TampaCuse pipeline continues to flow

Photo: Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images

by Megan Cahill | AHL On The Beat

The pipeline connecting the Syracuse Crunch and the Tampa Bay Lightning is a standard for player development.

Over the past month, “TampaCuse” has been flowing at full capacity.

The Lightning were hit with a series of injuries in early January, opening the door for prospects to get their chance in the NHL. In the span of 10 days, five Syracuse players made their NHL debuts with Tampa Bay.

Declan Carlile made his first appearance Jan. 4 at Minnesota, followed by Jack Thompson and Emil Lilleberg who debuted Jan. 6 at Boston. Forward Gage Goncalves skated in his first NHL game Jan. 11 in a home win against New Jersey and Max Crozier earned his game on Jan. 13 against Anaheim.

Factor in Matt Tomkins and Waltteri Merelä, who started the season with Tampa Bay, and the Crunch have seen seven NHL debuts this season.

“Everyone has bought in,” Crunch general manager Stacy Roest said. “Everyone has bought into the process and has a team-first attitude. They are putting in the work.”

These players slotted into roster spots and immediately made an impact.

“Because of injuries this year, we’ve had more opportunities to call up players, and different players, and they’ve all come up and they’ve helped us win games,” said Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois in his midseason media address. “All of that is trending in the right direction and bodes well for the future of the franchise.”

Lilleberg, a summer signing out of the Swedish Hockey League, has settled into a role on the blue line. He’s skated in 10 games with the Lightning so far, recording two assists, and remains up with the club.

“It’s helping us win,” BriseBois said on the Crunch recalls. “It’s helping the development of those players. It’s also us getting a chance to see what they can do. When we recalled Emil Lilleberg, for example, we didn’t necessarily expect him to be here as long as he has been, but he’s been doing well and there’s been no reason to send him back yet. So, he gets to stay in the lineup and help us win games in the meantime.”

Forward Mitchell Chaffee earned his call up to the Lightning on Jan. 25. He had previously played in two games with the Minnesota Wild during the 2021-22 season. In this fourth career game, he scored his first NHL goal. On the ice with him were Merelä and Crozier – who just days prior also notched NHL firsts. Merelä’s goal came against Minnesota on Jan. 18. Five days later, Crozier recorded an assist on Brayden Point’s first-period tally.

“It was awesome,” said Roest on seeing Chaffee, Crozier and Merelä on the ice together. “It puts it into perspective that it can be anybody. A couple weeks ago, they were scoring a goal in Syracuse celebrating together and now they’re up in Tampa. With all the ups and downs with injuries and call-ups, a lot of players have had a chance and hopefully there will be more.”

Of this month’s call-ups, just Lilleberg remains with the Lightning, but they have all gained a valuable experience.

“They should all come back from that experience further along in their development because now they kind of know what to expect,” said BriseBois. “It’s a confidence builder and, at the same time, it might be an eye opener. The combination of those two things gives them proper perspective and, hopefully, hope.”

Since affiliating with the Tampa Bay Lightning ahead of the 2012-13 season, 91 different players have appeared in a game with both the Crunch and the Lightning. The 2020 and 2021 Stanley Cup winning teams featured 32 Crunch alumni, including coaches and hockey operations staff.

“For a long time now, we’ve had a really good development program in Syracuse and the new coaching staff are continuing that tradition,” BriseBois said. “Joel Bouchard and his staff are doing a fabulous job.”

The Crunch are 8-2-0-0 so far in 2024 and are tied with Cleveland for first place in the North Division. The team is 24-13-2-2 on the season and have 52 points in the final week before the AHL All-Star Break.

“I love the energy there,” BriseBois said of Syracuse. “Love that we keep finding ways to help our players reach their potential and when they have the potential to be NHL players, they become NHL players and they help us win games in Tampa.”

According to BriseBois, these call-ups are serving the whole organization, top to bottom.

“It’s helping us win, helping those players along their development and us getting a chance to see what they can do at this juncture.”