SYRACUSE, N.Y. – The American Hockey League set a deadline of January 4th, 2021 for their teams to decide one big question: Were they going to be in or out for a shortened 2020-21 season?
Monday, the Syracuse Crunch announced they are decidedly “In.”
Opted in 👊 pic.twitter.com/3no4At0trz
— Syracuse Crunch (@SyracuseCrunch) January 4, 2021
That decision has been made, but there’s still much to be figured out in order for the team to play. At the moment, fans being allowed to watch a game in person is an impossibility. Syracuse owner Howard Dolgon was recently quoted by Syracuse.com as saying that the team is “going in anticipating we’re not going to have any revenue,” and speculated that fans in New York probably wouldn’t be allowed to see a game live until April or May. A possible venue change might be allowed if the organization finds that their usual barn, the Upstate Medical University Arena, is too expensive to operate without fans, but which building the team might move to is still very much unknown.
One point regarding playing out of a different facility: there are all sorts of league regulations regarding minimum requirements for a playing facility (I’ve seen the list, and it’s mind-numbingly detailed), so that is something to remember.#AHL
— PATRICK WILLIAMS (@pwilliamsNHL) January 4, 2021
How the schedule will play out is also a pretty big question mark, but in the same interview quoted above, Dolgon discussed keeping contests based in geographic areas to eliminate overnight stays. Naturally, this has changed the look of the AHL’s Divisional landscape. The league’s 2019-20 North Division, which is where the Crunch played last season, contained eight teams: Syracuse, Belleville, Binghamton, Cleveland, Laval, Rochester, Toronto, and Utica. In 2020-21, Syracuse will remain in the North Division, but it’s going to look a little different: Syracuse, Binghamton, Cleveland, Hershey, Lehigh Valley, Rochester, Utica, and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. This new, temporary alignment eliminates any border crossings and keeps things fairly local to the Central New York team.
28 teams will be participating in @TheAHL‘s 2020-21 season, which opens Feb. 5
— AHL Communications (@AHLPR) January 4, 2021
The AHL’s Eastern Conference usually plays 76 games every season. In 2020-21, teams will play a schedule that’s much less. On a conference call with media Monday evening, Dolgon laid out his personal aims for Syracuse’s season:
Dolgon said he’s submitted a schedule matrix to the league, ideally playing 20ish-30ish games against nearby teams
— Syracuse Hockey (@syrhockey) January 4, 2021
That number of games should leave room for rescheduling if there is a need (and there most likely will be). Although there are currently no professional sports teams playing in the CNY area, some college sports – most notably Syracuse University basketball – are competing. Both the women’s program and the men’s program have had games rescheduled and opponents switched during their seasons because of positive COVID tests. Although Crunch players won’t be living on a college campus (thankfully…), care will most certainly need to be taken by everyone within the organization to try to stay healthy, a phrase that has now taken on an entirely different meaning than usual.
Speaking of the players, the AHL farm team of the Tampa Bay Lightning will look very different than the last time it took the ice in March 2020. Turnover among AHL clubs is usually a given regardless as veterans come and go and as prospects graduate to the NHL, but things are even more different this time around. Among the usual comings-and-goings, three factors will change the look of the team even more than usual:
- The NHL’s implementation of a “Taxi Squad”
- The potential for the Crunch to have dual affiliations with the Lightning and with another NHL club
- A potential deal with the Canadian Hockey League (CHL) to let underage players play in the AHL
The NHL’s Taxi Squad is by far the biggest factor that will, to be frank, wreak havoc with the Crunch’s roster. Julian Brisebois, the Lightning’s general manager, recently spoke to how he envisions the squad working in the organization:
BriseBois on how he plans to use the taxi squad this season: “We’re looking at the taxi squad as a complement to our NHL roster and we are looking to use that taxi squad to help us win games at the NHL level. It’s not a development tool, it’s a competitive tool.” #Bolts
— Bryan Burns (@BBurnsNHL) January 3, 2021
This creates an immediate assumption: If players with the taxi squad aren’t developing, then the Lightning will only be putting those players who don’t need to develop on it, which means those battle-hardened AHL vets young prospects (and fans) always looked to for leadership probably won’t be available. This strategy, while completely understandable, will leave a very young roster in Syracuse in its wake.
