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Crunch Players Potentially Headed into “The Bubble”

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – The Tampa Bay Lightning are currently preparing to head into “the bubble” in Toronto for the eventual start of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Crunch Players Potentially Headed into “The Bubble”

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – The Tampa Bay Lightning are currently preparing to head into “the bubble” in Toronto for the eventual start of the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Lightning’s first exhibition game is currently scheduled for Noon ET on July 29.

As they move towards their first playoff game versus Washington on August 3, the Lightning are eventually going to need to cut one player from their current Phase 3 training camp roster of 29 skaters. As of July 22, the Lightning have 19 forwards, 10 defensemen, and four goalies in camp. Eight of those 29 players on the Lightning’s current roster featured heavily in Syracuse this past season, and they deserve an in-depth look at how they got selected (and who might get left behind with Tampa’s efforts to get to 28 skaters).

FORWARDS

Alex Barre-Boulet

Barre-Boulet has been a player to keep an eye on every since he hit the AHL two seasons ago. During the 2018-19 season, the forward played in all of Syracuse’s 74 regular season games, scoring 34 goals and netting 34 assists. His efforts that season earned him a part of the league scoring title and Willie Marshall Award (an honor he shared with fellow Crunch player Carter Verhaeghe). He was also awarded the Dudley “Red” Garrett Memorial Award for outstanding rookie. He was a large part of the Crunch’s power play throughout the season, racking up 17 power play goals.

This past season, Barre-Boulet appeared poised to beat his previous season’s totals before the AHL froze their season in March. In 60 games with Syracuse, he had 29 goals, 27 assists, and nine power play goals. He was selected for the league’s All-Star Game in January, and voted as an AHL Second-Team All-Star at the end of the truncated season.

It is probably not bold to assume that Barre-Boulet will not be one of the players cut as the Lightning looks to get to their final roster. The Lightning’s upcoming cap crunch (no pun intended) is well documented, and being able to promote Barre-Boulet could be a big help. Seeing what the speedy forward can do throughout this NHL’s return to play and the playoffs will go a long way towards assessing if he’s ready.

Barre-Boulet recently verbalized what he’s working on during the Lightning’s camp and where his motivation is at.

“I still need to work on my game. I still need to work on my speed and all the details. But I’m here to work hard and prove myself to the organization. At the end of the day, they’re making the decision. I don’t know how far I am, but being here helps me a lot.”

Mathieu Joseph

Joseph was a bit of a surprise addition to Syracuse this past season. He was sent down by the Lightning towards the end December, returning to the Crunch for the first time since earning an NHL roster spot the previous Fall. Although the organization juggled him a little throughout the middle part of the season, he played the majority of his games during that that time with Syracuse, amassing six goals and 15 assists in 29 games.

Joseph never appeared to let any attitude about being sent down get the in way of his work ethic, and the time he put in while in the AHL again has clearly paid off. His current time with Tampa is surely being looked at as a mini audition to see if he has gotten enough of his game back to be in the NHL full-time again.

Gemel Smith

Smith was a strong addition to the Crunch this past season. Hard working and community oriented, Smith immediately fit into into the existing vibe and dressing room culture in Syracuse. While the Crunch itself struggled to get their season off the ground at first this past season, Smith seemed tireless. During a particularly rough stretch for the team towards the middle of December, Smith scored five goals and netted a hat trick over three road games (December 11-14). The effort was more than enough to earn him the nod as AHL Player of the Week.

Smith has five AHL seasons under his belt. Last 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.

If there’s anything that could make the Lightning leave Smith behind, it’s his in-betweener status. Before he was loaned to Syracuse from Tampa, he scored one goal in three NHL games with the Lightning at the start of the 2019-20 season. Smith has 83 career NHL games and 21 points (12g, 9a) but he’s never managed to make the NHL stick. However, that experience could edge him forward of other players with less.

Alexander Volkov

Volkov is another player the Lightning is probably keeping a close eye on with next season in mind. Volkov is in the final year of his entry-level contract and just managed to get his cup of coffee in the NHL this past season, netting one assist in nine games with the Lightning. The rest of the season was spent with Syracuse, where he totaled 30 points (9g, 21a) in 46 games.
His single NHL assist was hard-earned and, to be honest, quite pretty (Heads up — The audio is a little wonky):

As an upcoming restricted free agent, Volkov has every reason to want to impress and get his chance to shine, while the Lightning has every reason to want to see what the forward can do.

