A commitment to player development at the American Hockey League level has paid off handsomely for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy along with forwards Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Vladislav Namestnikov, Ondrej Palat, J.T. Brown, Alex Killorn, and Cedric Paquette all honed their trade with Syracuse. Each is a part of one of the most productive AHL pipelines this decade.
Joining those graduates this season have been defensemen Jake Dotchin and Slater Koekkoek along with forwards Yanni Gourde and Cory Conacher. Each played with Syracuse last season, making it to the Calder Cup.
More players appear to be close to making the jump, as well.
There are many factors that contribute to the success Tampa Bay has seen in developing players. Here are four of the most important:
Creating a winning AHL environment has long been part of the development recipe for the Lightning. Syracuse also reached the Calder Cup in 2013. A previous affiliate, Norfolk, won the Calder Cup in 2012, a season in which it had an AHL-record 28-game regular-season winning streak.
However, by mid-November this season, Syracuse was not winning consistently. On Nov. 19, after three consecutive losses, Syracuse was 4-9-1-2 and last in the North Division.
Management acted. Five days earlier, the Lightning acquired goaltender Louis Domingue from the Arizona Coyotes, sending veteran AHL players Michael Leighton, a goaltender, and Tye McGinn, a forward, to the Coyotes.
Leighton had been a major offseason free-agent signing by the Lightning for Syracuse. He struggled for a team adjusting to significant turnover, though Syracuse coach Ben Groulx praised the professionalism of Leighton and McGinn.
In came Domingue, and Syracuse appears to have taken the right road since then.
A six-game winning streak has followed, including a sweep in a home-and-home series against powerful Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Syracuse has averaged 4.2 goals per game during that stretch after scoring 2.5 goals per game in the first 16 games.
Domingue has delivered and gone 4-2-0 with a 2.17 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.
Tampa Bay Lightning forwards Alex Killorn (left) and Tyler Johnson seen playing for the Syracuse Crunch in 2012.
At 23, Domingue had appeared to have arrived in the NHL to stay when he played 39 games for Arizona in the 2015-16 season.
However, Domingue was limited to 31 games last season.
"It was one of those years where I needed to be better," Domingue said.
His struggles continued this season as the Coyotes started 0-10-1; Domingue went 0-6-0 with a 4.33 GAA and an .856 save percentage before being placed on waivers Oct. 29.
Domingue's struggles and uncertainty with the Arizona goaltending picture presented an opportunity for the Lightning to make their move. Domingue, now 25, brought NHL potential and size (6-foot-3, 211 pounds) to intrigue Lightning management.
"For us, [the idea] it's to sit down, put a plan together with [Syracuse goaltending coach Karl Goehring] and Louis, and make sure that we do everything to help him out, get to know him better, get to know what he needs physical and mentally to be at his best daily," Groulx said the day after Domingue was acquired.
It is a blue print Syracuse follows with all its prospects, regardless of position
While the short-term goal was to have Dominique help right the situation in Syracuse, Domingue maintains plenty of NHL potential for the Lightning.
"There is no better place to do it than the Tampa organization," Domingue said the day after the trade. "To me, work ethic is the key, and keeping a positive attitude, I'll get back to where I need to be.
"I think it's a great fit for me."
Youth is served
Trading McGinn provided Groulx with roster flexibility.
There are five rookie forwards, each 20, on the roster and each needs ice time.
Anthony Cirelli (6-1, 198), a third-round selection (No. 72) in the 2015 NHL Draft; played six playoff games last season for Syracuse after he finished playing for Erie of the Ontario Hockey League. Mitchell Stephens (6-0, 195), was chosen in the second round (No. 33) in 2015.
Alexander Volkov (6-1, 195) was a 2017 second-round selection (No. 48) and impressed at training camp. Dennis Yan (6-2, 198), is a third-round (No. 64) selection in 2015. Mathieu Joseph (6-1,172) is a fourth-round pick (No. 120) in 2015.
"As we all know, if we want them to get better, they have to play," Groulx said. "Practicing is one thing, but you're learning more in playing."
Cirelli has 12 points (three goals, nine assists) in 22 games, and Volkov has eight points (four goals, four assists) in 21 games. Joseph has eight points (three goals, five assists). Stephens and Yan each have seven points (three goals, four assists).
Along with finding his own game, Domingue can also serve as a mentor for rookie goaltender Connor Ingram, a bonus for Syracuse when considering the trade.
Ingram (6-1, 196) is 20, a third-round pick (No. 88) in the 2016 NHL Draft and had a strong resume with Kamloops in the Western Hockey League. He also won a silver medal with Canada at the World Junior Championship last season.
Groulx likes Ingram's potential, even though the introduction to the AHL can be rough on a young goalie; Ingram is 3-4-0 with a 3.34 GAA and .867 save percentage.
"He moves well, reads the play well," Groulx said. "[The key for him] is to adjust to the speed of the game. Junior hockey is a different speed, and when the rush is coming at him, he has to adjust to that."