Veteran Defenseman Taormina's Play Hits Full Potential With Crunch

By Jeremy Houghtaling

In three years, Matt Taormina has gone from struggling to find an AHL deal to being a league-leading defenseman

After a trade sent him from Syracuse to Springfield the season prior, Taormina was humbled as he searched for a home in the AHL and settled on a contract with Worcester in late September 2014. Now the 30-year-old is back with the Crunch, leads all AHL blueliners with 32 points and was selected to participate in the AHL All-Star Classic for a fourth time.

Taormina is embracing his role as a veteran leader as he continues to push for a spot in the NHL.

“If you have some down years, it will hurt you a little bit,” Taormina said. “I wasn’t at my full potential back then, and now I think I’ve really figured it out. I’ve stayed calm and steady, and I feel a lot more comfortable and confident than I have since early on in my career.”

Taormina, one of the Crunch’s alternate captains, is used in all situations with Syracuse. The 30-year-old has registered 10 goals, including five on the power play and another shorthanded, and 22 assists in 28 games with the Crunch this season.

For Syracuse head coach Benoit Groulx, Taormina’s ability to lead by example is great for the rest of his defensive corps, especially the team’s two rookies.

“He’s been a general for us,” Groulx said. “He’s been logging minutes, and when we were as depleted as we were like a week or two ago … with some defensemen banged up and some guys on top (with Tampa Bay), he’s the one who led the charge. He was solid. He helped us keep our head out of the water, and he was a big brother for the defensemen.

“You look at Ben Thomas and (Dominik) Masin, who are obviously playing much better. I think they have a great example in front of them.”

Taormina’s play has earned him recognition from the league.

Taormina will be participating in his third consecutive AHL All-Star Classic Jan. 29 and 30 in Lehigh Valley. The Warren, Michigan native was also selected for the 2012 game, but did not participate.

“It’s always a great feeling. It’s a great honor to go, and represent your team, the organization and the players,” Taormina said. “It’s always fun. It’s (teammate Yanni Gourde)’s first time, so I’m sure he’ll be having a lot of fun and I’ll show him the ropes a little bit.”

Taormina, who has skated in 59 NHL games, earned a recall to the Tampa Bay Lightning in October, but did not play in a game. Luke Witkowski, the only other defenseman called up from Syracuse this season, has played in 10 games with the Lightning this season.

Taormina understands that the playing time comes down to what Tampa Bay wants on a given night.

“It’s always good to see Witkowski get called up,” Taormina said. “We see each other as two completely different players, so we understand the needs when a guy goes out and they want to bring one of us up. There’s nothing to dwell on. You just have to keep playing.

“They see what’s going on down here. They know. They’re aware of it. If they ever need me, I’ll be ready.”

An undrafted free agent who spent three years in the New Jersey organization before signing with the Lightning in the summer of 2012, Taormina also had stints with Springfield and Worcester in the AHL. Over 397 career regular season AHL games, the 5-9, 192-pounder has recorded 232 points.

Although he’s on more than a point per game pace this season, there’s always room for improvement.

“There’s always stuff you can work on,” Taormina said. “I’m a small guy, so I have to make sure when I go up there, that I’m good in the D zone. If I get the opportunity to put points on the board or be another (offensive) wave up there, then I will. It all depends. You always have to get better in some aspect.”

Pictured: Crunch defenseman Matt Taormina makes a pass against the IceCaps at the Onondaga County War Memorial Saturday.