than Colton’s, probably because it’s been much less consistent. In 2017-18, Yan missed about a third of his first season with Syracuse because of a nagging back injury. In 2018-19, he missed time in February because of injury, and also found himself pushed down the depth chart by his teammates. 2019-20 was shaping up to be Yan’s best season yet. In 50 games with the Crunch, he had 18 points (10g, 8a). He scored a goal in the team’s final game of the season at Utica on March 11th after a fairly long scoreless streak that lasted 13 games.
Colton and Yan have done fine during their first few AHL seasons, but are definitely longshots for making the NHL anytime soon. Both of them, Yan especially, need a bit more seasoning.
RFA #5: SMITH
It would be fantastic for the Crunch if Smith can continue his career resurgence with Syracuse. Smith has five AHL seasons under his belt, and his previous season with Syracuse would have definitely been his best had it not gotten cut short by the stoppage in play. In 40 games with the Crunch, Smith had amassed 40 points, tying his previous career high. He produced almost every night, only once going more than three games without a point, and was a trusted member of the Crunch’s leadership core. He earned a nod as AHL Player of the Week this past December. His five power play goals were helpful, but his one short-handed goal was even more memorable:
Smith has very little chance of making the Lightning’s roster next season, although he’s certainly strong call up fodder, especially with the loss of UFA Conacher.
UFA #1: Conacher
Syracuse losing Conacher is, quite honestly, a bit like losing a family member. Conacher has played in 354 career regular season AHL games. 224 of those games — over 60% — were played in a Crunch sweater. Conacher’s most memorable season with Syracuse came during the 2016-17 regular season and playoff run, where he teed up from “his office” with astounding regularity:
Conacher’s value to the organization as a producer and a veteran leader in Syracuse has certainly not decreased over the seasons. However, with his NHL window all but closed and a young family to support, the rumors of Conacher going overseas to play have only grown. These rumors were confirmed to be true on Tuesday, July 28, when Conacher himself posted the news on his Twitter that he was headed overseas to play for the Lausanne Hockey Club in the Swiss National League.
— Cory Conacher (@conhockey19) July 28, 2020
The uncertainties in the world (which I know I said to ignore…I’m a hypocrite) have probably made any appeals from Switzerland even harder to resist than before. While it is sad to lose such a talented player and valued community member, it was kind of expected, so I had him written out of the 2020-21 roster already.
THE REST (ALMOST): WALCOTT, KATCHOUK, HUNTINGTON, SOMPPI, RADDYSH, AND ABBANDONATO
This group is pretty easy to breeze through quickly because they’re already under contract for next season and they’re most likely looking to keep on trucking in Syracuse.
- If Conacher is family, than Walcott is the head of ’em all. The defenseman-turned-forward will be entering his sixth season with the Crunch in 2020-21 after being re-signed this past April. He was Syracuse’s 2019-20 IOA/American Specialty AHL Man of the Year as his name has become almost synonymous with the team’s charity efforts. He is also, to my knowledge, the first AHL player to buy a home in the city of Syracuse, showing his true investment in the community. In 55 games with the Crunch last season, he had 19 points (7g, 12a). If it seems like I wrote that as a footnote, it’s because that’s exactly what I did. Walcott means much more to the team than just his stats line.
- Katchouk improved nicely on his rookie season during his second go around in Syracuse. Adding on ten more points from his 2018-19 campaign, his 14-18-32 total for 2019-20 tells a nice tale of steady development. The coaching staff began to trust him more, as his three power play goals attest. It will be exciting for Crunch fans to see where his third year with the team takes him.
- Huntington had a bit of an inconsistent AHL season. He split time between the AHL and the ECHL but still managed to get in 33 games with Syracuse, where he totaled three assists. The organization will be looking for him to step up a bit more during his second pro season, and as roster spots in Syracuse shift and change, he could find himself better positioned to make a splash.
