Stephens Shining on Crunch's Scoring Lines

By Jeremy Houghtaling

For Syracuse Crunch head coach Benoit Groulx, Mitchell Stephens may have been on the fourth line, but he wasn't a fourth-liner.

With a glut of healthy forwards and Tampa Bay not calling for reinforcements early this season, Groulx had the rookie center the team's fourth line. Once the inevitable injuries happened, Stephens earned more time on the Crunch's scoring lines.

With a point in 12 of the last 15 games, Stephens has become one of Syracuse's most consistent contributors offensively.

"I remember sitting down with him at one point and telling him that we had no injuries, no call-ups, and it's not because he was playing on the fourth line that we saw him as a fourth liner. ... We had four healthy lines and those lines were made in order to have the team balance," Groulx said. "We didn't see him as a defensive player. I think he needed those 10 games to get more confident and feel the water a little bit to see what it's like to play in this league. Then he started scoring and putting up points. He hasn't stopped since then."

Stephens, the CCM/AHL Rookie of the Month, recorded 14 points in 12 games in January. Three of his eight goals were game-winners.

The Lightning's second round selection in the 2015 draft believes his time on the fourth line helped him get acclimated to the league.

"There's 12 or 13 guys that can play on the top line on this team and there's guys who have to play certain roles and adapt to certain roles. ... It was good for me. I learned a lot about the systems and how to play a pro hockey game," Stephens said. "Having an opportunity to move up in the lineup is huge, and you have to run with that."

Stephens has a team-high 16 goals to go along with 12 assists in 46 games this season. The 21-year-old previously played eight AHL games, including three against Providence in the Eastern Conference Finals last season.

Stephens split last season between Saginaw and London in the Ontario Hockey League, and had 53 points in 51 regular season games before netting 10 points in 14 playoff contests.

"It's him using his speed and strength. He's got a good, quick shot with a quick release," Groulx said. "He's been a good player for us."

With Matthew Peca called up to Tampa Bay, Stephens was selected to replace him on the North Division squad for the AHL All-Star Classic last month. In the three games, the Peterborough native had two goals and three assists.

"It was a really cool experience to be around all the good players in the league," Stephens said. "There was just unbelievable skill in those games and the skills competition, so I was very honored to represent Syracuse and Tampa at that. Hopefully that sparks a good rest of the season."

While the points are nice, Stephens knows the statistics don't tell the whole story. Instead he's focused on playing the right way in Groulx's system, whether he’s on the first or fourth line.

"I think just sticking with the process and sticking with the way our team plays — playing fast, being on top of teams — and I think that correlates to having that bonus opportunity to score. Ultimately, that's what it is. A bonus," Stephens said. " Any time you're playing the right way, good things are happening."

Pictured: Crunch rookie Mitchell Stephens leads a rush up the ice against the Comets at the Onondaga County War Memorial Saturday.