Groulx pushes right buttons for Crunch amid Lightning turmoil

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Syracuse Crunch head coach Benoit Groulx is no stranger to big-game pressure.

He will have another taste of it when the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup final gets going Friday. Groulx and the Tampa Bay Lightning-affiliated Crunch will meet the Grand Rapids Griffins.

“We’re proud to be in the final,” Groulx said Thursday as his team held its final full practice before the best-of-seven series starts. “We’re proud to be one of the two teams that have a chance to win the Calder Cup.”

Grand Rapids, the Detroit Red Wings’ AHL affiliate, will host Games 1 and 2 at Van Andel Arena this weekend as part of a 2-3-2 series format.

Tampa Bay hired Groulx to replace Rob Zettler behind the Syracuse bench in May 2016, and the move has paid off. After missing the post-season in 2015-16, the Crunch won the North Division regular-season title en route to the Calder Cup final. This is the third time in six seasons that Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate has reached the final. The Lightning organization won the Calder Cup in 2012, and Syracuse lost a six-game series against Grand Rapids in 2013.

Groulx, 49, arrived in Syracuse from the Gatineau Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, where he served as head coach and general manager. He won three QMJHL championships and took the Olympiques to the Mastercard Memorial Cup in 2003, 2004, and 2008. The QMJHL named Groulx its coach of the year in 2003-04.

Along the way, he also amassed international experience with Team Canada, serving as a coach for the 2004 gold-medal under-18 team. He was also an assistant coach at the 2014 World Junior Championship and led Canada as a head coach to the 2015 world junior gold medal.

Jammed into his extensive resume was a two-year stint in the Florida Panthers organization as an AHL head coach.

But the pro game is a different world from the Canadian Hockey League, and Groulx’s first season in Syracuse was packed with challenges.

Injuries and roster issues in Tampa Bay pummelled the Syracuse roster all season. Forty-four players landed on the Syracuse roster in the regular season. The Kristers Gudlevskis-Adam Wilcox goaltending tandem did not pan out. Eventually Tampa Bay had to turn to veteran Mike McKenna, acquiring him from the Springfield Thunderbirds in a trade that shipped out Wilcox to Florida.

After a 16-6-0-3 start, the Crunch began a month-long tailspin in mid-December. They won four times in a 16-game stretch and the tight North Division quickly closed in on them.

The Crunch eventually recovered, fended off a late-season charge from the Toronto Marlies, won their final four regular-season games to win the North Division by one point. That would prove helpful later in the playoffs when the Crunch won Game 7 of their second-round series with the Marlies on home ice. Syracuse has gone 9-0 on home ice in the post-season.

But the Lightning failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs then presented Groulx with a different sort of challenge. After Tampa Bay’s season ended, the Lightning returned forwards Michael Bournival, Cory Conacher, Gabriel Dumont, Adam Erne, Yanni Gourde, and Joel Vermin to the Crunch along with blueliner Jake Dotchin.

Suddenly what had been a thin roster for long stretches of the regular season became a roster filled with too many players and not enough ice time to go around.

Situations like this are not uncommon in the AHL post-season. While an injection of NHL-seasoned talent can provide a significant boost, the wrong coach and/or the wrong mix of players can quickly implode and end any hopes of a playoff run.

“I’m going to tell you something here,” Groulx replied when asked how he managed so many personalities. “It was not easy. I thought we had two or three practices to incorporate six or seven guys. Those guys were in Tampa for 25, 35 or 40 games.”

Groulx, however, has kept his roster on track. Syracuse has continued to progress through the post-season. After they endured a tough first-round series against the St. John’s IceCaps, they eliminated an excellent Marlies team before finishing off the Providence Bruins in five games in the Eastern Conference final.

“Ben has been fantastic,” McKenna said. “To keep this team as steady [as it has been] and to do well, to hit our stride coming into the playoffs, it takes a lot of management skills.”

“To be successful in hockey, you have to be an organization at the NHL and AHL level. Our guys went up, gained experience in stride, and then came back and fit right into [their roles].”

Stopping the powerhouse Griffins will be the latest tall order for Groulx and the Crunch.

“It’s going to be a tough task,” Groulx said, “but I also feel that we’re ready for it.”