Syracuse Crunch 2009-10 preview

By Chris Roberts

The Columbus Blue Jackets’ gain is the Syracuse Crunch’s loss. The Crunch were fortunate enough to have one of the top prospects in all of hockey in their line-up last season in Nikita Filatov, however, the Blue Jackets feel that the 19-year-old is ready for an NHL scoring role.

But even with Filatov, goal scoring was a problem last season as the Crunch totaled just 214 goals while missing the playoffs. Goaltending and defense will be the key to their success this season.

Forwards

Mike York and Craig MacDonald were two of Syracuse’s top three scorers last season, and neither will be returning for the 2009-10 season. The goal scoring will need to increase if the Crunch are to succeed in their playoff aspirations this season and it will be a couple of returning vets, plus newcomer Pascal Pelletier, who are counted on. Pelletier played last season in the Chicago system and notched 55 points, and two years ago was a point-per-game player at the AHL level with the Providence Bruins.

Alex Picard, a final cut from Blue Jackets training camp, will need to continue the pace he set last year in what was his best season as a pro. The former eighth overall pick tied for the team lead in goals with 22, and it only took him 49 games to do so. If last year wasn’t a make-or-break year for Picard, this year certainly is. The Crunch need him to at least duplicate last season’s goal totals and he should be adequately motivated to do so. The Crunch will also rely heavily on second-year pro Maksim Mayorov. The 20-year-old adjusted well in his first pro season, with 31 points. His totals are apt to increase, especially with the increased ice time that comes with being one of the team’s go-to guys. Veteran Derek MacKenzie will be another returning face who is expected to contribute heavily to the Crunch offensive attack. His 22 goals tied Picard for the club lead last season.

Jared Aulin, who recently signed a 25-game PTO with the Crunch, is a wild card for the team’s offense. He looked good in Blue Jackets camp and played an impressive slate of games in the AHL pre-season. If he can provide any offense during his tryout, expect Aulin to garner a contract.

With a full training camp under his belt, Stefan Legein is in the shape he wasn’t quite at last season and will be an important player for the Crunch. He should easily improve upon his not so impressive numbers last season, but also, along with Tom Sestito, will provide grit and team toughness to the line-up. He looked very driven at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament this year.

Jon Mirasty returns as the team’s enforcer. He scored no points last season, but the Saskatchewan native recorded 25 fights in only 58 games.

Kevin Harvey, Trevor Frischmon, Tim Miller, Chris Higgins, and Brock McBride will likely round out the forward unit.

Defense

Perhaps the biggest news from the Crunch blueline comes from the departure of Andrei Plekhanov. The Russian defender had a fairly solid season last year, but like so many Russians at this level, he opted to go back home for monetary reasons. Plekhanov’s departure was announced with the news that the Crunch had signed a pair of former Rangers prospects – David Liffiton and Dylan Reese. Liffiton played in Denmark last season while Reese had a respectable season with the San Antonio Rampage, recording 28 points in 75 games. The pair will provide sufficient depth for the Crunch this season.

Heading the blueline for Syracuse this season will be returnees Jonathan Sigalet, Grant Clitsome, Nick Holden, and newcomer Mathieu Roy. Holden remains a decent prospect, notching 22 points last season, while Sigalet, Clitsome and Roy are all AHL veterans at this point.

With the aforementioned defensemen, it will difficult for the lone rookie on the Crunch roster to get minutes on the blueline, but that isn’t to say he will be given every opportunity to succeed. Brent Regner finished his last junior season with 67 points in 70 games, which was enough to catch the eye of the Blue Jackets brass. He could be very useful as an offensive defenseman this season, something the Crunch lacked last year, though he may start the year in Gwinnett.

Goaltending

Returning goaltenders Dan LaCosta and Kevin Lalande will again battle for the starter’s job, and it’s a battle that could go on all season long.

LaCosta, entering his fourth season with Syracuse, appeared in a career-high 45 games last year. His 2.79 goals against was respectable, and he had two shutouts, but the high point of his season was a shutout in his first call up to the Blue Jackets. At this point, it appears LaCosta may be ready for a backup role at the NHL level, however, with sophomore Steve Mason leading the way in Columbus, the parent club decided to go with a veteran presence in that role.

LaCosta had earned the starter’s role in Syracuse last season, but was forced to split time with deadline acquisition Lalande, and with just reason. In total, Lalande played in 27 games recording a 2.17 goals against with a .928 save percentage. It should be a battle in net, and it’s an open question as to who will get the first call to Columbus.

Prospects in Training Camp

The Blue Jackets have three bona fide young stars in their system; Jakub Voracek, Derick Brassard, and Nikita Filatov, the latter two still defined as prospects. Filatov was the only question mark as to whether he would start the year in Columbus, but his two goals and three assists helped him onto the team. Brassard, meanwhile, led the team in pre-season points with seven.

Another prospect who will begin his rookie campaign with Columbus is right winger Michael Blunden. The former Blackhawk product had two points in six pre-season games, but it isn’t his offense that led him to a spot on the team. He brings a physical presence to the game and will likely appear on the third or fourth line if he gets into action with the Jackets.

Apart from Filatov, the big story in terms of prospects at the Blue Jackets’ camp was the play of 2008 fifth-round pick Matt Calvert. The 19-year-old began the rookie camp at a torrid pace and brought that momentum to the Jackets’ main camp. His four points in four pre-season games was enough to earn him an entry-level deal, however, Calvert has decided to return to the WHL for another year, and play in the Memorial Cup on the host team.

On the blueline, 2009 first-round pick John Moore certainly did not look out of place. He was a plus player through five games and his four points from the backend was only second to Kris Russell. With a precaution of not being rushed however, Moore has been sent to the Kitchener Rangers where he will begin his first season in the OHL.