Q&A with Syracuse coach Benoit Groulx about the Lightning’s next generation

Tampa Bay Lightning director of player development Stacy Roest, left, and Tampa Bay Lightning Syracuse Crunch Head Coach Benoit Groulx attend the Lightning Development Camp on Tuesday (6/27/17) at the Brandon Ice Sports Forum in Brandon. (Douglas R. Clifford, Times)
Tampa Bay Lightning director of player development Stacy Roest, left, and Tampa Bay Lightning Syracuse Crunch Head Coach Benoit Groulx attend the Lightning Development Camp on Tuesday (6/27/17) at the Brandon Ice Sports Forum in Brandon. (Douglas R. Clifford, Times)
Published December 16 2017
Updated December 16 2017

DENVER ó There might be one team in hockey hotter than the Lightning.

It is Tampa Bayís AHL affiliate, Syracuse.

The Crunch has won 10 straight after Fridayís victory over Providence. Why is this important? While the AHL is a developmental league, the Crunchís 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 seasonís 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. Whoís closest to a call-up? How did the Crunch streak start? We chatted with Syracuse coach Benoit Groulx:

Whatís 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). Heís been phenomenal since heís 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, itís allowed our team to play with more freedom. Look at our young guys, itís nice to see theyíre 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. ĎIf you want to talk, I know how much you guys want to win, know how much you guys are working. Iím here for you.í Itís 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?

"Heís becoming a better player every day now. Heís more familiar with the routine of pro hockey, not only on the ice but off the ice. Itís all about playing in all three zones, competing. Itís about growing, and I think (players) understand that maybe the NHL isnít tomorrow for us, but itís right there at the door and they believe the better they are, the closer theyíll be to playing in the NHL. Another guy I can tell you heís closer is Adam Erne."

Why is Erne knocking at the NHL door?

"His game is much better. Heís one of those players that understands heís got to be a good player in all three zones. Heís making plays, heís tougher to play against when he doesnít have the puck. Heís a much better player without the puck than he was. He was more on the rush offensive player before, but now heís a better playmaker, heís 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 youíre like, ĎHmmm, you know what, heís got a legitimate chance to play (in the NHL).í "

Speaking of Volkov, he was really intriguing in training camp, impressed the coaching staff. What have you seen in his first year pro?

"Itís not about Ďif,í itís more about when (heís in the NHL). Heís got the size, heís got the speed, heís got all the skills. Heís very deceptive for the opposition. You believe heís slowing down and all of a sudden heís got a second gear. He can beat you inside, can beat you outside. Heís got a good shot, good vision, good hockey sense. Heís got a lot of tools in his box. For him itís about getting stronger, heís still a young guy, heís got to put some muscle on his body. Itís about being a better player without the puck, understanding what heís 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.

"Itís been great for Cony. Heís been a great leader for us, him and Gourde were a great duo for us (last year). He didnít have the start he wanted, but every day, he was a good player, a good leader for us. Weíre so happy for him. Heís doing things well out there, and heís 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, theyíve got to be better than where they were last year, and consistency is a big word for them. You know thatís a trap when you come back a second year after losing in the final, you think itís going to be easier, and itís tougher.

With all this talk about NHL, how about you? GM Steve Yzerman told me he believes youíll be an NHL coach one day. Is that your dream?

"I want to coach in the NHL, thereís no doubt in my mind. But Iím 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 itís one of the greatest environments a coach can be in."

Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] [email protected]_JSmith.