Looking at the Crunch’s current list of available players, it’s probably safe to assume that the following players will be attached to the Taxi Squad, at least at first:
Alex Volkov (LW)
Alex Barre-Boulet (LW)
Ross Colton or Gemel Smith (C)
Andreas Borgman (LD)
Luke Witkowski (RD)
Chris Gibson or Spencer Martin (G)
NHL teams have to have three goalies hanging around at all times this season, so chances are either Gibson or Martin will get the nod. Writer Hardev Lad of Raw Charge is leaning towards Martin, while I’m on Team Gibson. Either way, unless the organization takes Clint Windsor from the Orlando Solar Bears in the ECHL, the organization is still short a goalie in Syracuse. Lad also slated Colton into the center spot, while I’m leaning towards Smith.
So, who does that leave Syracuse with? Well…
Boris Katchouk – Colton or Smith – Taylor Raddysh
Daniel Walcott – Jimmy Huntington – Ryan Lohin
Alexei Lipanov (? – currently playing with Dynamo Krasnogorsk)
Maxim Cajkovic (? – currently playing with Bratislava Capitals)
Ben Thomas – Alex Green
Sean Day – Dmitri Semykin
Some combination of Gibson/Martin/Windsor/Unknown Player
Forward Boo Nieves, who is currently with the Lightning in camp on a tryout contract, could also be added to this mix.
Clearly, there’s still some question marks here, and a lot of holes. Although the Lightning could go out and sign some AHL contracts to fill spots (I hear Cameron Gaunce is still available…), there are two other potentials to explore that could offer explanations.
From the start of all this, it was rumored that some NHL teams could set up temporary duel affiliations with some AHL teams if their own farm club wasn’t able to play. Early Monday, rumors surfaced the Lightning was interested in a dual affiliation to help fill out Syracuse’s roster, and that a potential target had already been identified:
One source close to the situation said, as of last night, expectation then was a dual affiliation w/ #TBLightning in Syracuse.
— Tony Androckitis (@TonyAndrock) January 4, 2021
Monday night, it was confirmed that the Checkers were opting out of the 2020-21 season. Charlotte is fairly geographically isolated from the rest of the league, which would make the league’s target of limiting/eliminating overnight travel impossible. It would certainly make sense for them to pair with a team up north. Syracuse is surrounded by a host of AHL teams, all within an easy bus ride. A dual affiliation, while not an ideal development strategy, would most certainly work as a temporary way to fill out Syracuse’s roster, and there are certainly worse teams to be paired with than Charlotte (the Checkers won the Calder Cup in 2019). However, I must stress that whether this will even happen – and whether it will be with Florida/Charlotte if it does – has not been confirmed. Two other AHL teams – Milwaukee (Nashville) and Springfield (St. Louis) – also opted out, so their NHL affiliates will also be looking for places for their players to land.
Potential Addition of CHL Players
The CHL is currently unable to play, which leaves a host of young talent – usually too young for the AHL’s age limit of 20 – idle. To solve this problem – and to create an agreement that could potentially bolster AHL rosters – it appears as though the leagues are trying to come to a temporary partnership:
A team source reached out to mention NHL teams can have their CHL prospects play in the AHL up until their CHL league gets going and that is something the Canadiens might like to do with Kaiden Guhle. Would be rare opportunity to work with a young CHL prospect at the pro level.
— Аrpon Basu (@ArponBasu) January 4, 2021
If an agreement of this kind was reached, there are several players within the Lightning’s system that could be added to Syracuse’s roster:
Jack Finley (Currently loaned to the West Kelowna Warriors of the BCHL)
Jaydon Dureau (Currently loaned to the Melville Millionaires of the SJHL)
Declan McDonnell (Kitchener Rangers – OHL)
Gabriel Fortier (Moncton Wildcats – QMJHL)
Jack Thompson (Sudbury Wolves – OHL/Surahammars IF – loan)
Quinn Schmiemann (Kamloops Blazers – WHL)
(I want to extend a big “Thank you!” to Geo of Raw Charge for helping me figure out all of the players across the organization. Phew!)
Today’s announcement has gone a long way towards easing the minds of the fans in Syracuse. Yes, there will be hockey for them to cheer on this season! However, it also created a bushel of questions, and the Lightning organization has a fairly limited timeframe to answer them all. Thankfully, if there’s one thing this partnership is known for, it’s operating well under pressure.
Dolgon said they should have plenty of time to prepare, if start season on Feb. 5 maybe begin preparations by Jan 20ish
— Syracuse Hockey (@syrhockey) January 4, 2021
All bets should be on the organization pulling this off by the league’s target date of February 5th.
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.