The Syracuse Crunch will open training camp on September 28 with more talent than they originally expected. The NHL lockout forced the postponement of the Lightning’s training camp and subsequently meant all prospects and young NHLers expected to start the year in Tampa will now start the year in the AHL.
While that’s bad news for the Tampa Bay media and fans, it’s good news for the Syracuse fanbase, who at this point is like a kid with a birthday the day after Christmas. Not only does a championship team show up at their arena’s front door, now they get a significant upgrade in talent to that team - a team that was already expected to compete for a championship.
This is also good news for the Florida Everblades – another team coming off a championship – as they’ll get the players pushed down from Syracuse.
The question is who?
Here’s a look at the latest minor pro organizational roster of the Tampa Bay Lightning and some notes and predictions for each player, broken down by position.
Riku Helenius , age 24, 6’ 3”, 211 pounds
Acquired: A 2006 first round pick by the Lightning out of Finland
BP Rank: 12
Last season: Helenius is coming off a breakout year in Finland where he led JYP to the league championship, earning top goalie honors in the process. He finished the playoffs with an 11-2 record, 1.73 GAA, and a .947 save percentage. He signed a two-year contract this spring.
This season: Helenius was set to battle Dustin Tokarski  for the No.3 job at Lightning camp while getting valuable preseason NHL action. He’ll be in a season-long battle with Tokarski for No.1 duties in Syracuse. Helenius needs to (re-)adjust to the North American style and rinks if he is to make the jump to the NHL. He also has to beat out Tokarski to get there, which is no easy task. There projects to be a spot open for one of Helenius or Tokarski next September with Mathieu Garon ’s contract coming to an end.
Prediction: Tandem starter for Syracuse
Pat Nagle , age 24, 6’1”, 179 pounds
Acquired: Signed as a free agent out of Ferris State University in March 2011
BP Rank: Not ranked
Last season: Nagle was in and out of the Everblades’ lineup during his first professional season, posting 20 wins against 14 losses. He went on a small hot streak in the playoffs, but ultimately lost the job to prized Carolina prospect John Muse.
This season: Muse signed with Carolina in the offseason and will likely be in the AHL this year. That could mean Nagle gets the lion’s share of starts for the reigning Kelly Cup champs. He is one injury away from being in Syracuse and should be with the Crunch next year if things work out as planned. Nagle provides the Bolts with quality minor league depth, though he would have to significantly improve in all areas to eventually make the NHL.
Prediction: Starter in Florida
Dustin Tokarski, age 23, 5’11”, 198 pounds
Acquired: A 2009 fourth round pick by the Lightning out of WHL Spokane
BP Rank: 6
Last season: Tokarski (pictured) led the Norfolk Admirals to their first Calder Cup championship, going 12-2 in the playoffs with a 1.46 GAA and .944 save percentage. He won 32 games in the regular season with five shutouts. Tokarski’s trophy mantle has to be buckling right now with his championships at the AHL, World Juniors, CHL, WHL, and Canadian national midget levels.
This season: Tokarski will have to fight with Helenius to retain the starter’s job for the Lightning’s AHL affiliate, and no one is the favorite going in. Typically Tokarski is at his best when the job is his and his alone, but he’s never been one to shy away from competition. He and Helenius give the Crunch arguably the top goaltending duo in the AHL. Tokarski has to continue growing into a professional, though he is nearly all the way there. His run to the Calder Cup should have done wonders for his confidence, which he lacked in his brief stint in Tampa last season. With professionalism and confidence comes consistency, which Tokarski didn’t quite have at all times last season. There were a few games and goals he’d love to have back, though it obviously worked out in the end.
Prediction: Tandem starter in Syracuse
Tomorrow: Defensemen