Syracuse Crunch season preview

By Jeff Parzych

The Syracuse Crunch head into 2004-05 looking to put behind them the
disappointment from last year’s first round playoff loss to their top rival, the Rochester
Americans. The Crunch led three games to one in that series before
bowing out in Game 7 with a 4-3 overtime loss on home ice. Plenty of
players return, and along with an influx of new talent, it should give Syracuse and head coach Gary Agnew a strong chance to at least match last year’s win total of 38.

Goaltending

Goaltending remains the most critical
position for Syracuse in the new campaign. Returning for the third straight season are the tandem of 21-year-old Pascal Leclaire and 26-year-old Karl Goehring. Both
players were moderately successful last season and each will need to
continue to improve for the Crunch to find success.

This season is easily the most important of Pascal Leclaire’s young
career. Selected by Columbus with the eighth overall selection in the
2001 Entry Draft, Leclaire heads into 2004 looking to shake the bouts of inconsistency that have plagued him the past two season with the
Crunch.

Leclaire showed marked improvement at times in 2003 as he increased
his win total from eight in 2002 to 21 last season, but that is only half the story for this Quebec native. Far too often Leclaire has followed up a spectacular outing with an extremely poor performance, a prime example being last year’s North Division Semifinals.

What makes this season even more critical for Leclaire is the fact
that he is in the last year of his contract. First round pick or not,
Leclaire will need to shine this season or he may end up in a different
organization next year.

Goehring will be pushing Leclaire for playing time once again.
Heading into his fourth season as a professional, Goehring continues to
fly under the radar and quietly put up solid numbers year after year. He posted
17 wins in 2003 and once again for the seventh straight season, dating
back to his North Dakota days, he had a goals against average under
three (2.60).

Goehring may find himself between the pipes for the Crunch on opening night — Pascal Leclaire has been slowed this preseason by a knee injury and he surrendered eight goals on just 24 shots in his only
exhibition action.

Second-year professional Andrew Penner mans the No. 3 spot
in the minors for the Columbus organization and will continue to hone
his skills with the Dayton Bombers of the ECHL. The 21-year-old comes off a very productive preseason in which he appeared in two games and turned away 61 of 62 shots for the Crunch.

Syracuse head coach Gary Agnew has liked what he has seen of the
6’2, 198 lb. Penner so far this preseason. “He is big in the net and anytime that he is getting screened he is such a big guy a lot of pucks hit him even though he doesn’t know they are hitting him because he is in great position.”

Defense

Turnover abounds on a unit that surrendered the fourth highest goal
total in the AHL last season. Gone are former captain Darrel Scoville, one-time Blue Jacket Derrick Walser, veteran Trent Cull, along with Brendan Buckley and Paul Traynor.

Leading the Crunch blueline will be a couple of players who appeared
on a part-time basis with the club last season. Second-year man Aaron Johnson returns to Syracuse after splitting last season between Syracuse and Columbus. The 21-year-old will be joined by veteran Jamie Pushor, who once again will don a Crunch sweater after finishing last season with the Hartford Wolf Pack.

Two other long-time AHL performers, Zenith Komarniski and
Francois Beauchemin, will provide depth for Syracuse. Komarniski
returns after being acquired early last season from the Manitoba Moose.
Beauchemin, plucked off waivers from the Montreal organization, kicks
off his first season in Syracuse after appearing in 77 games last season with the Hamilton Bulldogs.

Rounding out the Crunch defense will be two promising rookies in
Ole-Kristian Tollefson and Prestin Ryan along with Andre
Lakos, who is looking to make his mark in North America after
spending last season in Austria.

Twenty-two-year-old Russian Evgueni Nourislamov remains in Crunch camp, but for how long is anybody’s guess. Right now Syracuse has eight defenseman on the roster, one more than they will probably carry. Nourislamov, who spent his rookie season last year with the San Diego Gulls of the ECHL, despite performing admirably in camp, could be the odd man out.

