When the puck drops on the 15th season of Crunch hockey in Syracuse, the roster will bear little resemblance to the one that advanced to within one game of the conference championships last season. A number of NHL veterans added in the off-season to provide depth within the organization are expected to skate with the Crunch, including forwards Mike York (most recently of Phoenix) and Craig MacDonald (Tampa Bay). Both players will likely be counted upon to provide guidance to a solid core of prospects, which for the first time in a half-decade may not include any elite first-round selections that have traditionally interned at Syracuse in previous years. Instead, a pool of mid-round talent under the age of 24 should log significant ice time with the Crunch in 2008-09, all of which still has enough room in their respective development arcs to earn a realistic opportunity at an NHL job in the next few years.
Contrary to much of the past decade, the top-tier forward talent within the Columbus system may not spend most of their time in Syracuse this season. Center Derick Brassard, the sixth overall selection in the 2006 draft, is expected to assume a starting role with the Blue Jackets this season, after an impressive 15-goal, 36-assist debut with Syracuse last season. Joining him in Columbus will likely be the seventh overall selection from the 2007 draft, right wing Jakub Voracek. Expected to make the jump straight from Halifax of the QMJHL onto Nationwide ice, Voracek has been mentioned in many circles as a legitimate Calder Trophy candidate. The third member of the upper echelon of young talent within the system, teen phenom Nikita Filatov, is likely headed to Sudbury of the OHL to make his North American debut. His status remains undetermined as of this writing. While it is unlikely that any of the three will appear in Syracuse this season, each would become a focal point for the Crunch offense.
With most of the first-round talent likely ticketed elsewhere, the Crunch lines will likely rely upon several mid-round forward prospects for depth and scoring. Headlining that group will be AHL veteran Adam Pineault, a prototypical sniper with a cannon for a shot who will look to improve upon a 21-goal, 27-assist sophomore season with the Crunch. If Pineault can further refine his game and create the space necessary to capitalize on his NHL-caliber shot, he should earn real ice time during the inevitable call-up that awaits him at some point in 2008-09. Around that, a 30-goal season with Syracuse appears to be the next logical step in his progression.
Joining Pineault in Syracuse will be the aggressive duo of sophomores Derek Dorsett and Tommy Sestito. Both made their mark as rookies last year with the Crunch through determined physical play complimented by developing offensive games, as evidenced by their combined 491 penalty minutes. Of the pair, Sestito has displayed the higher offensive upside, potting three goals in the AHL playoffs last season. For both Dorsett and Sestito, continued physicality and grit should earn an audition down the road for a third or fourth line role in Columbus.
The most intriguing debut this year in Syracuse may well be that of Russian winger Maxim Mayorov. A fourth-round selection in the 2007 draft, Mayorov has not logged enough international ice time as a teenager to provide a clear indication as to where his talent factors out within the organization. Projected by most to skate in either the WHL or back home in Russia this season after ice time at the Jackets training camp, Mayorov was assigned to the Syracuse Crunch on Oct. 1, 2008, as Columbus continues to pare down their NHL roster. Whether Mayorov remains with the Crunch for 2008-09 or heads to Brandon of the WHL has yet to be determined.
Rounding out the picture up top for the Crunch throughout this season will be a variety of young forwards at different stages in their professional development, including former elite prospect Alexandre Picard and import Kirill Starkov. For both, the 2008-09 season likely represents a critical point in their professional development, and a significant contribution at Syracuse will be necessary to keep pace with the upper-level prospects within the system. Their cause may have been helped by the unexpected retirement of 2007 second-round pick Stefan Legein, who shocked both the organization and much of the hockey world this past August in walking away from the sport. Expected by many to step right into the Syracuse lineup en route to an eventual audition with the bug club, Legein’s absence provides opportunity to other young forwards looking to climb the organizational ladder. Should Legein actually follow through on a rumored change-of-heart, he should appear in Syracuse by next autumn and provide another possible answer for scoring and physicality off the wing.
Thanks to several veteran acquisitions in the off-season, a crowded blueline in Columbus will force several intriguing defensemen back to Syracuse in 2008-09, likely highlighted by AHL vets Marc Methot and Andrei Plekhanov. In the case of Methot, the grind of an extended AHL internship may finally be taking a toll on the 23-year-old rearguard. Coming off of a lengthy stint as a solid defensive presence for the Crunch, Methot appeared to be a leading candidate for a position with the big club. The recent influx of NHL-caliber defensive-minded defensemen in Columbus has likely left Methot on the outside looking in again. While another season with Syracuse might not do much for Methot’s development towards securing a starting job in the NHL, he should provide a steadying veteran presence on a young Crunch blueline.
Where Marc Methot has been patiently awaiting his turn at Nationwide, Russian import Andrei Plekhanov made an impressive North American debut just last season in his rookie campaign with the Crunch. The polar opposite of Methot in terms of skill-set, Plekhanov is possessed of an NHL-caliber shot, but needs to continue to develop his ability to carry and distribute the puck effectively. Averaging just under a point per game for Syracuse (9 goals, 25 assists in 40 games) during his rookie season, Plekhanov continued to impress in the playoffs and appears primed to earn significant ice time with the Crunch in 2008-09. His performance in his sophomore season should be telling, as increased development and experience with Ken Hitchcock’s system may have Plekhanov knocking on the NHL door come October 2009.
Acquired in a May trade with Boston, defenseman Jonathan Sigalet is expected to step into a significant role on the blueline after a quality turn with Providence of the AHL last season. A sound presence at both ends of the ice, the knock on Sigalet has been his physicality, which will again be put to the test in the AHL. While he should provide steady AHL-caliber play for the Crunch in 2008-09, Sigalet will need to make strides this year to force his way past the crowded group of young defensemen already in the system.
Behind Sigalet, the competition for the remaining defensive spots with the Crunch will likely involve both Grant Clitsome and Kyle Wharton. Both players will likely compete for ice time between Syracuse and Elmira this season, with rookie Clitsome expected to enter the year with the Crunch thanks to his offensive capabilities and upside.
The big news in the Crunch net is the delayed rookie debut of Steve Mason, who is expected to be on the shelf for the first two months of the season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery on September 23. The Jackets third round pick from the 2006 draft originally injured the knee in April, which brought Mason’s ascendant amateur career to a premature end. Honored as the Most Valuable Player while backstopping Team Canada’s Gold Medal junior squad at the U20 World Championships this past winter, Mason has jumped into the spotlight as one of the league’s premier goaltending prospects. All eyes will be on his rehab later this year, as he is still expected to make his professional debut in the Syracuse net.
In the absence of Mason, the Crunch will likely turn to 22-year-old Dan LaCosta for the starting nod in net most nights. Coming off an impressive 15-game rookie campaign in 2007-08 (in which he posted a 9-2-3 record, with a 2.12 GAA and .932 save percentage), where LaCosta fits within the organization’s goaltending hierarchy below Leclaire and Norrena is still very much an open question. While Mason should eventually push him for playing time with Syracuse, LaCosta will have the opening frames of the 2008-09 season to establish himself as a legitimate contender for an NHL job.