The Syracuse Crunch sport the third-best record in the American Hockey League (26-11-5-0, 57 points) through the first half of the 2014-15 season. Despite a 10-game winning streak last month, the Crunch find themselves in a battle with the Springfield Falcons for the top spot in the Northeast Division.
Several prospects across the board have helped the Tampa Bay Lightning’s top minor league affiliate enjoy success in the first half, and they’ll be relied upon more heavily to produce down the stretch.
Among the top goaltending prospects in the hockey world, rookie Andrei Vasilevskiy has had his fair share of ups and downs to start his first season of pro hockey in North America.
“It took him a little bit,” Syracuse Crunch head coach Rob Zettler said of Vasilevskiy’s adjustment to North America. “The first part of the year wasn’t what he had hoped for. You start to get to know him and you see his habits and his work ethic and he’s successful. The best part about his game lately is his consistency.”
Vasilevskiy has certainly played well as of late, earning his first NHL stint earlier this season and grabbing the AHL Goaltender of the Month award for December in the process.
“It’s a lot different,” Vasilevskiy said of the game in North America compared to the KHL, “but right now I feel more consistent. A couple months ago it was hard, but right now it’s good.”
With Vasilevskiy playing as well as he has been, it’s only a matter of time before he starts earning a majority of the starts in net for the Crunch – which he’s currently sharing with Kristers Gudlevskis.
Another Russian-born player in the Lightning’s system looking to turn the corner is forward Vladislav Namestnikov.
There’s no doubting Namestnikov’s skill-level in the offensive zone and, combined with his speed and skating ability, he is a pretty dynamic player at the AHL level.
“He gives us a #1 center, which is huge,” Zettler said of Namestnikov after a game earlier this month. “His speed is critical. He adds a lot to our team in so many ways offensively.”
Namestnikov began the 2014-15 season in the NHL with the Lightning, recording seven points (three goals, four assists) in 26 NHL games with Tampa Bay before being re-assigned to the Syracuse Crunch – their AHL affiliate – at the beginning of December.
Upon being re-assigned, Namestnikov was certainly a big part of the Crunch’s season-high 10-game win streak that has the Crunch fighting for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. In his first four games back, he tallied seven points (two goals, five assists) and a +5 rating. After 13 points (six goals, seven assists) in 12 games in the month of December, Namestnikov was named to the 2015 AHL All-Star Classic that took place the past couple of days in Utica, NY. He registered two assists in a game won by the Western Conference squad, 14-12.
As for what he’s looking to work on while in the AHL, Namestnikov was pretty blunt about it.
“I can always improve on everything. I’m just trying to do everything right,” Namestnikov said, adding, “Play good on defense and take that to the offense.”
The message from coach Zettler about why Namestnikov is back in the AHL and what he needs to work on is more about his play away from the puck and rounding out his game to become more responsible defensively. Zettler also said Namestnikov is working on face-offs.
While in the AHL, Namestnikov has centered the top line for the Crunch and played on both special teams units, as well.
Vasilevskiy and Namestnikov aren’t the only prospects gaining valuable experience at the AHL level. On defense, Slater Koekkoek – Tampa Bay’s first round pick (10th overall) in 2010 – is progressing “really nicely” in his first pro season.
“He’s playing well defensively. He’s moving pucks well. I’m really happy with his defensive game,” Zettler said of Koekkoek in the first half of the season. “He skates really well. He’s starting to defend well and understanding how to play down low.”
The concerns coming in were durability related as Koekkoek had several season-ending injuries in his junior career in the OHL with Peterborough and Windsor. But Koekkoek has appeared in all but one of the Crunch’s games this season, tallying his third goal of the season in a game January 17th against Bridgeport. On the season, Koekkoek has 12 points (three goals, nine assists) in 41 games with an impressive +9 rating in the plus/minus department.
Another forward in the Lightning prospect pool looking to earn his stripes in Syracuse this season is bottom-six center Cody Kunyk – a rookie who led the WCHA in scoring last season in his senior year at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.
Kunyk might have put up points at the NCAA level, but for him to have success at the pro level it will be as a two-way player who is consistent night in and night out. He’s still working on consistency at the pro level in his first season, but has 13 points (six goals, seven assists) in 39 games this season with the Crunch.
“You need him involved physically more often,” Zettler said of Kunyk after a recent game against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. “More consistency and he’ll be okay.”
All in all, the Lightning are developing talent in the AHL at every position and enjoying much success in the first half of the 2014-15 season. It will be interesting to see which prospects step their game up another level heading down the stretch and into the postseason.
Follow Tony Androckitis on Twitter via @H_P_Hockey