AHL road trip: Crunch time for Lightning prospects
ROB LONGLEY, QMI Agency
|This picture should bring back some painful memories for Marlies fans. Admirals defenceman Keith Aulie raises up the Calder Cup after sweeping away the Marlies during the final in June. The Admirals have since moved their franchise from Norfolk to Syracuse. (JACK BOLAND/QMI Agency)
SYRACUSE, N.Y. - There will not be a championship banner hanging from the aging rafters of War Memorial Arena to recognize their accomplishments.
The colours of their gear have changed, as has their surroundings. But no one can take the Calder Cup title away from the 15 players at training camp, the coaching staff and the parent NHL club in Tampa Bay that employs them all.
The Norfolk Admirals, who defeated the Toronto Marlies in the American Hockey League final last spring, are now the Syracuse Crunch, a cold reality of minor pro hockey where affiliations can and do swing frequently.
The Lightning, like the majority of NHL teams, isn’t necessarily in the business of winning AHL titles, though it can’t hurt. From Tampa general manager Steve Yzerman on down, the message to coach Jon Cooper and his staff is clear: Take prospects and mould them into NHL ready players.
So when the Crunch came courting last winter, Yzerman and his staff couldn’t resist the benefits of moving to a market closer to the hub of eastern-based AHL teams. Norfolk may have had a strong fan base following the sensational 28-game winning streak and playoff title run by this squad, but it required players to spend far too much time riding the buses.
“The human body can only do so much,” Crunch general manager Julien Brisebois said of the rigours of the extra-long treks from Virginia to other stops on the AHL trail. “Last year, we would literally sleep on a bus to and from (a road trip) every other weekend.
“We don’t do that once this year. That’s 18 nights we are going to sleep in our own bed this season that we didn’t last year and that’s huge. When you travel that much, the practice days are not the quality you would like, you are just getting the rust off. Now, every practice day we are going to get better. That’s what we’re here for ... we’re a development league.”
Every team in the AHL is a little more than that this season. Infused with talent that otherwise would be on NHL rosters, the hockey promises to be faster and perhaps a little more refined.
Cooper, who might not be far removed from an NHL job after last season’s work, estimates that most AHL teams will have three players that would have had a decent shot at making the opening-night roster with the big club. And with a new fan base to woo, that can’t hurt.
“It’s bittersweet to leave Norfolk, ultimately it was a great fan base there and it was a ton of fun,” Cooper said. “But it’s a long season and the more time you can keep them off the bus, the better it is. That opens 10 or 15 more practice times a year and we intend to take advantage of that.”
In pondering the swap in affiliation, it didn’t hurt that Syracuse was willing to sweeten the pot to bring in a team with proven success. Extensive renovations were done to the War Memorial, which was built in 1951 and is said to be a rocking barn when filled it its 7,000-plus capacity.
Historically, Syracuse has been on and off as a strong AHL market, but local ownership is working hard to building the buzz. It certainly turned some heads with a billboard campaign featuring a Tampa based model sporting a tight Crunch tee, tight shorts and stillettos with the message “From Tampa with Love.”
Once they get folks in the building, the Crunch brass figures they’ll feel that love and have ample reason to return.
“This will be the highest level of hockey the AHL has ever seen,” BriseBois said. “It’s going to be off the charts. I’ve told our guys that right now, the AHL is the best game in the world right now, you would not want to be anywhere else.
“This as close to NHL hockey as you can get and that’s even when there isn’t a work stoppage in the NHL. People underestimate how good a league this is.”
Time to hone skills
Every NHL team has one or two of them, players who should be starting in the NHL this October.
For the Crunch, the leading man in that category would be forward Brett Connolly.
The 20-year-old, who was drafted sixth overall by the Lightning in the 2010 draft, played in 68 NHL games last season, recording a modest 15 points. A nice lockout-mandated run this season could certainly help him develop faster than up with the big team.
“He’ll get more minutes here than he would have got in Tampa and that can’t do anything but help the kid,” Crunch coach Jon Cooper said. “Saying that, you hope (the young players who might otherwise be in the NHL) don’t come here thinking they can just throw their sticks in the middle of the ice and it’s going to be easy.
“The gap between junior hockey and the American league is huge. The gap between the Ameircan League and the NHL is significanlty smaller. If you don’t come perpared the AHL will eat you up.”
Connolly certainly doesn’t intend to take anything for granted, especially on a veteran-heavy Calder Cup champion squad.
“I want to improve and I need to get better,” Connolly said. “I realize that and that this is a great environment for my development. I want to leave here a better pro, a better player and a better teammate.”
If attitude accounts for anything — and it certainly does — Cooper feels Connolly is off to a strong start.
“One good thing is he has come in excited,” Cooper said.”