SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — Saturday wraps the condensed 2021 season for the Syracuse Crunch. For teams outside of the Pacific division, there will be no postseason. And for the entire AHL, the Calder Cup will not be awarded.
But that does not mean this season is not a success… especially for the Crunch.
Syracuse managed to play 32 games this season with no positive COVID-19 tests coming from their organization. For Crunch General Manager Stacey Roest, it is a huge relief.
“That was my biggest fear. Every day you wake up and you check your phone. To be honest, I was worried, because a positive test does come into your group it shuts things down. And ultimately, it affects Tampa,” Roest said.
With a season that had no fans, and no light at the end of the postseason tunnel, COVID-19 was the biggest concern. It meant the staff and the players had little wiggle room to navigate between their personal and professional lives.
And that meant watching their actions away from the rink as well.
“A lot of the times, it was very grueling on the players. Every day to come in for testing, and you have to wear your mask, and you have to stay (at) a social distance,” Roest said. “You can’t go out to the restaurants. You have to stay to yourself away from the rink. (I’m) very proud of the development of a lot of the players and how they progressed this year.”
With the way the NHL was constructed this season, organizations were able to keep a number of players to practice with the club but not count against team’s salary cap. This ‘taxi squad’ helped preserve a bubble for NHL teams, but it also meant their AHL affiliates had to adjust.
“Younger players got put into situations and had more responsibility. They handled it fine. In a normal year, when you have those 5-6 players not on your taxi squad and here in Syracuse, it ultimately takes away from some of the younger guys’ ice time,” said Roest.
But improvement and increased roles were not just reserved for the “younger” players in the organization. Monday night, longtime Syracuse fan-favorite Daniel Walcott made his NHL-debut.
Walcott, who played ten minutes and registered a fighting major, not only skated on a line with Mathieu Joseph and Gemel Smith – marking the first time in NHL history a team started an all-Black line. Even without the history behind the debut, Roest and the rest of the Crunch were excited for Walcott.
“It’s fantastic. I texted him during the day. He was pretty excited to get out there and play. For a guy who comes and does everything for the team every night and practice, he’s never in a bad mood. If you need him to do anything with the fans, or donate his time, he’s the first one in line. And on the ice, he’s been a huge part of the team too,” Roest said.
“He plays hard every night. He trains hard every day which is a great example for all the young prospects coming in. To see him get into that first game was rewarding for us as an organization,” he continued.
Back to Normal in 2021-22?
The plan since the American Hockey League announced they were coming back to play a condensed season was to position itself for a “normal” 2021-22. And while that still is the plan, Roest believes we will learn a lot for next season by watching this NHL postseason.
“(We’ll) see how that goes with fans back at the rink, and travel, and all that. You got to hope that this summer we make some progress (with the Coronavirus). As of now, it’s pretty tough to tell.”
What is also hard to measure is how players at the AHL level will be coveted this offseason. Organizations like Syracuse, who sported two parent clubs (Tampa and Florida) in 2021 will go back to one next season (Tampa Bay). That means these clubs theoretically have more spots to fill next season.
“You still need your depth players, your callup players and your leaders. If you look at a lot of the teams, there will be a lot of teams that will need players,” said Roest.
Also noted by Roest Tuesday, the Crunch plan on bring back head coach Benoit Groulx for his sixth season.