SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Most of the leaves are past peak colors in the Central New York area. The skies are turning grey, the weather moving from sunny and dry to darker and more damp. The Syracuse Crunch should have had their home opening night already, although when that exact date might have been is lost in the same metaphorical junk drawer as many of the other events of 2020. Most of the hallmarks of the autumn season — NHL training camps, NHL preseason, the start of the NHL regular season, AHL training camps, AHL opening nights — have gone the way of pumpkin and harvest festivals, unable to be celebrated or observed in many areas.
It’s an unnatural fall that’s been made even weirder by the presence of NHL free agency just this past month. Contracts, signings, and rosters are supposed to be (mostly) figured out by now, but in a year that’s been in a category of its own, even those certainties have been torn asunder.
The Tampa Bay Lightning have had, by most accounts, a lackluster free agency so far. After ending the 2020 NHL summer playoffs with a bang and a Stanley Cup, the organization has gone mostly behind closed doors, only signing a handful of players for themselves and potential roster players for AHL Syracuse while trying to work out a cap crunch that seems nearly impossible to negotiate. Writer Hardev Lad of Raw Charge recently summed this all up quite nicely:
The Tampa Bay Lightning seem to be one of the only teams that hasn’t made a move…and I’m starting to wonder when something is going to happen. We know the story – three RFAs, no cap space, need to move someone, they all have trade clauses, etc…Maybe the Lightning are waiting for arbitration to pass, money to start circulating again, and they can make a move in early November. But at the end of the day, it appears as though no team is willing to help the Cup champs out of this jam, possibly even with a sweetener on top.
What does this mean for the Crunch? Well, with so many moving parts still needing oiling at the NHL level, Syracuse’s roster feels mostly unsettled. Where everyone will land come the start of the 2020-21 season — whenever that may be — will definitely depend on what moves Tampa is able to make in the coming weeks.
All of the contract information below is based on what’s currently available at CapFriendly.
…and What it Means for Syracuse
The Lightning organization saw the departure of defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk, Jan Rutta, and Zach Bogosian, leaving them at a dangerously low and unusual threshold of only six NHL-ready defensemen currently on their roster. To make matters more stressful, two of those defensemen — Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev — are restricted free agents who did not accept their initial qualifying offers. Tampa still retains their rights, and it is expected that both will sign eventually, but negotiations there have apparently gotten sticky.
Defenseman Dominik Masin also did not accept his qualifying offer, opening up a hole on Syracuse’s roster. He is not expected to return and has already been playing in the KHL this season. Speaking of holes in Syracuse, stalwart veteran defenseman Cameron Gaunce, who has been with Syracuse for the past two seasons, was not re-signed by the Lightning. Nolan Valleau, who was on an AHL pact with the Crunch this past season, was also not brought back, nor was Patrick Sieloff or Devante Stephens.
As of right now, here’s how things are playing out at defense for Syracuse:
|Right-handed defensemen||Left-handed defensemen|
|Cal Foote||Andreas Borgman|
|Luke Witkowski||Sean Day|
Of note: Not included in this list is Daniel Walcott. While still listed officially by both leagues as a defenseman, Walcott seems mighty comfortable at forward, and has mostly played in that position for Syracuse for the past few seasons.
Out of everyone, Cal Foote seems to be the one Lightning fans are counting on to be ready to make the jump and begin to refill their depth on the blueline. Syracuse captain Luke Witkowski could be a bubble player, hovering right on that line between the AHL and the NHL, as could newly-signed defensemen Andreas Borgman. Ben Thomas, Dmitri Semykin, Sean Day, and Alex Green will probably be solidly in Syracuse, but a list of four certainties isn’t much comfort for Crunch fans.
On the forward side, the Lightning organization said goodbye to Carter Verhaeghe, who did not accept the Lightning’s qualifying offer and was later signed by the Florida Panthers. The organization has a few other restricted free agents who are still pending, most notably Anthony Cirelli, who is expected to take up a good chunk of Tampa’s change. Alexander Volkov and Mathieu Joseph are also still in negotiations. Both saw time with Syracuse this past season, but as they could easily be looked at as NHL depth in 2020-21, I’m going to assume that’s the plan.
Luckily for Syracuse, the Lightning was able to settle with Mitchell Stephens, Gemel Smith, and Ross Colton. The latter two could start the season in Syracuse, but Verhaeghe’s departure could have opened up a spot for Smith to start the season with Tampa. The Lightning is also currently trying to figure out another situation that could majorly affect Syracuse: The Tyler Johnson Question. On October 9, the Lightning put Johnson on waivers, apparently dangling him in the hopes of another team claiming him (and, in effect, getting around Johnson’s no-trade clause). Johnson cleared the next day, leaving the Lightning still on the hook.
Teams have interest in Johnson, but aren’t interested in relieving cap pressure in Tampa Bay without the Lightning eating a portion of the money or including a legit sweetener to make a deal. https://t.co/BdGs8Rg5Jn
— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) October 10, 2020
How the Lightning moves forward now might be crucial in really seeing what the Crunch’s roster will look like, especially if the front office has to toss in a prospect or two to make a trade happen. Regardless, here’s how Syracuse currently breaks down at forward:
|Left Wing||Right Wing||Center|
|Boris Katchouk||Taylor Raddysh||Alex Barré-Boulet|
|Gabriel Fortier||Gemel Smith|
|Daniel Walcott||Ross Colton|
|Nikita Pavlychev (AHL contract)||Jimmy Huntington|
Of note: Forward Alexey Lipanov, originally expected to make a go of it in Syracuse, was loaned recently to the VHL. Whether he returns once the AHL gets going remains to be seen.
Out of those listed above, it is hoped by many Tampa fans that Alex Barré-Boulet will be ready to make the NHL jump. Out of those in the prospect cupboard, he is probably the closest. Colton could be in line for his first cup of coffee eventually, as could Taylor Raddysh and/or Boris Katchouk. Walcott will be patrolling the Crunch’s ice again with his usual protective physicality. Gabriel Fortier, Jimmy Huntington, Ryan Lohin, and Nikita Pavlychev will be solidly in Syracuse (or maybe ECHL Orlando, depending on how the cards shake out).
Overall, the Crunch look most secure in net for 2020-21. At the very least, fans know what the plan is there. The Lightning signed goalie Chris Gibson to a one-year contract on October 9, effectively filling Syracuse’s vacant veteran netminder spot. Gibson appeared in 25 games with the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers last season, with 10-8-5 record, a 2.78 goals-against average, and .914 save percentage. Backing up Gibson will be Spencer Martin, who Tampa re-signed on 10/9. Martin went 12-11-5 in Syracuse last season, with a 3.00 goals-against average and .897 save percentage.
Overall, what happens with the Lightning’s cap situation — and who they end up trading to make it all work — will have pretty big implications at the AHL level. This will end up being a major factor in how many of the players listed above actually end up taking the ice in Syracuse this upcoming season. Some players might get traded, some might end up as NHL depth (maybe sooner than expected?), and some might get shifted down in an attempt to bury their salary in the minors. It could be that things remain up in the air right up to the start of the regular season.
It will certainly be interesting to see how this all shakes out, both for Syracuse and for the organization as a whole.
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