- Somppi is still a bit of an enigma, but he’s becoming less of one the more time he spends with Syracuse. Somppi scored five goals and had 13 assists in 45 games for the Crunch last season, which was much improved on his four points in 27 games the season before. Hopefully he will continue to grow and develop as he enters the final year of his entry-level contract.
- Raddysh has one big critique he needs to try to get passed as he looks towards his third season with Syracuse: his streaky play. He has long stretches where his scoring slows to a trickle, and then he’ll suddenly put up two goals in a game or score every other night for a week or two. Then his scoring will dry up again. Although roster inconsistencies in the AHL can account for some of this, the bottom line for this player is that he just needs to find a way to make it work on a consistent basis.
- Abbandonato has one pro season under his belt where he split time between the AHL and the ECHL. He will be in the second year of his two-year AHL contract in 2020-21. Finding a way to crack the Crunch’s roster more than the 27 times he managed it in 2019-20 will be a good place for the undersized forward to start.
THE POTENTIAL EXCEPTION TO THE REST: BARRE-BOULET
It’s almost certain that the Lightning is going to have to trade somebody to fit in under the cap for next season. In addition to the RFAs listed in this article, Tampa has the following pending RFAs in their own forward core to worry about: Mitchell Stephens, Anthony Cirelli, and Carter Verhaeghe. This is in addition to UFA Patrick Maroon. While Maroon could simply be a casualty of the Lightning’s contract woes, the rest are going to be harder to write off.
Could this mean some of the Crunch’s RFAs — like Smith (a player who has only been with the organization for a year) — don’t get retained? Maybe. Does it mean the Lightning will be searching for cheaper ways to fill any holes up top, especially if they move players out to clear cap space? Yes. Definitely, yes.
This past season was his second as a professional, and Barre-Boulet already has a host of career achievements to his name. He and Verhaeghe shared the Willie Marshall Award for top AHL scorer in 2018-19, and he earned the Dudley “Red” Garrett Memorial Award for outstanding rookie all on his own that season, too.
This past season, he was selected for the league’s All-Star Game in January, and was voted as an AHL Second-Team All-Star at the end of the truncated season. He was fifth in league scoring when play stopped, and it isn’t hard to imagine he was aiming to climb higher.
Although he was left off of Tampa’s final roster for playoffs this season, it’s easy to blame the restrictions for that. So, the question is, has the AHL taught him all he needs to know? Will he stop growing as a player if he ends up doing a third year in the AHL, like Volkov said players often do? Only time will tell, but I predict he makes the cut and joins the Lightning out of camp for 2020-21.
THE UNKNOWNS: LIPANOV, FORTIER, & LOHIN
These forwards are under contract with the Lightning organization but have yet to see much, if any, time with Syracuse. Alexey Lipanov has four AHL games and 37 ECHL games under his belt. Ryan Lohin played 15 games in the ECHL last season and never cracked the AHL. Gabriel Fortier was still with the QMJHL last season, and is a Syracuse hopeful for this upcoming season. These players will get a fair shot to make the team. They might have an even better chance if, say, a prospect or two is bundled along with a prime NHL player to give the Lightning some cap breathing space.
The Crunch is going to need the Lightning to sign a veteran or two up front, especially with the loss of Conacher and the potential/probable loss of Volkov and/or Joseph and/or Barre-Boulet. Those shoes are going to be very, very hard to fill, and finding someone (or two someones) who can slide into that top-six role immediately will be essential for the Crunch.
However, Syracuse should benefit from the variety of players who have now been developing for two seasons or so and will be looking for ways to push themselves to the next level. Those players know the North American game now (if that was an issue), know how to be professionals in the organization, and should be trusted with more minutes and more pressure. How they respond to the chances they’re given — and whether they can rise to the occasion — will be key to the Crunch’s season.
Follow Alex on Twitter and listen to her on the Syracuse Speaks Podcast for all the latest news and notes regarding the Syracuse Crunch! Don’t forget to also follow The Sin Bin on Facebook and Twitter for all the latest AHL, ECHL, and SPHL minor league hockey news and analysis!