SYRACUSE, N.Y. – With 16 games in the American Hockey League’s 2020-21 regular season under their belt and 17 in front of them, the Syracuse Crunch are just about at the mid-point of their season. While that sentence seems strange to write for a number of reasons – usually this time of year is when we start discussing end-of-season results and playoff schedules – it is certainly as good of a time as any to take a look at what the Crunch has accomplished so far during this fairly intense, condensed season.
To do so, I’ve considered four main questions pertaining to the standings, COVID-19 protocols and schedule changes, transactions, and player performance based on the team’s current roster.
What do the standings say?
-Divisional Standing: 4th place, North Division (only playing three teams within that division)
-League Standing: 12th out of 28 teams
-Record vs. Rochester: 4-3-1-0
-Record vs. Utica: 1-2-0-0
-Record vs. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton: 4-1-0-0
How has the league’s COVID protocols affected the schedule?
Overall, the Crunch has had eight games changed, rescheduled, or added so far this season:
- Syracuse’s game vs. Rochester originally scheduled for Feb. 24 was moved to March 1
- Syracuse’s game at Utica originally scheduled for March 12 – which was moved to April 5 and then rescheduled again – was moved to May 7.
- Syracuse’s game at Rochester, originally scheduled for March 17 was moved to March 26
- Syracuse added a game at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on March 19*
- Syracuse’s game vs. Utica originally scheduled for March 20 was moved to April 25
- Syracuse’s game at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on March 24 was moved from 5 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. (to accommodate fans)
- Syracuse’s game vs. Utica originally scheduled for March 27 was moved to May 2.
- Syracuse’s game at Utica originally scheduled for March 31 was moved to April 13.
Due to the rescheduled games, the amount of contests that Syracuse plays in April will increase from 10 to 12. In May, Syracuse will play eight games, two more than originally scheduled.
*The Penguins were originally scheduled to face the Lehigh Valley Phantoms that night, but due to league protocols the Phantoms had to cancel. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton was welcoming their fans back into their arena and didn’t want to cancel the game, so the team asked Syracuse if they’d pinch-hit. The Crunch agreed.
What major transactions has the team seen?
Alex Barre-Boulet – Up, then Down: Barre-Boulet was recalled to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the middle of February, and made his NHL debut on February 22nd. At that point, he had played in three games for Syracuse since its season started, netting three goals and one assist. Upon his return, the forward gave Syracuse a much-needed shot of adrenaline, going 4-3 in six games for the Crunch.
— Lukas Favale (@LukasFavale) April 7, 2021
Ross Colton – Up: When they’re ready, they’re ready. That’s pretty much the motto of the AHL, and center Colton fit that description to a T. In his third season playing with the Crunch, Colton was called up to the Lightning after going 1-2 in Syracuse’s first three games of the 2020-21 season. Colton has not returned, and all signs point to him making the recall a permanent one.
Grigori Denisenko – Up, then Down: Denisenko was recalled by the Florida Panthers on February 25th. At the time he had three points (2g, 1a) in four games played for Syracuse. He got in two games for the Panthers, going scoreless. Upon his return from Florida, scored three points (2g, 1a) in his first three games back with the Crunch. He is currently seventh on the team in scoring, but the player in front of him is currently on recall to the Lightning.
Gemel Smith – Down, then Up: Although kind of a small blip on the radar of transactions this season, Smith’s brief time in Syracuse last month – he played in three games before the Lightning recalled him again – came at a fortuitous time for the team. Syracuse was struggling a little to find their footing after shaking off a five-game losing streak at the end of February, and Smith helped to provide more of a boost in both the leadership department and the scoring department. Smith scored three times in the first period of the team’s game vs. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on March 24, and threw in two helpers to boot. He was recalled two days later, but his energy sure made a lasting impression.
Ben Thomas – Up: The defenseman was 5th on the team in scoring with eight points (1g, 7a) and had a +6 when he was recalled by the Lightning on April 1st. He made his NHL debut on April 4th. It is not yet known if he will be returning to Syracuse.
