With Tugnutt Gone Does Syracuse Need to Say Good-Bye to Labbe?

By Jeff Parzych

It’s not supposed to happen this way. Not after the season he just had and the love affair that has been created between this diminutive netminder from Sherbrooke and the fans of the Syracuse Crunch.

In only his first full season in Syracuse, he led the Crunch to their most successful campaign in franchise history. In his wake he left numerous team records and also a few league marks. No, it is not supposed to work like this. Jean-Francois Labbe was supposed to be around at least another season to lead the Crunch and also help exercise the ghosts of Sonny Mignacca and Sergei Tkachenko from the Syracuse crease.

That all changed on Tuesday when the Blue Jackets announced that they have traded goaltender Ron Tugnutt to the Dallas Stars. Just like that, by sheer numbers, Labbe is now technically the number two netminder on the Jackets behind newly appointed top guy Marc Denis.

All those years of toiling in the minors has finally paid of for Labbe. It is his time now. Time to take the next step and put to good use all the things he has learned along the way in places Thunder Bay and Cornwall. It is also time to leave his latest stop, the place where he achieved icon status in a little over one season, Syracuse. He will be sorely missed.

Not so fast. Maybe all this talk of Labbe hitting the Columbus shuttle is all a little premature. Yes there is one less goaltender as we speak in C-bus, but does that actually mean J.F will fill that role. So many scenarios could play themselves out between now and the start of the 2002-03 season. Nothing is a foregone conclusion and that is I would like to examine in the upcoming paragraphs.

Scenario 1: Pascal Leclaire: In this situation, most fans of the Crunch would be half-right. Yes, a goalie penciled in at Syracuse would wind up in Columbus, just not the one every one would expect. Pascal Leclaire, the Jackets first round selection and eighth overall in 2001, could wind up on the big stage in his first professional season.

Make no mistake; he is the goaltender of the future in Columbus. Coming off a season in which he backstopped Canada to a silver medal at the World Junior Hockey Championships and took home the award for Top Goaltender, he may be ready. Add to that the success this season that fellow first round selection Dan Blackburn had with the New York Rangers and I think the Jackets will be giving Leclaire a long look.

That only makes sense. Why not give the person you are pinning the future hopes of your franchise on a more than equitable shot at the job. Add to the mix the fact the fact that I really don’t buy that the Columbus brass believes Labbe can handle the number two job.

Yes, they are saying all the right things. Jim Clark was quoted in the Post-Standard on Thursday as saying “Labbe will compete for the job.” I’m sure he will, but less face the facts. Labbe has only appeared in five NHL games in his nine professional seasons. That doesn’t happen by accident.

I just feel that Columbus is very comfortable with J.F. has the number three guy. They have no problem, if the need arises, in placing a call to bring Labbe up for spot duty, but for an entire season I’m not so sure.

Scenario 2: Signing a veteran to back-up Denis:This may actually have the best chances of happening. Assistant GM Jim Clark was also quoted in the Post-Standard has saying that possibly a goalie we don’t know about yet will also compete for the job. That only makes sense.

The Jackets plan on giving Denis upwards of fifty starts in this upcoming season. That doesn’t leave much for his back up and those circumstances may not be ideal for a young goaltender like Leclaire. The Columbus brass may want him on the ice more honing his craft. That is an opportunity he will receive in the AHL.

Also a veteran presence may actually be necessary. The Jackets fully expect Denis to grab the reins and run with this opportunity, but this is his first shot at being “the guy”. Denis, who was 9-24-5 last season with a 3.11 goals against average, never made more than four straight starts for Columbus last season. It is that type of uncertainty that could make Doug MacLean and company opt for a more reliable insurance policy.

Scenario 3: Drafting Kari Lehtonen:Before you totally discount this idea let’s look at it a little closer. Yes, the Jackets are well-stocked in net, even with Tugnutt’s departure. To go along with Labbe and Leclaire, Columbus has Shane Bendera and Andrew Penner, two more highly touted prospects leaving the junior ranks looking for a spot on some roster. Also we haven’t even mentioned Karl Goehring. The former Fighting Sioux standout played well when he was with Syracuse and ended up leading Dayton to the Kelly Cup Finals in the ECHL.

So why Lehtonen? Besides the fact that his stock is soaring as the NHL prepares for their draft on Saturday June 22, some people believe you can never have enough goaltending. Also many teams have gone to the philosophy that when your pick arrives you take the best player available regardless of position or depth in the organization.

Lehtonen just may be that guy. Scouts have made it a foregone conclusion that he will be a number one goaltender in the near future and have gone even has far to compare his ability and temperament to one Patrick Roy. He also has already been tabbed the best goaltender to ever come out of Finland, a strong breeding ground of late for players between the pipes.

Two things seem to be against this actually playing out. One, I just believe the Blue Jackets have too many other needs to stockpile talent in the goal. Two, I don’t even think Doug MacLean will have the opportunity to take Lehtonen even if he wanted to. I’m leaning towards him going at number two to the Atlanta Thrashers.

Whatever the future holds is anybody’s guess. My best hypothesis has Columbus inking a veteran to back-up Denis. If that doesn’t occur, look for a Labbe, Bendera combination in Syracuse with Leclaire given the opportunity for some on-the-job training in the bigs.

Crunch One-Timers:

Mock Draft Picks:There has been plenty of speculation heading into Saturday’s draft regarding the Jackets first selection, number three overall. It has been mentioned that Columbus may be willing to deal the pick for the right price. Either way, by trade or a selection, GM Doug MacLean wants someone who will help the Jackets immediately. That does not bode well for Crunch fans. It could possibly be, if Leclaire ends up in C-bus, that it would be the third straight year that the first round selection of Columbus forgoes the stop in Syracuse and heads directly to the NHL.

As far as the draft goes, I see the Jackets selecting forward Rick Nash. He is a future star at power forward who has the potential to jump right in to the Jacket line-up. I think the Panthers will tab Bouwmeester with the first pick and unless Atlanta happens to make a trade, will grab the goaltender Lehtonen.

One bright spot that came out of the Tugnutt trade was the Jackets acquiring the 20th pick of the first round from the Stars. With that selection Columbus could grab someone that ends up skating with the Crunch. One face I would love to see in a Crunch uniform is former Michigan LW Eric Nystrom. At 6-1, 195, the son of former NHL’er Bob Nystrom has the pedigree to be a big time player in the NHL. Chances are though he won’t be available when the Jackets select at 20.

One player that might be around at 20 that may interest Columbus is the son of another former NHL player, Tomas Steen. Alexander Steen, a 5-11, 183 pound center is rated the number 12 European skater by Central Scouting. Described as a versatile two-way player with skill and character by the Prospect Advisor, Steen is viewed as a complete player who could help a team on both the penalty kill and the power play.