5 Utica Comets who have improved their stock during the Calder Cup playoffs

Photo Courtesy: @UticaComets

With a massive 3-2 victory over the Grand Rapids Griffins on Sunday evening the Vancouver Canucks’ AHL affiliate, the Utica Comets, are one win away from the Calder Cup final.

Though the team has largely been powered by a variety of career AHLers including Bobby Sanguinetti and Cal O’Reilly, there are a variety of Canucks prospects who have played very well and have made a strong case for inclusion on Vancouver’s 2015-16 roster.

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Here are the five Canucks prospects who have strengthened their case the most over the past six weeks. 

5. Frank Corrado

Canucks defenseman Frank Corrado, 22, is a popular pick to be the odd-man out as a result of Vancouver’s blue-line logjam. The club has nine NHL-level defenders who will require waivers next season, including five right-handed shooters (including Corrado). Considering what the club gave up to acquire Adam Clendening, it had seemed like Corrado – the club’s fifth-round pick at the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, and a pending restricted player – may end up as trade bait this summer.

He still might, but his performance this postseason – and in particular where he’s been used in the lineup – may be enough to tilt the scales in his favour. 

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It’s not that Corrado’s playoff performance has been great necessarily, the transitional defensive defender doesn’t have a point in 12 games and has battled injury. He struggled on Sunday night in particular, making a couple of unforced giveaways including a brutal touch that led to the Griffins’ first goal.

So why is Corrado on this list as opposed to, say, Clendening, who has outperformed him during the Calder Cup playoffs? 

It’s simple. Clendening has done what he’s expected to do: put up points and move the puck at a very high level in the AHL. Corrado though has been asked to play  on his weak side – something he hasn’t done much of at the NHL level – and he’s fared decently well overall.

If Corrado is an option to be Vancouver’s fourth left-side defender next season, then – and this assumes that the club doesn’t renovate the blue line significantly, which isn’t a given – he’s no longer in a tough three-way race with Yannick Weber and Clendening for two spots on the right side of the Canucks’ blue line. 

Instead he’s racing against Ryan Stanton to be the club’s fourth left-side defenseman. Those are more favourable odds for the 22-year-old.

4. Jake Virtanen

Photo Courtesy: @UticaComets

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Jake Virtanen, 18, is Vancouver’s top prospect.

While the physical, quick skating winger hasn’t exactly gone William Nylander or Dylan Larkin in his first seven games of professional action, his pedestrian production levels don’t really capture the extent to which he’s seemed to fit in while adding a dynamic element to Utica’s forward group. 

The 18-year-old was the sixth overall pick at the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, and had a mostly disappointing and injury plagued season with the Calgary Hitmen. Though there were some highlights – the Hitmen really came on in the second half, Virtanen’s even-strength production was elite, and he won a Gold Medal with Canada’s U20 team at the World Junior Championships – Virtanen’s stock fell as the season went on.

Because of his NHL-ready skating and physical game, Virtanen has a credible shot at breaking camp with the Canucks this fall so long as his defensive game is up to snuff. So it’s probably a good sign that in his seven games of AHL action, Virtanen has climbed up the Comets’ depth chart (from the fourth-line to the second) and has looked particularly threatening when carrying the puck through the neutral zone and when protecting the puck down low. His impactfulness on the forecheck hasn’t hurt either.

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“The first couple of games they played him on the fourth line, but he made an impact because he’s fast, he got in on the forecheck, he’s physical and he made plays when he got the puck,” said Canucks general manager Jim Benning of Virtanen’s first taste of AHL action in a recent interview on TSN 1040

“Then the last couple of games they’ve moved him from the first to the second line and he’s playing with (Sven) Baertschi and (Alex) Friesen on the second line and he’s got more time and he’s just gotten better and better with each game. That’s good to see.”

Don’t go etching Virtanen’s name onto the Canucks’ 2015-16 roster with a sharpie just yet, but if he can hold his own without the puck, it seems like he’ll have a serious shot of earning at least a nine game cup of coffee with the big club this fall. In AHL action so far, he’s looked up to the task.

“He still has work to do this summer,” Benning summarized, “but he’s an exciting young prospect for us.”

3. Alexandre Grenier

Alexandre Grenier, 23, was among the players drafted by Mike Gillis during the ‘older players’ phase of the Canucks’ recent and mostly sordid draft history. A third-round pick from the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Grenier hasn’t generated much hype despite outscoring some of the club’s more ballyhooed prospects like Nicklas Jensen and Brendan Gaunce, but that’s beginning to change.

In 17 games with the Comets this postseason, Grenier has managed 11 points, the third best mark on the team. He’s taking nearly three shots per game, he leads the club in on-ice goal differential (for whatever that’s worth, and it’s not worth much) and all of his goals have come at even-strength.

