After slow start, Crunch eager to turn it around

Photo: Scott Thomas

📝 by Patrick Williams

Syracuse Crunch head coach Ben Groulx never has been an easy man to please, no small reason why the Tampa Bay Lightning have back-to-back Stanley Cup championships.

“You’re [playing well],” third-year forward Jimmy Huntington begins. “But there’s something you did bad. That’s where he will go. He wants to you to not be 95 percent. One hundred percent. He’s really on it.”

Groulx is in his sixth season heading the Crunch, and that difficult-to-please approach and eye for detail reflect the Tampa Bay organization’s overall development philosophy. The Lightning have long opted to lean toward patience and dissect a player’s game to the smallest degree. The result has been a steady procession of NHL-ready talent sent from Syracuse to Tampa — Alex Barre-Boulet, Erik Cernak, Anthony Cirelli, Ross Colton, Adam Erne, Cal Foote, Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, Mathieu Joseph, Boris Katchouk, Alex Killorn, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point, Taylor Raddysh, Jan Rutta, Mitchell Stephens, and Andrei Vasilevskiy all are among the many alumni of the Lightning-Crunch affiliation era.

So, surely this season’s 5-6-2-1 start has left Groulx wanting much more, especially with the Crunch going through a five-game winless slide (0-3-1-1). But to be fair, a parade of recalls to the Lightning along with a steady diet of the Utica Comets and Cleveland Monsters — the top two teams in the North Division — on the schedule have been considerable mitigating factors that even Groulx will acknowledge, at least begrudgingly.

Nobody ever said an American Hockey League season would be easy. Fan favorite Gabriel Dumont, back in Central New York after two seasons with the Minnesota Wild organization, has a diagnosis.

“We struggled with injuries early on,” Dumont said. “We kind of kept the boat afloat to start the season, and then I feel like it hit us lately. The good thing is we know what’s wrong with our game, so we can address it. We’re working hard on it in practice and hopefully we can turn things around.

“[For] young guys in this league, it’s hard. It’s hard to be consistent. It’s hard to come and be as great as you were in junior or in college right away.”

Barre-Boulet never made it to Syracuse, first claimed on waivers by the Seattle Kraken, re-claimed on waivers by Tampa Bay, and now continuing to hammer out a full-time role with the Lightning. Forward Odeen Tufto has yet to play this season following offseason knee surgery. Goaltender Max Lagace, signed in the offseason as a likely number-one goaltender in Syracuse, was injured on opening night and missed five weeks. Forward Remi Elie and defensemen Fredrik Claesson and Andrej Sustr all have spent significant time on recall to Tampa Bay.

And then there are Syracuse’s own injuries to further complicate matters.

“I think [the start is] average,” Groulx said with a long pause hanging in the air before that final word, the sound of pucks echoing through Upstate Medical University Arena as practice wound down Tuesday. “So it’s been challenging. But not good enough, that’s for sure.”

Tonight’s match-up with the Belleville Senators begins a run of six of seven games at home. A strong homestand would set up the Crunch well by the time they leave town for a two-game trip to see the Charlotte Checkers on Dec. 10-11.

Groulx and the Crunch have been here before. In 2018-19, a 2-5-0-0 Crunch team then went on a 27-8-2-1 tear across the next three-plus months, setting a path to a North Division title. A year earlier, Syracuse had piled up 20 wins in a 23-game stretch to untangle a 4-9-1-2 start.

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Development has long been job-one in Syracuse, and several players’ promotions to the NHL have shuffled this season’s Crunch line-up dramatically. Groulx has seven players skating in the AHL for the first time, including goaltenders Hugo Alnefelt and Amir Miftakhov.

“We have a lot of new guys on our team, and what you want to do is you want to play them in the right chair,” Groulx outlined. “I think we’re still in the process of finding our game. I think we know how we have to play. I think guys understand what they have to do. But I think not having them in the right spot, it’s tough some nights on them for their confidence, for them to have success.

“I think we [have been] dealing with adversity, which I really like, to be honest, because you really see the character of your guys.”

Huntington is one such young player, a prospect that the Lightning envision as best suited for a role as a power forward at a sturdy six feet and 200 pounds. Huntington, who turned 23 last week, earned this season’s first selection as the AHL Player of the Week after he grabbed four goals in his first two games, including the first hat trick of his career Oct. 16 at Cleveland.

Huntington fits a common description for a number of players who have come through Syracuse, including Barre-Boulet and Gourde. Undrafted, he played his overage season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2018-19, breaking loose for 92 points (40 goals, 52 assists) in 66 regular-season games with Rimouski. Signed by Tampa Bay late that season, the Lightning have let him divide his first two pro seasons between Syracuse and their ECHL affiliate in Orlando. Now he has eight points (six goals, two assists) through 14 games in Syracuse and has taken on a significant role in Groulx’s line-up.

“I think [Huntington’s] game is better this year, no doubt,” Groulx said. “I think Jimmy’s ticket to play in the NHL, he’s got to be a power forward. Brings physicality, uses his body, a good skater. I think this year the confidence is there. I really see him winning races for the puck, winning battles in front of the net, winning battles in the corner using his body, using a heavy stick to his own advantage. So, I think that’s a lot of progression.

“He’s going, he’s driving the net. Overall, it’s a nice progression. I think with the guys that we’re missing on the top lines, that’s allowed some guys to have a better opportunity to perform, and some of them are seizing the moment. I think Jimmy is one of them.”

Individually, look around and a number of Tampa Bay prospects join Huntington in starting well. Among the forwards, Gabriel Fortier, a 2018 Tampa Bay second-round pick, has eight points (three goals, five assists) in 14 games as a second-year pro. Cole Koepke, who joined the Crunch late last season following his third season at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, has produced seven points (two goals, five assists) in 10 games. 2020 second-rounder Gage Goncalves owns six points (four goals, two assists) in 14 games as a rookie. Sean Day, the lone returning regular from last season’s blue line, is tied for seventh among AHL defensemen at 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in 14 games in his second year in the Lightning system after two seasons as a New York Rangers prospect.

Team-wise, the Syracuse penalty kill has ranked in the AHL’s top-10 in three of Groulx’s first five seasons, and it is a strength once more in 2021-22. The Crunch rank first in the AHL at 89.8 percent, burning off 44 of 49 opposing power-play chances.

So, glass half-empty, this start has been a slow one. Glass half-full, the Crunch have key elements like the penalty kill already in place, and they certainly can assemble a strong run and put themselves back in their customary spot among the Eastern Conference’s elite.

Is this upcoming homestand this season’s turning point?

Groulx, in classic coach mode, mused, “Do I see this team going on a roll? I’m a coach. I always plan for the long-term, and I coach short-term. So, I’ve got to see certain things before I think we have that team to go on a roll. To go on a roll, I think we’ve got to have a lot of players playing their best hockey, and it’s far from being the case for us right now.”

Dumont, now a 12th-year pro, is bullish about this opportunity to bounce back.

“We’re playing six of the next seven at home,” Dumont said, “so it’s a good time for us to find our game. We know what’s wrong with it. So just find our game, go right at it, and start winning again.”

So is Huntington.

“One hundred percent.”