Syracuse rookies developing chemistry on ice

Scott Thomas Photography

By Megan Cahill AHL On The Beat

Chemistry is a large part of a successful hockey club. It requires time together. It requires trust and confidence in your teammates.

With an average age of 23.04 years, the Syracuse Crunch are the youngest team in the American Hockey League. Nine rookies have appeared in at least one game with the club this season, and all of them are making the transition into becoming professionals, fitting in with the team’s systems and finding their role in Crunch hockey.

Of the nine newcomers, four got a head start playing together. Anthony Cirelli, Mathieu Joseph, Mitchell Stephens and Connor Ingram were four of  five Tampa Bay Lightning prospects that represented Team Canada at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship, winning silver on an international stage. This gave the 2015 draft picks an idea of what it would be like to eventually be full-time teammates.

“It helps when you know guys before the season starts, especially what they’re like off the ice,” Stacy Roest, Tampa Bay Lightning Director of Player Development, explained. “Once you’re comfortable and you’re confident, it just makes it way easier to play. You can see why the kids played in those big events. They have more confidence and exposure, it’s just easier for them.”

“The more you play with some guys and see those guys around, the better you’re going to get,” Ingram said. “It’s like teams near the end of the year, they’re always better when they’re closer, so it’s good to have a little head start like that.”

After a shaky start, the chemistry came together. The Crunch found their groove on Nov. 22 and went on a 10-game winning streak. The mark matched the second-best in the team’s 24-year franchise history. Over that span, Syracuse outscored their opponents 47-22, and combined for 123 total points. Seven rookies recorded 36 of those points, paced by Cirelli (3G, 7A), Alexander Volkov (4G, 4A), and Joseph (1G, 6A). Ingram secured three wins and his first professional shutout in that span.

“I think obviously with every young one there’s an adjustment period,” Roest said. “With those guys [Cirelli, Joseph and Volkov], they’re really young and they’ve had the chance to play through it. They’ve had good minutes, they played all situations and now they’re getting rewarded with numbers.”

The productive offensive display is one that matches that of a team that has spent years together, even though a majority of these young players have spent less than half a season on the same squad. But the first-year pros have quickly found their place in the lineup and earned vital ice time.

“We’re the youngest team in the league and we had that little rough stretch at the beginning of the year,” Roest said “Now [the rookies] are confident and the coach has confidence in them. They’re playing in all situations. It’s huge when you can give them that many minutes, and you’re doing it in a winning environment, which hopefully we can continue. That’s a good part of development right there.”

“I think confidence is a big part of a hockey player,” Joseph said. “When you have confidence, you can make plays. You’re confident in your teammates and who’s on the ice.”

The confidence started to shine through as the team hit the mid-point of their winning streak. Cirelli put up back-to-back three-point efforts against Utica on Dec. 6 and Binghamton on Dec. 8. He was skating on a line with Joseph, who also tallied three points in the 5-2 rout of Binghamton.

“You kind of have that gel already because you know them, so it’s been cool to kind of grow together,” Cirelli said. “It definitely helps with the chemistry, you know the guy, you’re friends with him. It’s a little bit easier, you kind of know where they’re going and the way they play.”

The more time these young guns spend together, both at the rink and away from it, the more they learn about each other, building a relationship that translates to success on the ice.

“It’s kind of easier to adapt when you have a lot of young guys,” Joseph said. “Off the ice, it’s also fun to have guys from your age.”

“You see enough of them at home, you get their tendencies,” Stephens said. “Just even cooking dinner together or watching them while you’re playing video games against each other. You get to become friends with that person.”

“We have fun every day,” Cirelli explained. “We’re doing stuff outside the rink, either going to the mall, going to movies or just hanging out playing cards. It’s cool to have other guys on the team to do other stuff with and not just focus on hockey all the time.”

Through 27 games, Cirelli sits atop the Crunch with 20 points. Joseph and Volkov round out the top 10, while Stephens has nine points on the year. The rookie talent, combined with the experience of a veteran core, makes for a bright outlook for the rest of the 2017-18 Crunch season. It also ensures the Lightning have depth that is prepared to maintain a winning culture.

“I think we’re really happy with our prospects, how they’re playing and what they’re looking like as pros,” Roest said. “As you can see up in Tampa, we have young guys that are making big commitments. We just hope that they keep developing and keep going like they are.”