In a crunch: Syracuse minor-league franchise sees stronger connection with Tampa Bay Lightning during lockout

first_imgBrett Connolly knows something about the big leagues. The 20-year-old played 68 games for the Tampa Bay Lightning in the NHL last year, notching four goals and 15 points.He’s back in the minors this year, though. But not because of his play in Tampa.Connolly has joined the American Hockey League’s Syracuse Crunch this season, waiting out the NHL lockout that began Sept. 15. With owners and players locked in a dispute over issues like revenue sharing and player contracts, NHL games have been canceled through Dec. 14, but the threat of losing the entire season still looms.With the AHL experiencing no such dispute, NHL teams can send eligible players to the minors to stay game-ready. After playing just one full NHL season, Connolly fit the criteria and has scored 17 points in 19 games with Syracuse thus far.“Who knows, there may not even be an NHL season,” Connolly said. “I’m running with this. It would be cool to make a run at the Calder Cup.”AdvertisementThis is placeholder textFor the Crunch as an organization, it’s business as usual. The team is financially independent from the Lightning but shares a contract with an NHL partner for players. Last season’s Syracuse roster was part of the Anaheim organization, but the Crunch lineup is now in the Lightning system after a Tampa Bay-Anaheim minor-league swap. Tampa’s AHL squad in Norfolk won the Calder Cup championship last year, winning 28 consecutive games in the process.Maggie Walters, Crunch director of marketing and communications, said a recent game against Binghamton – Ottawa’s affiliate – may have attracted more fans from Ottawa than usual because they were interested in keeping tabs on the team’s prospects. Otherwise, Walters estimates the team has maintained its level of ticket sales from last year, with no significant lockout-related boost.In the realm of scouting and player development, though, the Crunch has noticed a difference since the lockout began, Walters said. Tampa Bay goaltending coach Frantz Jean was seen on the ice during last week’s practice at the Onondaga War Memorial, and Jean has frequently visited with Lightning player development coordinator Steve Thomas this year, Walters said.“It would happen anyways,” Walters said. “But it’s probably more frequent with the lockout.”Walters also pointed out a chain reaction caused by the lockout that leads to the East Coast Hockey League, a level below the AHL. With more NHL-ready players in the AHL, some AHL-level players have moved down to the ECHL.Crunch head coach Jon Cooper, last year’s AHL outstanding coach award winner, said he sees a raised standard of play in the league this year. He estimates that 100 or more players in the league would be in the NHL right now, if not for the lockout.Despite the sense of moving down a level, Cooper believes the situation can help certain young players.“It gives guys the chance to play way more minutes, important minutes,” Cooper said. “It gives us the chance to put them in all types of situations. There’s no substitute for playing.”It’s something Connolly recognizes as he speaks with his Tampa teammates.Some are playing in Europe with many other NHL players. Others aren’t playing at all. Lightning star Steven Stamkos is one of those who is not playing, instead enjoying the time off and working out to stay in peak condition, Connolly said.Connolly sees the value in rest, but he wants to take his opportunity in Syracuse to develop his game as much as possible.“I played with guys last year who don’t have a place to play,” Connolly said. “It’s a benefit for me – everyone wants to be playing, and I’ve learned so much. The coaches are hard on me, they expect a lot, and you need that as a player.”And it’s not as if his Tampa coaches aren’t watching. Lightning head coach Guy Boucher has made the trip to six Crunch games this season, something he would never be able to do during a regular NHL season, Cooper said.So far this season, Syracuse has carried its momentum from last year’s Calder Cup run in Norfolk, starting the season 13-5-1-1 and tied for first place in the AHL’s Eastern Conference.“It’s a great group of guys,” Connolly said. “I’ve never been on a team that’s so confident. We want to get better, we will get better and losing is not acceptable.”Although the AHL provides high-level hockey for a price much less expensive than the NHL, some local fans are getting restless at the lack of NHL play. Senior television, radio and film major Jake Cohen is an avid NHL fan who grew up in St. Louis rooting for the Blues.When Cohen came to Syracuse, he got his NHL fix by traveling to Buffalo for Sabres games. He estimates that he has gone once a month in the last three years.But since players can’t move up to the NHL due to the lockout, Cohen finds himself unwilling to spend money on the Crunch despite the AHL’s status as the highest-level North American league currently in season.“I don’t really care about AHL teams,” Cohen said. “I care more about individual player growth and following their journey to the NHL. Since there’s no season, it’s pointless.”As the lockout drags on, players and coaches are beginning to wonder if the conflict can be resolved in time to save the season. Cooper said he listens to NHL Network Radio every morning when he’s not on the road, and Connolly said he uses social media to read up on the latest developments.Until a resolution is reached, Connolly will be a member of the Crunch, which looks primed to contend for the Calder Cup.For Connolly, the chance to chase a title – no matter where he takes the ice – makes the experience worth it.“I have a grasp on everything, and I’ve been keeping tabs,” Connolly said. “But right now, the Syracuse Crunch is my main thought.” Comments Facebook Twitter Google+ Published on December 5, 2012 at 2:54 am Contact Kevin: [email protected]last_img read more