Having gone 6-2-2 in their last 10 games, the Syracuse Crunch are trending upward thanks to a well-stocked Tampa Bay Lightning prospect pool highlighted by some promising goaltenders and depth on the blue line.
The Crunch own a record of 22-9-5 and currently sit fourth in the AHL‘s Eastern Conference. Relative health in Tampa Bay has allowed Syracuse’s core to remain intact and the December demotion of Vladislav Namestnikov has given the team added firepower up front.
The Lightning have three players playing for two different ECHL teams this season.
Vladislav Namestnikov, C, 22
Despite a solid start with the Lightning to begin the 2014-15 campaign, Vladislav Namestnikov was eventually edged out, perhaps in part due to the production of other young players like Cedric Paquette as well as the team’s willingness to keep Jonathan Drouin with the big club.
Since being reassigned, Namestnikov has quickly found the offensive confidence he displayed last season in Syracuse; through 15 games the Russian pivot has 16 points, including three power-play goals and two game-winners. He has 43 shots in those 15 games, twice registering at least six shots in a game, evidence of how involved he has been offensively. He does not have much left to prove in the AHL and should see more games in Tampa Bay throughout the second half of the season.
Andrey Vasilevskiy, G, 20
The big, agile Russian goaltender has been as advertised since coming over to North America for the beginning of the season. Starting in Syracuse, it was a bit of an adjustment for Vasilevskiy, but he managed to earn wins in five of his first 11 starts.
Since the beginning of December, however, Vasilevskiy has been perhaps the biggest reason for the success of the Syracuse Crunch. In five December contests, he posted a 4-0-1 record with a 1.17 goals against average and a .962 save percentage. He also looked comfortable in a stint with the Lightning, going 3-1 through four games. Sent back to Syracuse for the beginning of the New Year, Vasilevskiy a win and overtime loss, and currently has a 10-3-5 record in 18 AHL starts.
Nikita Nesterov, D, 21
Recently called up by the Lightning, Nikita Nesterov has been one of the Syracuse Crunch’s most consistent, dependable defenders this season. In 32 games, the second-year pro has almost matched his point total of 16 posted last year – he has 14 (three goals and 11 assists).
Nesterov is a rough-and-tumble defenseman and his 26 penalty minutes are relatively low considering his style of play. He is able to defend the net without taking too many minor penalties, and the frequent turnovers that often left much to be desired last season have dropped considerably.
Jonathan Marchessault, RW, 24
In his fourth full AHL season, Jonathan Marchessault has proven himself a legitimate top offensive option in the league, but he has yet to stick in the NHL due to his 5’9 frame and lack of a complete, 200-foot game. This year, Marchessault is Syracuse’s top offensive option and leads the team in scoring with 31 points.
Marchessault has the ability to score as well as set up goals, but a December slump put a stop on his climbing goal total; prior to scoring on January 3rd against the Binghamton Senators, Marchessault had not scored since November 29th against Hershey. He is due for an opportunity in the NHL, but given Tampa Bay’s young depth, it may not be with the Lightning.
Yanni Gourde, LW, 23
After a pedestrian 18 games with Syracuse last season, third-year pro Yanni Gourde has been able to showcase his offensive skills as the team’s second leading scorer with 27 points in 35 games. His 13 goals is a team lead and his plus/minus rating of plus-10 is second amongst all forwards behind only Tanner Richard.
Gourde, like Marchessault, is a small winger from Quebec City, but is perhaps even a little smaller, listed at 170 pounds. He has certainly emerged as a top-line AHL threat, but, like Marchessault, his NHL potential is limited.
Kristers Gudlevskis, G, 22
The lengthy Latvian, Kristers Gudlevskis has not quite been as impressive as Vasilevskiys, whom he shares the net with, but he has been an adequate AHL goaltender. His record this season is 12-6-0, but the high win total is a by-product of the offensive support he receives between the pipes. Twice he has won games in which he allowed four goals, while he has one win when allowing five goals. On the season, Gudlevskis owns a 2.79 goals against average to go along with a .902 save percentage.
Slater Koekkoek, D, 20
An injury-riddled junior career cast some doubt on Koekkoek’s NHL chances, but he has managed to stay healthy this season, playing in 35 games and contributing two goals and eight assists. There have been some learning curves, but Koekkoek has led a group of young defenders in terms of production this season.
The former 10th overall selection has only been a minus player in four games this season and has recorded just 20 penalty minutes. He had his most productive month in December, where, ironically, he posted his lowest shot total in a month this season. Koekkoek scored once and added four assists, posting a plus-six rating through 12 games in the month.
Tanner Richard, C, 21
Richard’s struggles were evident last year; the Swiss-born center scored just twice in 65 games and was often outmatched by bigger, stronger players. It has been a different story this year.
