SYRACUSE, NY – Three and a half short months ago, we published my 2020-21 season preview for the Syracuse Crunch. At the time, the unknowns almost outshone the certainties: Dual affiliation? COVID cancellations and reschedules? COVID protocols?! Small team pods?!!
It was all too easy to just think: Madness! HOW WILL IT EVER WORK?!!?!
Well, it’s now May. The 2021 AHL regular season has come and gone, it did work, and I think it’s safe to say we’re all ready to look towards brighter, more regular times. Maybe we won’t totally forget it ever happened, but I don’t think any of us ever want to face a season like 2021 again.
While some AHL teams participating in modified playoffs in the Pacific Division, the rest of the league – including the North Division and the Crunch – opted out of a postseason. For the Crunch, in particular, their decision not to participate was multifaceted. Last month, team owner Howard Dolgon was on ESPN Syracuse, and he outlined the reasons the Crunch had decided to not participate in the playoffs:
You got players that are making a small salary (this season). We’re all taking a hit here…to ask the players to potentially play into June means another month of rent…it means another two-four weeks away from their families…we’re not playing for the Calder Cup, it will be divisional playoffs…We’re playing Utica 14 times (in the regular season). We’re playing Rochester 12 times in a short period of time. What’s a couple of playoff games going to mean when you’re not playing for anything substantial and no playoff money?…Let the players go home and rest, and start training for a full season next year.
Now that regular season play is done, and playoffs are kaput, it’s time to look back at the predictions made at the start of the season. What was on target? What was a surprise?
- Final record (W-L-OTL-SOL): 19-10-3-0
- Final divisional spot: 3rd
- Record against Utica: 7-5-2-0
- Record against Rochester: 7-4-1-0
- Record against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton: 5-1-0-0
- Leading scorer, points: Boris Katchouk, 34
- Leading scorer, goals: Taylor Raddysh and Otto Somppi, 12
- Leading defenseman, +/-:Devante Stephens, +14
- Leading defenseman, points: Sean Day, 15
- Leading defenseman, goals: Devante Stephens, 5
- Most winning goalie: Spencer Martin, 7-5-2-0, 2.83 GAA, .907 SV%
Prediction: Hot or Not?
In February, I predicted that the Crunch was going to be “hot” because of their dual affiliation with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers. With Charlotte, Florida’s usual AHL partner, opting out of the season, and Tampa needing bodies for their taxi squad, Syracuse stood to benefit from drawing from two NHL organizations. I felt that the double partnership would fill gaps in the Crunch’s roster while giving playing time to those that needed it the most.
These predictions turned out to be mostly true. From the start of the season, the two affiliates seemed to work fairly well with each other in Syracuse. Crunch head coach Ben Groulx welcomed Charlotte coach Geordie Kinnear onto his staff. Lightning organizational goalie Spencer Martin shared a net fairly equally with Florida prospect Sam Montembeault: Martin got in 15 games to Montembeault’s 13. Henry Bowlby and Chase Priskie, both players from the Panthers organization, became as familiar to fans as Gabriel Fortier and Jimmy Huntington, two of the Lightning’s more popular prospects.
Considering Syracuse’s final record and season percentage of 0.641 – Syracuse’s third-best in recent history, though admittedly, that stat comes with a COVID-shaped asterisk – it’s clear the team came together when it counted, building cohesion out of potential chaos. Groulx recently expressed a similar opinion to Syracuse.com:
We didn’t have any problems. Early on you try to understand how you’re going to make this work with those (Florida) players and the coaching staff of Florida that was in town once in awhile. But overall, I think it’s been great. Our philosophy was all of them are guests. And for five months we’re going to be one team. And this is how the Crunch is working. And after five months, well, if you really like what we did keep it with you. And if you don’t like it, well, it’s over.
Prediction: Ross Colton is a “boon” for the team
This one checks all of the boxes and then some. Ross Colton turned out to be a boon for not only Syracuse but the Lightning, as well.
Colton came into the 20-21 AHL season with some pretty high expectations on his shoulders. The shortened 19-20 AHL season was objectively his best in professional hockey, a season he set career highs for assists, points, power-play goals, penalty minutes, and game-winning goals. He started off 20-21 right where he left off the season previous, totaling three points over his first three games (1g, 2a) before the Lightning called him up. Colton made his NHL debut on February 24th, where he immediately scored a goal:
Nine goals, three assists, and 30 NHL games later, Colton has (probably) seen the last of Syracuse.
