Some might say the only good things to come out of Syracuse, N.Y., lately are Donovan McNabb, Carmelo Anthony and a few Carrier air conditioners.
The Blue Jackets and their fans strongly disagree, though, as Syracuse is home to the team’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Crunch, who open training camp today, with a camp full of potential stars.
Though the Jackets invited many young, talented players to their training camp, which opened Sept. 16, only 23 end camp as members of the NHL club, and the rest report to Syracuse or are returned to their junior leagues.
Two promising players already set to report to Syracuse are 20-year-old goaltender Dan LaCosta and 22-year-old forward Tim Konsorada.
“[Younger players] are just starting their professional careers,” first-year Crunch head coach Ross Yates said. “Everything is pretty new to them.”
The newness wears off quickly with pro hockey experience, though. Current Blue Jackets like Duvie Westcott, Pascal Leclaire, Jody Shelley, >Aaron Johnson, Mark Hartigan, Jaroslav Balastik and Dan Fritsche have all spent time in Syracuse and have developed into key pieces of the CBJ.
Yates’ predecessor, Jackets assistant coach Gary Agnew, garnered a .545 winning percentage as Crunch head coach over the past six seasons. Just like several players, Agnew has worked his way up to the NHL.
“It’s very exciting to come up and work with, essentially, a lot of the guys who came through Syracuse,” he said.
Alexandre Picard, who is having a strong preseason in Columbus, has played more for the Crunch than for the Blue Jackets at this point in his career. He could still make the varsity, but also could start the year in Syracuse.
Minor-league hockey training camp differs from NHL camps in many ways, Yates said.
“Of most of the guys starting (training camp) with us, only a handful of them will end up with us,” he said. “Most of the core of our team is still up in Columbus right now.”
Picard may be part of that core, as could the highly-rated defenseman prospect Ole-Kristian Tollefsen.
But the potential for a spot to open up on the Blue Jackets roster at any time means these players are one step away from the NHL. The preseason injury to Sergei Fedorov shows why a deep talent pool is necessary in hockey.
That’s why even the competition in a minor league camp is fierce.
“Some guys are competing to make the team, and others are trying to make a good impression so that when we do run in to injury trouble, they’ll be the first guys to call up,” Yates said.
The coach said he really enjoys witnessing players grow.
“You get to play a piece of that development puzzle, and it’s exciting to see the changes in them both as a player and off the ice.”
Agnew, reflecting on his time with the Crunch, agreed.
“[The AHL] is a real exciting league to both coach in and play in,” he said, adding that minor league hockey is “critical these days, especially the way salary caps are going. You need to develop down in your farm team.”
Syracuse has a long hockey history, beginning in 1930. The city has seen eight professional teams with the Crunch beginning play in 1994. The Crunch have been the Jackets’ AHL affiliate since the CBJ’s inaugural 2000-01 season.
Yates won’t say much on team expectations because he hasn’t even seen all of his squad report to camp, but he does expect the Crunch “to be a strong team that competes and works hard every night.”
The Crunch begin their regular season Oct. 6.