Fourth on the team in scoring, Richard has already surpassed last season’s goal total with five, and, a gifted playmaker, he already has 13 assists, two shy of last year’s total. He got off to a slow start in October, earning limited ice-time thanks to early-season appearances from Drouin and Paquette, but since their recall his point total, along with his ice-time, has increased. Richard scored just one goal in the first month of the season, but in November he scored three times and added nine assists. He was also a plus-13 in the month.
Joel Vermin, RW, 22
Vermin has provided solid secondary scoring in his first pro season for the Syracuse Crunch, but, since the beginning of December his production has dried up. In his first 21 games, Vermin posted 10 points, but in his last 12 games he has just four points.
He had a disappointing 2013-14 season in the Swiss A-League with just 18 points in 49 games, and, much like that season, he has yet to find consistent production.
Dylan Blujus, D, 20
Blujus, who will turn 21 later this month, has had an admirable start to his pro career to this point. He has been amongst the team’s starting six – and often top-four – defenders throughout the season, playing in 33 games, recording one goal and eight assists.
Near a penalty minute per game in the OHL, Blujus has just four minor penalties this season; the more he is involved physically, the better he plays.
Jake Dotchin, D, 20
Another rookie defender, Jake Dotchin was perhaps one of the most steady, reliable rookies prior to suffering an injury in early December.
Dotchin had nine points, including his first pro goal, in 21 contests with Syracuse prior to suffering an ankle injury following a blocked shot. Dotchin is expected to return to the lineup sometime in January.
Henri Ikonen, LW, 20
In 36 games, Ikonen has just eight points in his rookie campaign. Earning limited minutes in the first half of the season, he will have to battle hard to compete for more ice time with the competitive Crunch.
Dalton Smith, LW, 22
Once a promising power forward prospect who struggled early in his AHL career, Dalton Smith is enjoying somewhat of a career revitalization this season. After struggling to find himself offensively in 19 games with Syracuse last year following a trade from Columbus, Smith already has a career high eight goals to go along with four assists; the 12 points are already a career high as well.
Smith’s rugged style of game has remained intact with his new-found offense; he still has 50 penalty minutes this season.
Philippe Paradis, LW, 23
Paradis’ season mirrors Smith in the sense that he seems to finally be finding his niche in the AHL. A former first round pick who has already been traded multiple times, Paradis is already three points shy of a career high; in 27 games, the hard-working winger has a career high seven goals and six assists. He went pointless in eight October contests, making his point total a little more impressive. A valuable penalty killer, he also has a shorthanded goal this season.
Cody Kunyk, C, 24
An undrafted free-agent, Cody Kunyk has been a valuable member of the Crunch in his rookie season, scoring five goals and adding seven assists. Currently 11th in team scoring, Kunyk has displayed just a glimpse of the offensive touch that helped him accumulate 133 points in his four-year collegiate career.
Luke Witkowski, D, 24
Michigan native Luke Witkowski continues to provide strong defensive play for the Syracuse Crunch. His offensive production is on par with his rookie season, and his 73 penalty minutes extrapolate over a full season close to the 203 minutes he spent in the box last season.
Danick Gauthier, LW, 22
Gauthier parlayed a strong final QMJHL season into a contract with the Lightning, but has yet to stick at the AHL level. He played 38 games in the ECHL over the past two seasons, and this year has played 31 with the Wichita Thunder. Fortunately, he is producing at that level, scoring 30 points and currently second on the team in scoring. His production should, at the very least, earn him an extended recall to Syracuse if injuries occur in the second half of the season.
Jeff Costello, LW, 23
In his first pro season, Costello played two games in Syracuse this season but has spent the majority of his time in the ECHL, playing for the Florida Everblades. In 22 games, the Ottawa Senators draft pick has 14 points.
Dan Milan, D, 22
At this point, undrafted free agent Dan Milan is simply playing out his contract with the Lightning. The Michigan native continues to cash in on a breakout 2010-11 campaign with the Moncton Wildcats, having played just one AHL game in his two-plus years with the Lightning organization. In 34 games this season for the Wichita Thunder, Milan has seven assists.
Tampa Bay Lightning Prospect of the Month
The most important player to the Moose Jaw Warriors, Brayden Point‘s hold on the team lead in scoring disappeared in December, but for good cause. The diminutive, speedy center surprised many by making the Canadian World Junior team, and, in all likelihood, will return for another year next season. Despite playing as the team’s 13th forward early in the tournament, Point stepped in when Robby Fabbri (STL) was lost to injury against Denmark, and looked comfortable, recording a goal and setting up plenty of chances. He finished with two goals and two assists in seven games.
Before leaving for World Junior camp, Point had played in four games for Moose Jaw, recording eight points, including a pair of power-play goals. He has one point in two games since returning from the tournament.