Lofty Expectations for Lightning's AHL Affiliate

By Jeremy Houghtaling

Despite another short summer, Mike Angelidis had time to reflect.

The Syracuse Crunch captain, who hoisted the Calder Cup with the Norfolk Admirals in 2012, remembers the letdown of the Game 6 finals loss last June. The recent success of the Tampa Bay Lightning organization provides a winning atmosphere, but it's not complete without the Calder Cup.

"Anything short of that is a failure," Angelidis said. "Playing well and going deep is good for yourself, but as a team it's not what we look forward to."

The 2013-2014 Crunch practiced for the first time at the Cicero Twin Rinks Wednesday, with Syracuse looking to live up to the lofty expectations.

The long, spirited practice was led by Rob Zettler, who is beginning his first full season as a head coach. He was the assistant to Jon Cooper, who was promoted to Tampa Bay late last season.

Zettler's busy summer consisted of finding a new staff and preparing for his first training camp at the helm. Although he is looking to put his own stamp on the team, the end goal is the same.

"The bar is set high, and we want it that way," Zettler said. "That's the expectation with our staff and that's the expectation with our players."

With last year's first line and top defensemen sticking with the Lightning this fall, the Crunch need other players to step into those roles.

Last season Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Richard Panik combined for 158 points in the regular season, and registered 26 goals and 61 points in the playoffs.

The newly minted line of first-rounders Brett Connolly and Vlad Namestnikov, along with rookie Nikita Kucherov, hope to fill that role.

Connolly recorded 63 points last regular season in Syracuse, two behind Johnson, who was the league's MVP. Namestnikov recorded 10 points in 18 playoff games, while Kucherov lit up the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with 53 points in 27 regular season contests with Quebec and Rouyn-Noranda.

"Those guys are NHL players and we're definitely going to miss them," Zettler said of Johnson, Panik, and Palat. "But it's time for the Namestnikovs and the Kucherovs and Connollys to step up and take those guys' places. They've got all the talent in the world to be able to do that; it's our job to get them going that way."

The Crunch will also be without blueliners Mark Barberio and Radko Gudas, who earned NHL promotions. With Jean-Philippe Cote and Matt Taormina injured, Dmitry Korobov and Joey Mormina will likely log big minutes at the beginning of the season.

For Angelidis, the team defense is one of the keys to success.

"We try to build with defense up and go from there; defense breeds offense," he said. "And we've always had a team mentality of one guy goes, we all go. If someone's going to push us around or hit us, we're always around to protect each other. We're there together."

Another key is the veteran leadership that helps provide the grit as well as the glue.

Forwards Geoff Walker and Eric Neilson, as well as defensemen Cote and Mormina, join Angelidis as key veterans. Even both goalies, Cedrick Desjardins and Riku Helenius, have spent multiple years in the American Hockey League.

"We rely a lot on the culture and the chemistry around here," Zettler said. "We feel we've got a couple veterans that are second to none as far as that goes. They make my job easier and carry out my message."

Angelidis is the prime example of the winning culture, and he doesn't want another letdown.

"We know that we've done a lot of good things in the last two years, but we can't sit on those," Angelidis said. "We've got to keep looking forward and we've got to keep getting better. Getting that close last year hurts and guys remember that feeling."

Pictured: Mike Angelidis and J. T. Brown (23)