Alex Johnstone could also see some time in Syracuse after a
very impressive training camp with the Crunch. The Halifax native has shown marked improvement over the last two seasons and he has turned himself into a viable AHL blueliner.

Forwards

Like most American League clubs in this lockout situation Syracuse
is
quite deep at the forward position. Despite losing talented players
like David Ling, Donald MacLean and Kent McDonell, the Crunch should not miss a beat on the offensive end.

Syracuse’s prize catch appears to be center Alexander Svitov.
The talented Russian forward appeared in 29 games with the Jackets last
year after being acquired from Tampa Bay in the Darryl Sydor deal. Svitov is
obviously talented, but he has yet to reach his potential to date at
either
the AHL or the NHL level.

Retuning to form the nucleus of the Syracuse attack are veterans
Mark
Hartigan
, Jeremy Reich, Brad Moran, Tim
Jackman
, Mike Pandolfo and Joe Motzko. Promising power forward Tim Jackman may be another lockout gift from Columbus after an impressive 19-game stint on the big stage last season. Second year man Joe Motzko, who head man Gary Agnew has tabbed the most impressive player in camp, looks to prove his 41-point rookie campaign was no fluke.

Syracuse also added some proven scoring in the form of center
Jeff Panzer. Claimed off waivers from the St. Louis organization, Panzer
provides depth down the middle for the Crunch. Syracuse also brought on
board Austrian forward Matthias Trattnig, who spent last season
in Germany after playing two years with Djurgardens of the Swedish Elite League.

Looking to inject some new life into the Crunch offense are rookies
Steven Goertzen, Greg Mauldin and Raffaele
Sannitz
.
Mauldin has yet to display his trademark speed, but he has looked good
at
times while Sannitz has been slowed by a shoulder injury all camp. The
most
impressive newcomer has to be Goertzen. He has looked like a keeper all
training camp and was even singled out by Agnew as one of the bright
spots early on.

“I kind of like Steve Goertzen’s game right now,” stated Agnew. He
skates well and he seems to make smart plays and good decisions. I
don’t know if he is going to score a lot of goals but I think he might be a third line type and if he bangs and gets to the net he might get 10 or 15.”

Rounding out the Syracuse forwards are the tandem of Tyler
Sloan

and Brandon Sugden. Quite often paired together on the same
line, this duo provides energy for the Crunch with their physical play. Sloan is
also an ace in the hole for Agnew with his ability to drop back and
play on the blueline when needed. Sugden, 26, returns for his second full season in the AHL as one
of the most feared heavyweights in the league. As a rookie Sugden led the American League in fighting majors and he added 15 pounds of muscle to his already imposing frame in the offseason.

Shawn Limpright, a prized acquisition last season from
Roanoke of the ECHL, was one of the first players dispatched to Dayton when cuts were announced. Limpright, 23, was spectacular at times last season with the Crunch as he teamed with Joe Motzko and Mark Hartigan to form a lethal trio. Prior to signing with Syracuse, Limpright recorded 35 points in 27 games with Roanoke
and he has the potential to be an elite player at the “AA” level.

Rookie Tyler Kolarik, 23, was also dispatched to Dayton after some promising play in the preseason. Compounding Kolarik’s transition to
the pro game was his switch to center from the wing spot. The former Harvard standout will continue to work on that change with the Bombers.

Ben Knopp also finds himself back in the ECHL after spending 2003 with the Crunch. Columbus’ second pick in the 2000 Entry Draft, the 22-year-old Knopp has worked
diligently over the last two seasons transforming his game from the
scorer he was in junior to a solid checking line player for the Crunch.
Possibly spending some time in the Coast will allow Knopp to regain his scoring touch and finish rounding out his game.

Outlook

While Syracuse did receive some gifts from the Blue Jackets due to
the lockout, they still didn’t get the talent that rivals like Rochester and Binghamton received. That being said, the Crunch may benefit from being in a weaker North Division where outside of the Rochester Americans, things may be up from grabs. If the goaltending can hold up, look for possibly a second or third place finish in the North and another visit to the AHL’s postseason party.

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