Syracuse Crunch 2010-11 preview

By Kevin Forbes

Last season, Anaheim’s minor league prospects saw time in leagues ranging from the AHL to the CHL and on in cities as far ranging as Abbotsford, British Columbia, and Laredo, Texas. Without a dedicated AHL partnership, the Ducks scattered their prospects across the continent. Many of them ended up with Anaheim’s ECHL affiliate in Bakersfield, while others were part of a complicated shell game that had them bounce from team to team, trying to find a regular role and consistent ice time. Far from an ideal situation, it may be impossible to accurately gauge what effect this instability may have had on the development of some of the team’s top prospects.

Thankfully for the Ducks and their prospects, the 2010-11 season is already looking significantly brighter. After signing a deal with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch and the ECHL‘s Elmira Jackals, the Ducks organization enters the season in much better shape in terms of player development. With luck, any negative repercussions from last season’s balancing act will be reversed quickly as many prospects hope to get back on track and start moving towards their NHL dreams.

Here’s a look at how the roster for the Syracuse Crunch should pan out, as well as a glance at who may see time with the Elmira Jackals.

Forwards

While not as deep as the defensive corps, the projected forwards for the Syracuse Crunch offer plenty of interesting opportunities and a number of rookie players looking to make a first impression with the organization.

Leading that list is 2009 first rounder Kyle Palmieri. A bit of a surprise signing after a tumultuous first season with Notre Dame in the NCAA, the Ducks decided that perhaps he would be better served under closer scrutiny inside the organization. A speedy two-way winger, Palmieri will be one of the youngest players in the AHL at 19, but he’ll be counted on to contribute right from the start.

Nick Bonino will also help shoulder the offensive load. A former Boston University standout that turned pro and finished last season with Anaheim, Bonino has already scored his first NHL goal and would love to be given the opportunity to add to that tally. Noted as a playmaker, the 22-year-old center could be one of the first call-ups if the need arises in Anaheim.

Nicolas Deschamps and Brandon McMillan are two other rookies who should see plenty of ice time in their first year of pro hockey. Both were considered to be standout two-way players during junior career and they’ll need to show that their effectiveness at both ends of the ice has made the transition to the professional ranks. After tying for the league scoring lead in his last season in the QMJHL, Deschamps may be more talented offensively, while McMillan may be a bit more versatile and physical.

Maxime Macenauer does have a season of pro hockey under his belt and after being one of the last cuts at Anaheim’s training camp; he’ll be more than ready for his first year in the AHL. Spending all of his rookie year in the ECHL, Macenauer is a two-way player who never seems to tire or lack hustle and energy when he hits the ice. After an impressive showing in the Ducks camp, Macenauer could go a long way to improving his standing with a strong start.

Rounding out the Ducks prospects in Syracuse is another rookie in Rob Bordson. An undrafted playmaker that was signed in the offseason after three years with the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Bordson is in a perfect situation to take advantage of what appears to be a wide open lineup with the Crunch. After breaking out to score a point-per-game last season in the NCAA, he’ll need to show that those totals were not an anomaly.

Macgregor Sharp is a former teammate of Bordson and was signed as a free agent after the 2008-09 season. Sharp bounced from the ECHL right up to the NHL last year and has shown a willingness to throw the body. Although he was held without a point in his eight game NHL debut, the 25-year-old has some offensive potential as well, scoring 26 goals in his final season with the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Another hard-checking forward is Josh Brittain, who begins his pro career after playing the past four years in the OHL. A big, burly forward, Brittain excels at driving to the net and playing hard against the boards. Taking punishment in front of the net and chipping in some goals early on will do wonders for his future chances.

While Syracuse’s forwards are a definite young group, they aren’t all inexperienced rookies. Josh Green and Trevor Smith will help provide a veteran presence for the squad. Green was a member of the Ducks organization two seasons ago and spent last year playing for Modo in the Swedish Elite League. A veteran of over 300 NHL games, the 32-year-old will help the young players’ transition to pro hockey. He’ll be helped by Trevor Smith, a 25-year-old who has spent the bulk of his first three seasons of pro hockey with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Finally, the roster will be rounded out by Jon Mirasty. A fan favorite in Syracuse for the past three seasons, ‘Nasty’ Mirasty has tallied up 677 penalty minutes over 166 games with the Crunch.

Defense

A good reason why Syracuse might feel comfortable with an inexperienced tandem between the pipes is due to what should be a formidable defense corps. One of the defensemen slated to lace up for the Crunch already has his name on the Stanley Cup thanks to Anaheim’s championship run in 2007. Joe DiPenta returns to the organization on an AHL deal after spending the last two years first in the Swedish Elite League and then with the Portland Pirates. He’s joined by Brett Festerling, a 24-year-old who has appeared in 82 games with the Ducks over the past two seasons and figures to be at the top of the list for a call up if the need arise in Anaheim. Danny Syvret rounds out the veteran trio for the Crunch. With 49 NHL games under his belt over four seasons of pro hockey, he’ll be another player vying to see some time with the big club.

