Solid group of Tampa Bay Lightning defensemen proving their worth in Syracuse

By Chris Roberts
Photo: Adam Erne joined the Syracuse Crunch last fall after scoring 21 goals in 22 games in the 2015 QMJHL playoffs, for which he earned the Playoff MVP Award. (Courtesy of Graig Abel/Getty Images)

Photo: Adam Erne joined the Syracuse Crunch last fall after scoring 21 goals in 22 games in the 2015 QMJHL playoffs, for which he earned the Playoff MVP Award. (Courtesy of Graig Abel/Getty Images)

 

 

Unlike in years past, Tampa Bay Lightning’s AHL affiliate does not boast a large group of young, talented forwards. Instead, the bulk of the Syracuse Crunch’s offense has come from aging veterans, and the team has been mediocre in the first half of the season.

Still, Tampa Bay has more than a few players worth monitoring at both the AHL and ECHL levels. The strength of the Crunch lies in their defense, which includes first-round picks Anthony DeAngelo and Slater Koekkoek, as well as Dylan Blujus, a 2012 second round pick. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has also spent some time with the Crunch this season, while both Kristers Gudlevskis and Adam Wilcox remain intriguing prospects between the pipes.

The Lightning ended their affiliation with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades at the end of the last season, but the team quickly found a new affiliate in August—the Greenville Swamp Rabbits. Brian Hart, another second-round pick in 2010, has spent the majority of this season with the Swamp Rabbits, while both Daniel Walcott and Henri Ikonen have had stints with the team.

AHL

Andrei Vasilevskiy, G, 21

The Lightning’s prized goaltending prospect was not supposed to play in the AHL this season, but he has been sent to Syracuse on three previous occasions. In late October, Vasilevskiy played two games to return to playing form after recovering from a collarbone injury. He won both of those games and gave up one goal in each. Vasilevskiy was sent back to the Crunch in December for an extended stint, where he played in ten games and posted a 2.03 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage. Vasilevskiy has since been recalled to Tampa Bay.

Kristers Gudlevskis, G, 23

While Vasilevskiy was getting back into game form in December, Gudlevskis was backing up Ben Bishop in Tampa Bay. He played one game for the Lightning, but has been the undisputed starter for the Crunch. In 20 games, he has a .918 save percentage and 2.63 goals-against average. He still plays a loose game between the pipes, but has refined his technique in the past year and has become better at squaring up to shooters. He has proven himself to be, at worst, a reliable AHL starting goaltender.

Adam Wilcox, G, 23

Wilcox was tremendous in three years at the University of Minnesota, but his pro career hasn’t exactly gotten off to a great start. He has appeared in 13 games with the Crunch, posting a 5-4-1 record and a 3.13 goals-against average. He would be better suited to play in the ECHL, where he would earn consistent playing time.

Adam Erne, RW, 20

First-year pro Adam Erne is arguably the Crunch forward with the most NHL potential. He has impressive size at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds and decent speed and skating ability for a budding power-forward type. The American had just one point in his first four games this season before injuring his hand on a blocked shot attempt, forcing him to miss the entire month of November. Erne returned on Dec. 4 and had a three-point night against the Binghamton Senators. He has been an integral part of the Crunch’s offense since, particularly on the powerplay where he has scored three of his five goals. Erne has played 28 games this season and has 15 points and 45 penalty minutes, which is fourth on the team.

Joel Vermin, RW, 23

A seventh-round pick in 2013, Vermin was already quite polished when the Lightning drafted him, having played three full seasons in Switzerland’s top pro league. It was no fluke then that he was able to be a solid AHLer last season when he arrived in North America, but that he worked his way onto the Lightning roster this season is somewhat surprising.

Vermin recorded 11 points in 15 games before he was recalled to Tampa Bay. Unfortunately, he will be sidelined until at least mid-February after suffering a hand injury in just his sixth game with the Lightning. Vermin will likely be returned to Syracuse when healthy.

Henri Ikonen, LW, 21

There hasn’t been much development in the second year of Henri Ikonen’s pro career. The sixth-round pick in 2013 was an offensive force in his final year of junior and filled a bottom-six role for the Crunch last season, recording 13 points in 59 games. A jump in production was expected for the Finn this season, but he has just four points through 25 games and has a minus-9 rating. What’s worse is that Ikonen has failed to record a point since Nov. 20, a string of 12 games. He has three assists, all of which came in October, and he was even sent to Greenville of the ECHL for three games.

David Broll, LW, 23

Acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs at last year’s trade deadline, Broll has brought little offense to the Syracuse Crunch, but has given the team a physical force in its bottom-six. Through 28 games he has one goal and three assists, as well as 63 penalty minutes. Broll has fought 23 times in the past two seasons and has five fighting majors for Syracuse this season. At best, he’s a fourth line winger whose skating will make it tough for him to advance his career.

Yanni Gourde, LW, 23

Gourde has been reliable, but not as productive as he was last season for the Crunch, when he recorded 57 points in 76 games (29 goals, 28 assists). The diminutive forward has 18 in 37 games. Still, he made his NHL debut in December, more out of necessity than anything. Gourde was returned to Syracuse at the end of December.

Matt Peca, C, 22

Another smaller forward, Matt Peca has adjusted well in his first full pro season after an eight-game stint last season. Peca spent four seasons at Quinnipiac University where he consistently put up 30-plus points, and through 33 games with Syracuse this season the Petawawa, Ont. native is sixth in team scoring with 22 points in 42 games.

