As many expected, the reconstruction of the roster in Syracuse led to inconsistent results for the Crunch over the season’s first half. Add in the typical ebb and flow of veteran players and fast-rising youngsters between the bottom tier of the Columbus lineup and the top of the Syracuse bench, and the recent uptick in play heading into the AHL All-Star Break is a real positive. With the rapid graduation of several upper-level prospects (highlighted by the Calder-worthy play of goaltender Steve Mason), the Crunch lineup has been remade into a healthy mix of veteran players and a slew of mid-round prospects.
Not surprisingly, the big news over the season’s first half in Syracuse was the learning curve of first-round talent Nikita Filatov. In 23 games with the Crunch prior to the holidays, Filatov showed flashes of the brilliance that made him the sixth overall selection in last year’s draft. As with many young prospects, Filatov’s play tailed off a bit as he got his legs under him, but his explosion at the World Juniors for Team Russia provided evidence of his steep offensive upside, as he netted eight goals in seven games. Filatov followed up that impressive performance with a hat trick January 10 against the Wild, more evidence, as if any was needed, that his offensive game can translate to North American ice. Placed on injured reserve by the Jackets retroactive to January 18, the organization will have a very difficult decision come the end of February, as Filatov has only eight games logged at the NHL level this season. When he comes back from injury, he may find himself an integral part of Syracuse’s late-season push for a playoff spot.
In the absence of any of the organization’s top-tier prospect talent up front over the past month, the Crunch have been forced to fill out the top two lines with a combination of veterans and lower-level prospects. Included among that latter group are Maxim Mayorov and Tom Sestito, both of whom have made the most of their opportunities with the Crunch this season to earn regular ice time. Sestito has turned in a steady, competent sophomore campaign this year, playing regularly with NHL vet Mike York and learning the ropes at both ends of the ice. His seven-goal, eight-assist performance on the year suggests that his upside remains that of a third or fourth-line NHL player. The injury bug has again hit Sestito, who will likely spend the next month recuperating his shoulder.
Nikita Filatov was joined in making his North American professional debut with the Crunch this year by fellow Russian import Maxim Mayorov, the 94th overall selection in the 2007 draft. Considered alternately as a hot commodity and a complete enigma heading into the 2007 draft, the Jackets moved up to land the teenage sniper, and are now realizing the benefit of that fourth-round gamble. In 39 games this season with Syracuse, Mayorov has already found the back of the net on nine occasions, and appears to possess the type of offensive talent that could translate to the NHL game. A brief three-game audition with the Jackets showed that he could use a bit more seasoning at the AHL level, but there is every reason to think his game will improve dramatically over the next year in Syracuse.
For three-year AHL veteran John Vigilante, the clock is ticking on his chance to make a case for an NHL job. Signed by the Jackets as a free agent after two seasons with Milwaukee, Vigilante has found a home as a regular up front for the Crunch. Noted earlier in his young career for his top-gear speed and scoring touch, the former Nashville farmhand has not contributed on the scoreboard at the level expected, notching only six goals and seven assists on the year despite consistent ice time with the NHL vets spread across the Crunch forward lines. While not a bust, Vigilante needs to step up his production significantly to establish real value within the organization.
A pair of fresh faces have recently debuted up front for the Crunch in the form of a pair of second-round selections: 2007 second-round pick Stefan Legein, and the recently-acquired Mike Blunden. For Legein, his return to the ice after a curious “retirement” prior to his professional debut has been cut short by a broken finger that will keep him on the shelf into late February. Prior to the injury, Legein showed some evidence of the talent that first attracted the Jackets to select him with the 37th pick of the 2007 draft. As he should be back for the late-season stretch drive, it will be interesting to see where he fits in with the organization after his time away from the game.
In dealing Adam Pineault to the Blackhawks for Mike Blunden, Chicago and Columbus swapped a pair of second-round forwards who have yet to realize their potential at the professional level. Considered by many to be a top-tier prospect after an impressive amateur career, highlighted by an eye-opening performance in Team Canada’s gold medal run at the 2006 World Juniors, Blunden has yet to develop a consistent offensive game in what is his second full professional season. What he has displayed is a very solid physical game at both ends of the ice, and has already earned a regular spot on the top two forward lines with the Crunch since the trade.
