DENVER — There might be one team in hockey hotter than the Lightning.
It is Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate, Syracuse.
The Crunch has won 10 straight after Friday’s victory over Providence. Why is this important? While the AHL is a developmental league, the Crunch’s winning culture has a significant impact on the Lightning pipeline.
Look no further than Yanni Gourde or Jake Dotchin, Tampa Bay regulars that cut their teeth with the Crunch. So did Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and head coach Jon Cooper. Cory Conacher found his game there in last season’s Calder Cup run and is now a staple in the Lightning lineup.
There could be more prospects coming, especially with veteran wing Ryan Callahan (upper body) expected to be out three to four weeks. Who’s closest to a call-up? How did the Crunch streak start? We chatted with Syracuse coach Benoit Groulx:
What’s been the difference in starting this streak (after a 4-9-1 start)?
"I think the biggest change is the arrival of Louis Domingue (acquired from Arizona last month for goalie Michael Leighton and forward Tye McGinn). He’s been phenomenal since he’s been with us. He gives us a chance to win every night. We had lost six games by one goal, so games were tight, but we found a way to lose most of them. With his arrival, making one more stop a game, it’s allowed our team to play with more freedom. Look at our young guys, it’s nice to see they’re not afraid to make a mistake."
I heard Crunch owner Howard Dolgon gave you a supportive phone call, too. That help a lot?
"We had lost a game or two, back to back in Toronto. The next morning at the rink he gave me a call. ‘If you want to talk, I know how much you guys want to win, know how much you guys are working. I’m here for you.’ It’s nice to have this phone call from the owner."
One guy, forward Anthony Cirelli, has been impressive (AHL player of the week). What have you thought of him?
"He’s becoming a better player every day now. He’s more familiar with the routine of pro hockey, not only on the ice but off the ice. It’s all about playing in all three zones, competing. It’s about growing, and I think (players) understand that maybe the NHL isn’t tomorrow for us, but it’s right there at the door and they believe the better they are, the closer they’ll be to playing in the NHL. Another guy I can tell you he’s closer is Adam Erne."
Why is Erne knocking at the NHL door?
"His game is much better. He’s one of those players that understands he’s got to be a good player in all three zones. He’s making plays, he’s tougher to play against when he doesn’t have the puck. He’s a much better player without the puck than he was. He was more on the rush offensive player before, but now he’s a better playmaker, he’s more in front of the net. Doing all the little details that is necessary to have success in the NHL. I really like his progression. When you have young guys like (Alex) Volkov and (Mathieu) Joseph and (Mitchell) Stephens and (Erik) Cernak, Ben Thomas, those young guys are all progressing, getting closer. They all do something to catch your eye and you’re like, ‘Hmmm, you know what, he’s got a legitimate chance to play (in the NHL).’ "
Speaking of Volkov, he was really intriguing in training camp, impressed the coaching staff. What have you seen in his first year pro?
"It’s not about ‘if,’ it’s more about when (he’s in the NHL). He’s got the size, he’s got the speed, he’s got all the skills. He’s very deceptive for the opposition. You believe he’s slowing down and all of a sudden he’s got a second gear. He can beat you inside, can beat you outside. He’s got a good shot, good vision, good hockey sense. He’s got a lot of tools in his box. For him it’s about getting stronger, he’s still a young guy, he’s got to put some muscle on his body. It’s about being a better player without the puck, understanding what he’s got to do in certain areas, protect the puck, how to accomplish in 40 seconds what he used to do in a minute back in junior hockey or Russia."
It certainly looks like Conacher is playing like he wants to stay up in the NHL.
"It’s been great for Cony. He’s been a great leader for us, him and Gourde were a great duo for us (last year). He didn’t have the start he wanted, but every day, he was a good player, a good leader for us. We’re so happy for him. He’s doing things well out there, and he’s going to find a way to hang in there."
On the blueline, who would be the next call-up ready? Cernak, Thomas, Masin?
"I think they need more time. They showed a lot of good things last year, second half of the season. But now this year, they’ve got to be better than where they were last year, and consistency is a big word for them. You know that’s a trap when you come back a second year after losing in the final, you think it’s going to be easier, and it’s tougher.
With all this talk about NHL, how about you? GM Steve Yzerman told me he believes you’ll be an NHL coach one day. Is that your dream?
"I want to coach in the NHL, there’s no doubt in my mind. But I’m very happy where I am now. I think I cannot be in a better spot for me to improve as a coach, for me to have success as a coach, for me to not only push my limits but limits of our players. As a coach, I think it’s one of the greatest environments a coach can be in."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow@TBTimes_JSmith.