Raddysh already having a career year with Crunch

Photo: Scott Thomas

📝 by Patrick Williams

“Shoot the puck!”

That is a well-worn cry from fans in arenas around the hockey world.

But nobody has to tell that to Syracuse Crunch defenseman Darren Raddysh twice.

Raddysh is more than willing to shoot the puck. He also happens to lead the entire American Hockey League in scoring, though he will quickly pass off any credit to his teammates in blue and white.

Through 22 games, Raddysh has fired 72 shots on net, an effort that has him on pace for 232 shots this season. His 32 points not only lead the league, they already represent a career high (Raddysh had 30 points in 76 games between Rockford and Hartford in 2018-19). And he is one goal away from reaching double digits for the first time in his six-year AHL career.

“They’re finding lanes,” Raddysh said of his Crunch teammates. “They’re getting to the net. They’re finding me if I’m open.”

But it has also been Raddysh who has taken a significant role in putting the Crunch back in contention following a 2-6-1-2 start. Syracuse has gone 8-3-1-0 since Nov. 11, climbing to fourth in the North Division and sitting just two points shy of second-place Rochester.

And more precisely, Raddysh’s shot has been a considerable part of the Crunch ranking second in AHL scoring at 3.87 goals per game.

Stationed at the right point, Raddysh can beat goaltenders cleanly, but he also has a knack for placing a shot just so to allow for deflections or to utilize his forwards’ ability to screen or gain inside positioning on opposing defenders. A right-handed shot, he also is capable of gaining the center blue line to provide a different look or passing option, induce opposing penalty killers to give him ice, and then pump pucks on net that way. Often able to look off defenders and gain open ice, Raddysh is also confident enough to dip low into the high slot and attack from there. He possesses a dangerous slap shot that he can pair with a selection of deceptive off-speed shots that keep opposing high forwards and goaltenders alike off-balance.

What has unlocked some of this success for Raddysh? To start, it stays simple inside the opposing blue line.

“I think just trying to get it by that first [defender is the key],” he explained.

Undrafted coming out of Erie of the Ontario Hockey League in 2017, Raddysh turned pro on an AHL deal with the Rockford IceHogs. A strong rookie season, one in which the IceHogs advanced to the Western Conference Finals, put him on the NHL track. He signed a two-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2018, and was acquired by the New York Rangers in February 2019, eventually reuniting in Hartford with his junior coach Kris Knoblauch.

Under Knoblauch — “one of the smartest coaches that I’ve ever played for,” Raddysh says — the defenseman tallied 43 points in 86 games over two seasons, catching the eye of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning, who already had Raddysh’s brother Taylor under contract, inked Darren as a free agent in July 2021, and he recorded 25 points (seven goals, 18 assists) in 62 contests with Syracuse while also earning his first four National Hockey League games.

This season, Raddysh got to work quickly with a season-opening five-game point streak, and he has never really slowed down. He has managed at least one point in 19 of his 22 appearances, including nine multi-point performances. The highlight was a five-assist night on Nov. 12 as the Crunch ripped Utica, 8-3.

As a rookie in Rockford, Raddysh was able to work alongside a long-time ace like Cody Franson, who provided a deep education on how to work the points and to press the play without risking turnovers.

“He was pretty adamant on if you get the puck, make sure you’re getting it by that first guy, and you’re getting it hard on net and trying to be quick,” Raddysh recalled. “It’s something that I strive to do every day whether it’s in practice or in games, and it just seems to be working this year.”

Coming to Syracuse has been another jolt for Raddysh’s progression. As with anyone inside the Crunch dressing room, he need only look to the players who have passed through on their way to the Lightning under the guidance of the likes of now-Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper or current Crunch head coach Ben Groulx.

“There are a lot of guys before me that have developed, and they’ve gone on to have great NHL careers so far,” Raddysh continued. “That’s something that I look at every day as a motivation… That could potentially be me one day.”

Raddysh is also self-aware enough to know that there is still work to be done in Syracuse. As with so many players trying to push their way into a full-time NHL role, skating is an area of considerable focus for Raddysh. And anyone playing with Tampa Bay or Syracuse must play quickly and decisively to play within that system effectively.

“That’s kind of the biggest thing that I think that is holding me back from the NHL and trying to play a little bit quicker,” Raddysh acknowledged. “I think if I can figure that out hopefully one day I’ll get there.

To that end, he has worked closely with Lightning skating coaches Barb Underhill and Tracy Tutton. Both had accomplished careers in figure skating before moving into coaching, and they have corrected deficiencies in plenty of players through the years. Underhill was the 1984 world champion in pairs skating with Paul Martini while Tutton had a long career coaching figure skaters before shifting to hockey. Resumes like those will catch the eyes and ears of the Lightning and their prospects.

Underhill and Tutton are familiar faces at practice in Syracuse, where they can pick apart weaknesses in a player’s skating and perhaps find that one deficiency that is holding back an otherwise ready-to-go prospect. At this level, the difference between a prospect who can stick in the NHL and one who is held back can be razor-thin. Identify and fix that edge or stride for a player, and you could have yourself someone capable of stepping into an NHL line-up, and so Raddysh and his teammates are eager listeners.

“That can be a difference [being] one or two steps quicker,” Raddysh said.

Between the likes of Franson, Knoblauch, Groulx, Underhill, Tutton and many more, Raddysh has gotten a strong AHL education.

“It’s a tough league,” Raddysh reasons, “and there’s going to be ups, going to be downs.”

There have been downs for the Crunch this year, but in typical Syracuse fashion a November turnaround has generated optimism for what may be ahead.

“I know just playing against [Syracuse] when I was in Hartford, it was like, ‘Oh, you’re playing the Crunch tonight. You’ve got to be ready, because every line is going to be working hard from first to fourth,” Raddysh recalled.

“I think that’s the team we have this year. It’s going to be a hard-working team. We’re going to play fast. We’re going to be in your face. I think if we can do that, we can be successful.”