The contrasting trio to the three veterans is three prospects with 93 pro hockey games between them. Second-year pro Mark Mitera has played 86 of those games after seeing time in 68 regular season games and 13 playoff matches last year between three teams and two different leagues. A former first round pick by the Ducks in 2006, Mitera’s path to the NHL was waylaid by a traumatic knee injury in his final year of college hockey. The big defensive defenseman is finally back into form two years after the injury and is now looking to regain his spot as one of Anaheim’s top defensive prospects.

Mat Clark is another defensive defenseman looking to make an impression. After being acknowledged as one of the top shutdown defenders in the OHL to finish his junior career, the former seccond round pick in 2009 joined the Manitoba Moose at the end of last season to play in seven games, including six playoff matches. Just starting his pro career, Clark is looking to distinguish himself in an organization that features many defense-first blue liners.

Jake Newton breaks the trend and isn’t cut from the same cloth as Mitera or Clark. For an offensive blueliner like the 22-year-old, there’s plenty of special teams opportunity available should he prove up to the task. A free agent signing over the off season, Newton is a California native who would like nothing more than to return home and step onto the ice for the Ducks.

For those keeping track, that profiles a top six for the Syracuse Crunch, but it also leaves Stu Bickel as an odd man out. Splitting last season between the ECHL and the AHL, Bickel, like Mitera and Clark before him is a big, burly defensive defenseman. If rookies like Clark or Newton struggle early on, or if injuries lead to openings or call-ups, Bickel will be on tap to step in. He’s joined on the sidelines by Benn Olson, a former WHL bruiser who is signed to an AHL deal.

Goaltending

Although in the past, Anaheim has opted to sign a veteran journeyman net minder with NHL experience to fill the role as the Ducks third goaltender and to carry the load in the minors, that does not appear to be the case to start in Syracuse. The Crunch look like they will at least begin the season with a combination of Timo Pielmeier and Jean-Philippe Levasseur between the pipes.

In his fourth year of pro hockey, Levasseur has the experience with 76 games in the AHL. Sharing starts in Iowa two seasons ago, last year the 23-year-old bounced from the AHL to the ECHL and even saw some time in the CHL with the Laredo Bucks. While he has seen more time at the AHL level, the former QMJHL netminder’s results to date make him far from the de facto starter.

Instead, it’s likely Levasseur will share starts with goaltender Timo Pielmeier. After an inconsistent rookie year in the ECHL that saw Pielmeier play in the league’s All Star Game and score a goal in a regular season match, but finished with him sitting on the bench watching Levasseur play in the playoffs, the 21-year-old is looking to rebound. While the younger German is thought to have a brighter future, both players are likely to share time until one establishes himself and outplays the other.

With the Ducks approaching the 50-contract limit, any addition of a more experienced goaltender will likely come via an AHL-only deal. This makes it far from an enticing offer for most candidates who would fit what Anaheim would be looking for.

It’s worth noting that in the past, the Ducks often relied on a third goaltender to help fill-in as former Anaheim net minder Jean-Sebastien Giguere regularly missed time to deal with dehydration and fatigue-related issues. With Giguere not longer in the picture, the need for an experienced number three may be less pressing, even though starting goaltender Jonas Hiller will likely be asked to play much more than last year’s career high of 59 games.

Coaching

Mark Holick enters his first season as the Syracuse Crunch’s head coach. Before taking the head coaching job with the Crunch, Holick was the head coach of the Kootenay Ice for the last three seasons where he posted a 120-75-10-11 record. In 2009-10, he was awarded the Dunc McCallum Memorial Trophy as the WHL’s Coach of the year.

Elmira Jackals

The odd man out in the goaltender carousel, Marco Cousineau will start his first professional season in the ECHL. The former QMJHL netminder will be given every opportunity to carry the load for the Jackals and his play this season will dictate much of his hockey future. With Levasseur only signed to a single year contract and Igor Bobkov at least a season away from turning pro, a strong season from Cousineau will help establish his spot in the Ducks pipeline. An up-and-down goaltender during his time in junior, the 20-year-old’s first challenge will be to improve his game-to-game consistency.

With an embarrassment of riches on the blue line in Syracuse, that has a filter down effect for the Jackals. Eric Regan had a stand-out season for the Bakersfield Condors last year. His 16 goals and 50 points in 59 games placed him third on the team in scoring and second among defensemen in the ECHL. Repeating the feat for Elmira will help the team out tremendously. He’s joined on the blue line by John de Gray. Starting last season in Bakersfield, de Gray’s no nonsense defensive game was a welcome addition to the Rochester Americans after a mid-season loan. A bit of a surprise to start the year in the ECHL, de Gray finds himself competing with a number of other stay-at-home defensive prospects in the organization.

Rounding out the Anaheim prospects in Elmira is a pair of recently acquired prospects in Ryan Hillier and Tomas Zaborsky. Hillier, a former New York Rangers prospect has been waylaid with injuries over his two years of professional hockey. Appearing in just 26 games last season, the winger hopes to get his game back on track in Elmira. Meanwhile, Zaborsky, also a former Rangers prospect but acquired in a separate off-season deal, returns to North America after spending last season in Finland. Touted as a scoring forward, the Slovakian showed a nose for two seasons ago in the ECHL with 10 goals and 16 points over the course of a 19 game period with the Dayton Bombers. Like Hillier, he’s hoping for a fresh start with a new organization. Both players are on the final season of their three-year entry-level contracts and their play this season will help decide their professional hockey future.