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Crunch Rookies Show Promise in Challenging Season

By Jeremy Houghtaling

This season’s crop of Syracuse Crunch rookies showed progress through adversity.

With injuries and call-ups thinning Syracuse’s depth, Crunch newcomers were asked to log important minutes, but coach Rob Zettler believes the experience they gained through the ups and downs will be good in the long run.

“There’s some good progress with our young guys,” Zettler said. “A lot of them ended up playing a lot more minutes than we anticipated because of call-ups and injuries, but at the end of the day, individually, it’s probably a good thing for them.”

Here’s a breakdown of the Crunch’s rookie class heading into the final week of the season:

Cedric Paquette: Although he wasn’t there to accept the plaques himself, on Saturday Paquette won the Crunch’s awards for Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player (shared with Vladdy Namestnikov).

The 2012 fourth-rounder earned his first call-up one day earlier, and registered a point in his NHL debut with Tampa Bay. The Lightning's decision to call up the rookie center didn’t surprise Zettler in the least.

“He’s a gamer,” Zettler said. “Every game, he comes to play. In practice, he’s working hard. At the end of the day, Tampa needs somebody; it’s never a coincidence.”

The 20-year-old, who was inserted into the Crunch lineup during the Eastern Conference finals last season, played in each of Syracuse’s first 70 games this season and finished with 20 goals and 24 assists.

“Probably our best player from start to finish throughout the year,” Zettler said. “Very deserving of the MVP, along with Vladdy (Namestnikov).”

Luke Witkowski: Knowing he was one of the oldest rookies this season, Witkowski expected more of himself than most first-year pros.

The 24-year-old former co-captain at Western Michigan University played in every Crunch game this season, and earned the team’s award as its Most Improved Player. The stay-at-home defenseman has 11 points in 73 games, but showed the ability to use his physical play to keep opponents in check.

“I thought Luke has steadily gotten better throughout the year,” Zettler said. “He’s always shown a willingness to stick up for his teammates and get involved physically, which is a great for him and he needs to do that.”

While the veterans on the Syracuse defensive corps helped the 2008 sixth-rounder’s transition to the pro game, plenty of lessons came from logging more ice time.

“There’s more chances you’re not always going to be doing things right, but there’s a chance to fix the things you’re doing wrong,” Witkowski said.

Although there may have been some growing pains, it will ultimately help in years to come.

“With injuries and everything, he’s been forced to play a lot of minutes,” Zettler said. “But at the end of the day, it’s been really good for him.”

Kristers Gudlevskis: It’s been a historic year for Gudlevskis.

The Latvian netminder was drafted in the fifth round last June, and in his first year in North America became the first player to start a game in the ECHL, AHL, NHL and Olympics in the same season.

Gudlevskis went 7-4 with a .925 save percentage and 1.83 GAA with Florida (ECHL) to earn a spot in Syracuse. With the Crunch, the 21-year-old went 18-11-4 with a .901 save percentage, a 2.68 GAA, and five shutouts.

Gudlevskis received worldwide notoriety for his 55-save performance in a near-upset of Canada at the Olympics, and completed the historic achievement by recording a 36-save win over the Columbus Blue Jackets in his NHL debut last Friday.

Zettler said the organization has been pleased with Gudlevskis’ development.

“I think it was great for him to start in the East Coast Hockey League and just play a ton of games and learn the North American game a little bit,” Zettler said. “He came up here and he had success.”

Tanner Richard: A top-line center in junior, Richard spent most of his rookie pro season on a checking line.

The change meant the Swiss forward had to adjust his playing style, and learn more about playing in his own zone.

“Going through my career, I kind of just coasted through the defensive zone because I never really had to play defense,” Richard said. “I was usually on a line that had a lot of ice time and a lot of puck possession, and we were there to score goals. When you have the puck a lot, you’re not going to get scored on too often and have to play too much defense.”

The 21-year-old received some minutes on a scoring line during times of injury and call-ups, and notched a pair of goals and 15 assists in 63 games. Richard, a third-round selection in 2012, also accumulated 93 penalty minutes, including three fights.

“I think I’ve been pretty inconsistent,” Richard said. “There’s been games where I’ve been really good, and then there’s games where I’ve just been terrible, to be honest. I think that’s what I have to focus on moving forward -- being more consistent and making sure I bring it every night.”

Zettler believes the offseason could be the key to a better sophomore season for the 6-foot, 187-pound center.

“He’s just got to get stronger to have more success at this level,” Zettler said. “This was an important year for him to realize that. Now it’s up to him to have a really strong summer.”

Nikita Nesterov: In his first season in North America, Nesterov got off to a hot start statistically.

Buoyed by a potent power play, the Russian defenseman notched eight points in his first 16 games with the Crunch. But the numbers didn’t tell the whole story on the Lightning’s fifth-round pick in 2011.

“He struggled early with the speed,” Zettler said. “He needed to pick up his worth ethic in practice and in games. It started to pick up a little bit in the second half and he started to show progress, then of course he’s had the injuries off and on. There were signs of life there in the second half.”

Nesterov finished with four goals, 12 assists and 39 penalty minutes in 54 games. His season ended in early April due to an undisclosed upper body injury.

Drew Olson: Originally drafted by the Blue Jackets as a defenseman, Olson was traded to the Lightning with the plan to convert him to a forward. The Crunch signed him to an AHL contract just before the season started.

The winger saw limited ice time before being moved back to fill in on a hurting blueline. In 44 games, the 24-year-old registered three goals and an assist.

“Olson was pretty much what we thought he was going to be,” Zettler said. “He is a utility guy that we can use in all kinds of different situations.”

Artem Sergeev: For Sergeev, his rookie season has been an educational experience.

The Russian defenseman, who was a healthy scratch a few times this season, excelled when given more minutes at times when the Crunch blueline thinned due to multiple injuries to key veterans.

“The season has gone up and down,” Sergeev said. “Some good games, some bad games. The first season is always a tough one, but I’m improving in some areas, working on some areas. It’s a learning process.”

Sergeev recorded 10 points and 48 penalty minutes over 65 games, but his progress can’t be charted in point production. The 6-1 defenseman isn’t flashy, and is best when he keeps his play simple.

“He’s become less scattered, a little more steady for us,” Zettler said. “He’s got to learn to keep making the simple plays and not trying to force things through the neutral zone and force plays through opponents. When he starts to figure that out, it will make his game easier for him.”

Sergeev, 20, knows there’s still portions of his game he can develop before next season.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement,” Sergeev said. “You can’t stop improving. There’s a lot of stuff to work on for me.”

Pictured: Crunch rookie Cedric Paquette skates against the Comets at the Onondaga County War Memorial April 5.