Prediction: Gabriel Fortier is poised for a big season
This one didn’t do so hot.
Fortier, one of the more anticipated rookies coming into Syracuse for 20-21, seemed to get off to a great start. He scored the Crunch’s first goal of the season on February 6th, a cathartic experience for fans and players alike who hadn’t seen or played hockey in almost a year:
Fortier scored again in that game in the third period (the 3:34 timestamp of the highlight video above) and netted another goal two games later against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. However, his pace would slow a bit after that, and he would total 10 points (6g, 4a) in 30 games at the end of the season.
Now, to be entirely fair to Fortier, he wasn’t invisible, and he certainly wasn’t a liability. For his first season in the AHL – a season that was abnormal in almost every way to boot – he did perfectly fine. Colton, for instance, had 31 points in 66 games over the course of his rookie year, a total that isn’t too far off from Fortier’s numbers when cut in half to 30-ish games to approximate the season Fortier got to play. Regardless, though, Fortier’s season wasn’t quite the bang I was looking for.
Prediction: The “Under 20” Group Will be a “Fascinating Experiment”
Fascinating experiment, smashing success, potential precedent breaker…take your pick.
This past season saw an infusion of young blood into the AHL in the form of CHL and WHL players whose leagues and teams weren’t playing because of the pandemic. To get these young prospects ice time, the “Under 20” agreement between the AHL and the CHL was temporarily suspended, allowing players from those leagues who were under twenty years old to play professionally. In March, I wrote about how well those players were meshing into the AHL landscape, and as the season went on, one thing became increasingly clear: Maybe it really is time to reassess this agreement.
A quick update on some of the players I highlighted in March:
- Declan McDonnel was one of the youngest players on the roster at 18 (he turns 19 on May 25th), and he stayed with the Crunch the whole season, playing in 16 games. He earned two assists over that time and saw work on Syracuse’s special teams.
- Jaydon Dureau, who had left the Crunch once the WHL got going, returned to Syracuse once his season with the Portland Winterhawks ended, adding one more AHL game to his resume. That game turned out to be a big one: He got his first professional point in Syracuse’s last game of the season.
- Gage Goncalves also returned to the Crunch in time for the team’s final game of the regular season and was immediately slotted in on the top line.
The old agreement between the AHL and the CHL has been quite the topic of discussion over the course of the season, with writers like Patrick Williams of EP Rinkside and Tony Ferrari of Dobber Prospects calling for it to be amended or changed. What happens next will be something many will be watching closely.
Syracuse navigated the entirety of the season without a single positive COVID case and managed to get in the number of games they were originally scheduled to play, two huge accomplishments for the organization. Syracuse general manager Stacy Roest recently spoke to reporter Lindsay Kramer about how he felt the team succeeded at their goals this season:
Every night you get your results of that day’s testing. Once a positive test comes into your group, it shuts things down and it also ultimately affects Tampa and their ability to call players up. I’m very proud of our group, and how disciplined they were. They bought into the process. It was a big success.
The staff did a great job of making sure everything happened to be able to allow us to play and all the protocols, and all the testing. And the players, they bought in. I know it was a little bit of a frustrating season for them with not being able to do much off the ice, away from the rink. But most importantly we had a lot of practice time, a lot of individual development, and then ultimately our best players and our best prospects that, for a couple years, maybe didn’t get as much ice time, I thought this year played the most and were our best players every night, so I’d say it was a huge success.
Not to be discounted is that Syracuse did all of this without the benefit of their home crowd cheering them on in person. From the start of the season to the finish, the War Memorial faithful had to face one of their most painful obstacles of the pandemic: Not being able to actually go to the War Memorial. Although both Utica and Rochester eventually started letting small groups of fans into their arenas, the Onondaga County War Memorial was quiet from February to May, something Groulx was clearly heartsick over this past April:
It’s an empty building. We score a goal, and when we score, the play stops. We shoot a puck in the net. There is no noise. There is a lot of things that are different and you adapt to that. As a pro athlete, you want all that to be put together. You want your fans. You want the excitement. You want to go play big games on the road. You want to play big games at home. It’s all that.
I think everybody is making the best out of this season, but I think everyone has an eye on next year. Hopeful that we can bring back the fans, have a regular schedule, play for the Calder Cup and be very competitive.
At the end of my season preview, I wondered how the season’s success would be measured. Going into the season, the Syracuse Crunch outlined their own two main aims for the few months of play: 1) Develop players and 2) Stay healthy. Overall, it’s clear these goals were achieved in pretty much every dimension imaginable.