Unlike other Crunch forwards, he hasn’t had any considerable dry spells offensively. In fact, he has bettered his point total in each consecutive month since the beginning of the season. Peca has also been a constant on the power-play, scoring two of his four goals with the man advantage.

Tanner Richard, C, 22

Third-year pro Tanner Richard is on pace to once again improve his point total from the season prior. In his rookie season he recorded just 17 points in 65 games; last season that number ballooned to 38 in 70 games, and this year Richard has 25 points in 38 games. He has just five goals, but scoring has never been his strength, and his 20 assists are tied with Anthony DeAngelo for most on the team.

After a slow month of October, Richard recorded seven points in November and December. He hasn’t had to be as involved physically with the acquisition of David Broll and others. Because of that, Richard has just 14 penalty minutes this season, as opposed to the 135 and 95 he accumulated in his first two seasons.

Cam Darcy, C, 21

The Lightning opted to let Cam Darcy play out his overage season in the QMJHL last season, delaying his pro debut until this year. He had to work to earn his ice time at the beginning of the season but he has steadily become a more reliable forward for head coach Rob Zettler, even earning opportunities on the power-play in December with a number of the team’s veterans injured on recalled to Tampa Bay. He has seven points in 29 games this season, five of which have come in the last nine games.

Anthony DeAngelo, D, 20

The American defenseman and first-round pick in 2014 had a prolific scoring streak with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds last season, so it’s no surprise his offensive instincts and abilities have been on display through the first half of his first pro season. DeAngelo is fifth on the Crunch in scoring with 24 points in 39 games, including a team-leading 20 assists. He’s going to get his points, especially on the power-play, but it is his positioning and coverage in the defensive zone is where he needs to improve moving forward. Interestingly enough, all three of his goals came during a three-game scoring streak in October.

Slater Koekkoek, D, 21

Smooth-skating, hard-hitting defenseman Slater Koekkoek has had brief appearances for the Lightning in the past two seasons, but he is still far from becoming an NHL regular. A lot of that has to do with Koekkoek’s injury history prior to turning pro; he had his season ended in consecutive years due to a shoulder injury. However, the Winchester, Ont. native has been healthy for the past two seasons—a positive sign for both the player and organization. This year, Koekkoek has eight points in 27 games for Syracuse and has been paired with stay-at-home defenseman Luke Witkowski for the majority of those games.

Dylan Blujus, D, 21

Blujus had an impressive rookie campaign last season in Syracuse, often playing top-four minutes and earning considerable power-play minutes toward the end of the season. He has continued to earn that privilege this season, while maintaining sound five-on-five play. Blujus’ nine points in 27 games is third amongst the team’s defensemen, behind only DeAngelo and Matt Taormina, who has often been paired with Blujus. Given the amount of player movement up and down between Syracuse and Tampa Bay this season, Blujus might be in line for an audition with the Lightning in the near future.

Jake Dotchin, D, 21

Dotchin hasn’t been able to replicate the offensive production he had last season (20 points in 55 games), but he continues to be a valuable bottom-six physical presence for Syracuse. His five assists in 42 games is worst amongst the Crunch’s regular defenseman, but he has 78 penalty minutes, good enough for second on the team.

Daniel Walcott, D, 20

Undrafted free agent signing Daniel Walcott split the first two months of the season in Greenville of the ECHL but has since earned his keep in Syracuse. In November, after playing three games with Greenville and being a healthy scratch with Syracuse, he was told by Crunch head coach Rob Zettler to find accommodations in Syracuse. He has six points in 30 games in the AHL, which is where he will stay throughout the season.

Luke Witkowski, D, 25

Witkowski has become a serviceable seventh or eighth defenseman for Tampa Bay. In the last season-and-a-half he has played 20 games for the team, but his skillset is limited. He is an aggressive, physical defender who can clear the front of the net and log heavy minutes on the penalty kill. He is, however, on pace to record a career high in points with Syracuse—he has eight points in 36 games and his high is 12 in 76.

ECHL

Brian Hart, RW, 22

Hart has the body of a power forward (6’3 and 222lbs) but lacks the quickness and skating ability at this point to earn his keep in the AHL. The first-year pro has appeared in eight games with the Crunch, but has spent more time with Greenville, where he has played 23 games. He has six goals and two assists. It was somewhat surprising the Lightning opted to sign Hart after just three seasons with Harvard, particularly given how he has been used this season.

Other Notable Prospects

The Lightning had four prospects participate in the World Junior Championships—Brayden Point, Mitchell Stephens, Jonne Tammela and Dominik Masin. Point, who captained the Canadian team, was injured leading up to the tournament and though he registered five points in five games his performance was underwhelming. Stephens, meanwhile, had two points for the Canadians, and will be eligible to return next year in a larger role offensively. Both Masin and Tammela played in limited roles for the Czech Republic and Finland respectively, but looked comfortable throughout the tournament.

December Prospect of the Month: Mathieu Joseph

Mathieu Joseph - Tampa Bay LightningThe Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL boast a deep offensive group. The team had seven players drafted in last June’s NHL Draft and, heading into the season, there was a number of players who could have led the way offensively. And through the first month or so the team continued to win with a balanced attack, but in December Mathieu Joseph emerged as an offensive leader.

A fourth-round pick, Joseph scored nine goals and added nine assists in 10 December contests, including a hat trick against Acadie-Bathurst on Dec. 28. He recorded a point in every game of the month and also added to his team lead in shorthanded goals, scoring two in the month. He has five this season, just one short of league leader Yan Pavel Laplante.