Luke Witkowski

The Lightning made the interesting choice to bring Witkowski to their camp as a forward. Witkowski had been playing as a defenseman during his time in Syracuse, although he’s switched back and forth depending on organizational needs throughout his career. That flexibility and willingness to go where his team needs him may be the thing that keeps him hanging around as the Lightning move forward.

Witkowski is in his second career stint with the Lightning organization, so he is well accustomed to their systems and way of doing things. Although pretty much always slated for the Crunch this past season, he did spend 12 games with Tampa at the start of the 2019-20 season, adding a goal and an assist to his career total of 13 points in the NHL. During that time, Witkowski played as a right wing, not on the blue line.

Witkowski was elected captain in Syracuse once he joined the team, an achievement he also was granted during his first time through the organization, although the Crunch didn’t really get to benefit much from his presence. The late send-down combined with a mid-season injury limited his playing time to just 29 games. Playing as a defenseman, Witkowski totaled 6 points (2g, 4a).

DEFENSEMEN 

Cal Foote

With Witkowski playing at forward, Foote is technically the only representation of the Crunch’s blue line to crack Tampa’s training camp roster. Being honest, though, he is also the only one expected, as the Lightning’s prospect pool at this position is growing rather shallow.

Foote is arguably the only legitimate defensive prospect even close to the NHL right now. Ben Thomas and Dominik Masin have already racked up four seasons with Syracuse and look no closer to being NHL regulars, so it wasn’t really a surprise that they were not invited to Tampa’s Phase 3 camp. Foote has played two full seasons with the Crunch and has clearly grown in his confidence and in his skills. Had the AHL season continued, Foote would have easily surpassed his point total from the 2018-19 season. During that season, Foote totaled 31 points (10g, 21a); at the time of the stoppage this past March, Foote was at 28 points (6g, 22a).

Foote’s play improved so much that many were already calling for him to get his cup of coffee at the NHL level during this past season. This past December, Geo over at Raw Charge spoke highly of Foote’s potential to make a positive impact with Tampa.

“Foote was the Lightning’s first round pick, 14th overall in 2017. He’s got the kind of size the Lightning love in their defensemen at 6’4” and 220 pounds. He’s not as physical as his size might lead you to believe he would be, but he uses his body well in shielding the puck and battling on the boards.”

As with some of the other players on this list, the Lightning is surely keeping a very close eye on Foote to see if he could make an impact during the playoffs, or slot into Tampa’s roster next season.

GOALIES

Scott Wedgewood

Wedgewood was technically the Crunch’s number one netminder this past season, but injury limited him to just 26 games played in a Syracuse sweater. He amassed a 13-8-2-1 record with a 3.01 goals against average (GAA) and a 0.893 save percentage (SV%). He did well adjusting to the organization and became involved in the community during his time with the team.

However, one doesn’t really expect the Lightning to give Wedgewood playing time unless it is an absolute last resort. Wedgewood only signed on for one season, so the Lightning has very little investment in seeing him play. Teams can take an unlimited number of goalies with them to their bubble cities, so it certainly makes sense to bring the organization’s number three along for the ride. However, expect Lightning backup Curtis McElhinney to get any minutes that are left if and when Andrei Vasilevskiy needs a break.

Spencer Martin

Martin was the Crunch’s backup goalie and the organization’s fourth netminder this past season. Given the precarious state of the NHL’s return, it made sense for Tampa to take advantage of the rules and bring Martin along to their Phase 3 camp. It certainly was a great opportunity for him, giving him a chance to get more practice in and to work with Tampa’s goalie coach, so he probably isn’t complaining.

Martin did fine in his role of backup in Syracuse this past season as he took on a heavier workload than expected at the start of the season. In 33 games with the Crunch, he had a 9-10-2-3 record, a 3.00 GAA, and a 0.897 SV%. However, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine that Martin — who has 158 games of AHL experience with three different organizations and no NHL time — won’t stick around for the team’s trip to Toronto.

Although NHL teams can take an unlimited number of goalies with them, they can only take 50 personal members total, including players. Bringing four goalies along seems a bit much. Martin will be an unrestricted free agent this off season, so Tampa has no real investment in him.

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!

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