Several other Jacket prospects have skated for the Crunch across all three forward positions this season, although none have been able to establish a sustained presence due to injury, opportunity or performance. Leading that group is former first-round pick Alexandre Picard, who has shuffled between Syracuse and Columbus this season without making a lasting impression at either level. The small amount of ice time afforded him in the Jacket lineup since mid-December, where he has averaged well under eight minutes per game, has him on the ice with less frequency than during his first 40 games with the club between 2005 and 2007. At age 24 and relegated to spot duty at the end of the Columbus bench, Picard might never provide a significant return on the Jackets investment of the eighth-overall selection in the 2004 draft.
For a pair of European prospects, brief tenures with the Crunch have masked solid campaigns in other uniforms. While he has yet to establish himself at the AHL level, Czech wing Petr Pohl has turned in a solid campaign with Johnstown of the ECHL this season, tallying 13 goals and 20 assists in 31 games with the Chiefs. At age 23, however, an NHL career is a long shot. As for Russian pivot Kirill Starkov, his season for the Crunch ended prematurely after nine games. The KHL beckoned, and the 21-year-old is now skating for CSKA Moscow across the pond in his native Russia.
The situation along the Syracuse blueline mirrors that of the parent club, with several veterans earning the lion’s share of ice time, both at even strength and on special teams, with a handful of youngsters providing reason for some future optimism. Leading the way in Syracuse are several defensive prospects, headlined by 2004 third-round pick Andrei Plekhanov. In his second year with the Crunch, the 22-year-old Russian rearguard has continued to develop a sound defensive game to go with a competent offensive package. In 38 games this season, Plekhanov has accounted for a pair of goals and 15 assists, but has more importantly posted a dependable +7 ratio, suggestive of his sound defensive game. While not a star-caliber player at either end of the ice, Plekhanov appears destined for a long look at the NHL level.
Joining Plekhanov as sophomore defensemen learning their way through the AHL are Grant Clitsome and Nick Holden, both of whom have logged regular minutes for the Crunch in 2008-09. While neither has made a significant impact on the scoreboard this season, the organization needs both to further refine their defensive capabilities to have any chance at an NHL audition. Of the pair, Clitsome has the higher upside at both ends of the ice, with a heavy shot and above-average awareness in the offensive zone.
One of the more disappointing developments of the 2008-09 campaign was the season-ending injury suffered by fourth-year AHL starter Jonathan Sigalet. A former Boston farmhand, Sigalet appeared poised for a breakout season at age 22, and stormed out of the gates with a five-goal, six-assist, +13 start over the opening 19 games. A dislocated shoulder forced Sigalet to the sidelines in early December, and surgery to repair the injury will have the Vancouver native on the shelf into the off-season. Given the lengthy recovery time, Sigalet is expected to return to Syracuse in 2009-10, with an eye towards working his way back to the big show, after his lone appearance in the NHL back in 2006-07 for the Bruins.
After several years holding down the backup job at various professional levels, Dan LaCosta has finally settled in as the primary netminder for the first time since his last amateur year with Barrie of the OHL four years ago. Very much playing in the long shadow cast by rookie phenom Steve Mason, LaCosta has likewise made the most of his opportunity, turning in a solid season to date for the Crunch. In 32 games this season, the former third-round pick has posted a solid 2.59 goals against average and .917 save percentage, totals which place him right in the middle of the pack at the AHL level and provide some insight into his 15-12-2 record in his first season as the starter. A very brief appearance in the Columbus net (due to injury), however, did little to advance his case as a future NHL-caliber netminder, although the recent acquisition of veteran goaltending help may just as well be an indication that the organization would prefer LaCosta to remain the starter in Syracuse for the near future. Still only 22, another year or three as the starting backstop at the AHL level would go a long way towards defining exactly where he fits in the organization, and if he will ever earn a legitimate shot at an NHL career.