Coming off a disappointing finish to the 2005-06 season that saw the team secure 47 regular-season wins only to be pushed out of the playoffs in the first round, the Syracuse Crunch enter the new year with most of the same pieces in place. While advancing deeper into the AHL playoffs will be the first priority, the Blue Jacket organization is interning a strong group of youngsters on War Memorial Ice this year. In fact, the current crop of prospects matriculating under new head coach Ross Yates’ staff might be the deepest group since the founding of the franchise, even accounting for the expected permanent graduations of AHL veterans Aaron Johnson, Ole Kristian Tollefsen, and Geoff Platt.
The Crunch are headlined this year by a deep, versatile group of forwards up front that includes several of the brightest stars within the organization. With a group that includes three of the top ten prospects in the system in 2004 first round pick Alexandre Picard, fast-rising wing Adam Pineault, and two-way forward Joakim Lindstrom, the shuttle between Columbus and Syracuse should remain fairly active as the winter wears on.
Entering his second season with the Crunch, lanky wing Picard is looking to remain healthy for the entire season after suffering from a severe case of vertigo in 2005-06 that limited him to 45 games with Syracuse and 17 with the Jackets. While Picard’s debut at the NHL level may not have been profound, his 15-goal, 15-assist, 52-penalty minute performance as an AHL freshman was perhaps more indicative of his ability to contribute at both ends of the rink. Considering his drive and all-around game have already drawn rave reviews both within and outside of the organization, 2006-07 may very well end up being Picard’s last lap around the track before establishing himself as an NHL-caliber presence on the Blue Jacket wing.
Graduating out of the QMJHL and into one of the top two lines in Syracuse this year is Picard’s 2004 draft classmate, Pineault. An exciting player who already possesses an NHL-caliber shot and the demonstrated ability to use it, Pineault is advancing with fellow Blue Jacket prospect Phillipe Dupuis from an impressive Moncton team which was headed last season by new Islander head coach Ted Nolan.
For both players, the time spent learning under a veteran NHL coach known for preaching a strong work ethic at both ends of the ice may give each a leg up in their first season at the professional level. The pair combined to post 61 goals and 106 assists last season with the Wildcats during an impressive regular-season run, and continued to show that offensive synergy in leading Moncton deep into the playoffs. Toss in new European import Peter Pohl, and the Crunch should have the ability to score with any team in the AHL this season.
Whereas the current crop of talent up front may force their way into Nationwide Arena over the next several months, the story on the blue line may take a bit longer to develop. With top defensive prospects Johnson and Tollefsen expected to graduate into a full-time role with Columbus this season, the most intriguing elements in the defensive zone are all several seasons removed from progressing into NHL-ready talent.
The top prospect along the blue line this year in Syracuse will most likely be Ottawa native Marc Methot. The former OHL All-Star has already made an impression throughout the organization, displaying a solid technical game in his own zone complimented by a willingness to exert himself physically when required. While not an offensive dynamo, Methot is a capable contributor on the attack and should continue to improve as he hones his skills in his sophomore campaign in the AHL. Depending on the situation in Columbus come spring, Methot may earn an extended audition with the Jackets before the new season is out.
As with Pineault and Dupuis up front, a pair of defensive prospects are poised to graduate out of the amateur ranks and into a regular role with the Crunch this season. Both Kyle Wharton and Trevor Hendrikx have displayed enough talent in the OHL over the past few seasons to suggest that each may have a say in the future along the Columbus blue line. Both players have shown an ability to handle matters in their own end and an offensive upside that may translate into the professional ranks.
Of the two, Hendrikx is a very intriguing prospect thanks to a tantalizing combination of offensive skill and strong physical play in his own end. Over the past two seasons with Peterborough, Hendrikx has tallied 24 goals and 80 assists in 128 regular-season games, totals which place him at the top of the defensive board in the OHL. That level of offensive prowess remained consistent into the postseason, as evidenced by 10 goals and 17 assists in 33 playoff games with the Petes.
With the parent club now depending upon Pascal Leclaire to take the reins and drive the Jackets into their first postseason berth, the story in Syracuse becomes focused on his eventual backup in net. The most likely candidates are a pair of newcomers to the professional ranks in North America: European veteran Tomas Popperle and recent OHL graduate Daniel LaCosta.
In what might be a prolonged battle to establish primacy in the Syracuse net, both players have a legitimate shot at developing into an NHL-caliber backstop. Each player is coming off an impressive 2005-06 campaign and overall solid showings in the preseason and at this past summer’s prospect development camp. LaCosta in particular looked strong at last month’s Traverse City tournament, but may be headed to Dayton of the ECHL at some point this season if recently-demoted NHL veteran Ty Conklin and Popperle eat up most of the minutes with the Crunch.
Either way, Crunch fans should be treated to a real battle in the nets over the next two seasons, when this year’s third round pick (and an early darkhorse to succeed Leclaire in net in a few years) Steve Mason graduates into the AHL.
As the saying goes, things can only get better, and they will continue to improve for the Crunch faithful thanks to what will be spirited battles for tickets to Columbus, especially up front and in net. Given the impressive performance of many of these players last year and in preseason games and tournaments, it is difficult to see the on-ice performance of the club declining in 2006-07.
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