Mitchell Stephens – Down: The forward was sent to Syracuse on April 2nd for a conditioning stint. Stephens is recovering from an injury that has kept him out of the Lightning’s roster since the end of January, and Tampa clearly wanted him to get some prime AHL minutes under his belt before trying to return him to NHL action. It only took three games for Stephens to score his first goal for Syracuse in 2020-21, and at the end of the first three games of his conditioning stint he has five points (1g, 4a). While he isn’t projected to be with the Crunch for long, his presence is certainly a helpful one.
Daniel Walcott – Up: Although not a prolific scorer, Walcott’s intangibles are undisputed. He’s a leader on the ice and in the dressing room, and is very well-liked in the community. His recall to the Lightning’s taxi squad just this past Tuesday evening came as a bit of a surprise, as writer Hardev Lad over at Raw Charge explains:
Here’s some funny Taxi Squad news: Daniel Walcott was on the Taxi Squad as of 5pm last night. I have no idea why he’s there — he doesn’t get paid an NHL salary on the Taxi Squad.
I can think of three scenarios here: first, the Lightning are on a road trip and need the extra bodies, Walcott is a placeholder for Colton to move to the Taxi Squad today, or there’s a trade coming soon and a forward is on their way out. The Crunch play on Wednesday, the Lightning play on Thursday.
How long Walcott will be with the Lightning is currently unknown, but the Crunch is certainly lacking in a certain amount of luster without him. Walcott was injured for about a month this season, and it was no coincidence that Syracuse righted itself around the same time he returned.
Who are the top players up to this point?
–Boris Katchouk currently leads Syracuse in scoring with 14 points (6g, 8a).
–Otto Somppi is right behind him with 12 points (4g, 8a), and has been one of Syracuse’s strongest centers all season.
-Barre-Boulet would surely have more points than his 11 (in nine games) if it wasn’t for the month he spent up with the Lightning.
Fourth career overtime game-winning goal for Alex Barre-Boulet. His first since the “memorable” one against Binghamton Nov. 30, 2019. https://t.co/Jb3brTTaxX
— Lukas Favale (@LukasFavale) April 8, 2021
-Defenseman John Ludvig has made a name for himself as of late. He has eight points (2g, 6a) and is currently a +4. Unfortunately for him and the Crunch, it looks like he’s out for the season:
— Lukas Favale (@LukasFavale) April 7, 2021
The NHL trade deadline is coming up on Monday, April 12. Although it’s always hard to guess what NHL parent clubs might do – and, one could argue, harder than most when it comes to the Tampa Bay Lightning and their Jedi ways – it’s fair to say the Crunch really doesn’t have any major or glaring deficits. Sure, the goaltending is always kind of up in the air, but with two parent clubs contributing personnel, a handful of young goalies potentially ready to make the jump next season to the AHL (Lightning prospects Hugo Alnefelt, Kristian Oldham, and/or Magnus Chrona), and AHL playoffs still a looming and giant question mark, there probably isn’t a move worth making in that area. The Lightning also has their own season and playoffs to worry about, with a tight cap situation that always complicates any trade deadline discussions.
Friedman on 31 Thoughts says he thinks the #GoBolts will try to add a D and that they are his stealth team on David Savard. Acknowledges it won’t be easy, they’ll have to move some things around, but EF feels they think they can win it again & they’ll go after someone like that.
— NHL Watcher (@NHL_Watcher) April 5, 2021
Honestly, considering the challenges Syracuse is facing this season – a schedule that changes weekly, two parent clubs with differing opinions and playing styles, and a roster that seems ever-changing – I think the Crunch are doing just fine. The focus on health and playing time has paid off so far, with prospects like Somppi gobbling up top minutes and others, like Colton and Thomas, heading up to the Lightning and getting minutes. With a little over a month left, it’s safe to say that the Crunch’s strategy probably won’t be changing. The team’s goal is still to end with everyone safe and healthy, to keep developing players for Tampa, and to look towards next season with (hopefully) a packed War Memorial filled with fans.