📝 by Patrick Williams
The Tampa Bay Lightning captured their second consecutive Stanley Cup championship on July 7, a title featuring plenty of roots with the Syracuse Crunch.
Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper, an AHL alumnus himself, dressed 17 AHL graduates on that Stanley Cup-clinching evening in Tampa. One of those players was one of the organization’s most recent Syracuse apprentices, forward Ross Colton, whose goal that night gave Tampa Bay a 1-0 win. Of those 17 players, 11 arrived from Syracuse. And joining Cooper on the Tampa Bay bench were assistants Jeff Halpern, Derek Lalonde, and Rob Zettler, all AHL products.
Right in the middle of the Tampa Bay-Syracuse affiliation is Crunch general manager Stacy Roest, who also doubles as Tampa Bay’s assistant general manager and director of player development.
Player development is exactly what Syracuse has done — over and over — to help fuel Tampa Bay’s back-to-back Stanley Cup seasons. Starting his 10th season in the Tampa Bay organization, Roest has learned the management business alongside Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois and former GM Steve Yzerman. That trio has employed a well-honed blend using a winning team in Syracuse to churn out a steady supply of hungry, young Tampa-bound talent.
Along with that parade of talent that Syracuse has delivered, the Crunch have twice been Calder Cup finalists since affiliating with Tampa Bay in 2012. The Lightning went back to that plan once again this summer for another winter in Syracuse, bringing in forwards Gabriel Dumont and Charles Hudon, plus goaltender Max Lagace. Mix in new prospect talent in goaltender Hugo Alnefelt, defenseman Dmitry Semykin, and forward Odeen Tufto, and Syracuse’s chances have Roest excited, especially with head coach Benoit Groulx back for his sixth season guiding the Crunch.
With a steady stream of strong draft picks through the years, plus a knack for finding undrafted talent like Yanni Gourde and Alex Barre-Boulet, Tampa Bay has nevertheless made fortifying that youth with experience an organizational priority. Easier said than done, but internal competition fuels a winning atmosphere, and it keeps Tampa Bay prospects playing deep into the Calder Cup Playoffs more often than not.
“It’s so important,” Roest said of the veteran presence. “You can have the best prospects, or you think you have the best prospects, but if you don’t, this is a tough league.
“The veterans have good attitudes. They know their role, and it’s not just to be here to help the young guys, but also to keep them competitive and compete for games in the NHL, which is what we want. We want players here [who] are going to still have a dream of playing in the NHL. Same goes with our coaches, and same goes for all the staff. We want to have a winning environment. We want to develop, but we also want everybody to push each other, and it just makes the group better.”
That group will be put to the test when the Crunch begin their run at a Calder Cup this Friday when they visit the Cleveland Monsters for back-to-back games to start their season. After visiting the arch-rival Rochester Americans on Oct. 22, they make their season debut on home ice a night later against the new-look Utica Comets.
“Especially with losing the one line in Tampa, we wanted to add a little more depth up and down the lineup in Syracuse and in Tampa,” Roest said of the organization’s offseason work. “We’re happy with the veteran guys that we got for Syracuse, but they can play in Tampa as well, so that’s the big thing. We do feel we have a really good roster in Tampa, but if injuries happen or if needed, there’s more than one guy down in Syracuse.
“We feel five or six or seven guys can play games in different roles [with Tampa Bay].”
Roest is also optimistic that a smoother season sits ahead after the 2020-21 campaign that challenged every AHL club in some way.
“It’s going to be close to where we were before,” Roest predicted. “Just for training camp here, we’ve got our development staff in for the skills and the skating. It’s just easier to get in, travel, and get around the world once again, so I think that’ll be a big thing.
“I think the [AHL has] done a great job of informing us, keeping us all safe, and making sure we’re all on the same page. It’s been very smooth, and it’s been good so far.”
Tampa Bay will be making a push for a third consecutive Stanley Cup. It is certainly possible that the Crunch could help the Lightning to become the first NHL organization to win both the Stanley Cup and the Calder Cup in the same year since the New Jersey Devils pulled off that feat in 1995.
Said Roest, “The goal for us is to win. We feel we have a good group here. We have a good, young group and lots of good, solid competition for jobs, for ice time, and for call-up opportunity. So [I am] very happy with the depth of this team, and so far from what I’ve seen, the effort, the attention to detail, and [the way that] everybody has bought in.
“In the short time we’ve been together, they’ve bought in to the way the Crunch and Lightning work, and it’s going to be exciting.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.