In regular season action Grenier has 82 career points in 139 career AHL games, good for a .59 points per game rate. That’s not a level of production that screams ‘top-six upside’ necessarily, but it’s good enough to suggest that Grenier might have an NHL future if he can round out the rest of his game.  

To hear Benning tell it, that’s precisely how Grenier has caught his eye over the course of the season.

“He’s really come a long way this year,” Benning said of Grenier’s development. “He always had good hands and good skill, the thing that he really worked on this year is his skating. He got in better shape and he’s learned how to work.”

Not noted for his physicality, Grenier stands a whopping 6-foot-5, and has a deft touch around the net. With his performance this postseason and over the past couple of years, he’s definitely put himself on Vancouver’s radar.

“He’s got the size and the hands to be an NHL player, but it’s going to be up to him too,” Benning said. “He’s going to need to keep working hard, have a good summer, and he could come in here and challenge for a spot.”

2. Sven Baertschi

Photo Courtesy: @UticaComets

Baertschi, 22, missed some of the Calder Cup playoffs to join the Canucks in the Stanley Cup playoffs where he wasn’t a huge factor, but he’s been borderline dominant in the AHL’s postseason.

In 15 games with Utica, Baertschi has managed six goals (which leads the team) and 13 points, which is second behind only Cal O’Reilly (who has played two more games). It’s clear when you watch the games too that Baertschi is Utica’s best skater.

“It’s good that he’s a go-to guy down there,” Benning said of Baertschi’s playoff performance. “He’s helping them win.”

Baertschi is also helping to cement a spot for himself in Vancouver’s top-nine forward group. Like with Clendening, Baertschi was likely to be in that spot anyway since he’ll require waivers next season, but if he can continue to play like he has in Utica over the past couple of weeks, he’ll be a frontrunner to snag a top-six role.

The former Calgary Flames prospect doesn’t have to play in the top-six though, even if he does profile as a scoring forward. What the Canucks will need from him next season, after all, isn’t a second line forward so much as a quality offensive threat who can help replace some of the even-strength production that the team will lose when Shawn Matthias signs elsewhere in unrestricted free agency.

Benning seems to have a good feel for precisely what the Canucks need from the young Swiss-born forward.

“He’s a skilled player, he needs to play with other skilled guys, but whatever line he’s on he’s going to bring that line speed and playmaking,” Benning said. “Whether he’s on the 2nd line or the 3rd line that’ll work itself out at training camp.”

1. Jacob Markstrom

Going into this season we all knew that Markstrom was an elite AHL goaltender, and he’s proved it and then some. 

Markstrom has been dominant for the Comets all season, and his .929 save percentage in the playoffs and his insane stick save on Sunday have served to put something of an exclamation mark on the Swedish netminder’s excellent campaign:

Benning discussed what he’s seen of Markstrom at length last week, and invoked a curious – and not unfamiliar – comparison for Markstrom’s game.

“He’s really been excellent,” Benning gushed. “The games I’ve been at, and then the report I got from last night, he had 41 shots and he saved 40 of them. He looks like a young Ben Bishop, he’s big and he covers the net and he’s got a demeanour about him.

“He gets mad if he doesn’t play a good game or things don’t go his way and if the team loses,” Benning continued. “He shows up at the rink the next day and he’s real pissed off and he always comes back and rebounds and plays real good. That’s another discussion we’re going to have at our meetings.”

The Bishop comparison is particularly interesting because it came up the last time Canucks backup Eddie Lack rumoured to be on the trade market. Lo and behold, it’s come up again as reports and rumours begin to circulate that Vancouver may move forward with a Ryan Miller/Markstrom tandem in net.

Obviously Markstrom’s NHL game hasn’t been at the level that might give Vancouver pause when deciding whether or not to move him, or to move Lack instead. No, it’s Markstrom’s starring role in the Calder Cup playoffs that has done that.

  • argoleas

    It’s really good to see the development of our prospects. Some have progressed an others not so much. Here’s hoping the Comets can compete in the Calder Cup finals. Cheers!

  • argoleas

    I think it was unfair to put Corrado ahead of Clendenning, because Clendenning did what was expected. I think Baertschi, Virtanen and Grenier make the squad as does Clendenning. If Vancouver moves Bieksa and Higgins and hopefully Miller, then I think others move up as well. I could see the following squad: Sedin, Sedin, Vrbata; Baertschi, Bonino, Burrows; Virtanen, Horvat, Hansen; Kenins, Vey, Dorsett, Grenier as sub. Edler, Tanev; Hamhuis, Weber; Sbisa, (Free Agent), Corrado, Clendenning. Lack, Markstrom.

    • FlamesRule

      The most likely reason Corrado was put ahead of Clendenning is that the focus of the article is the prospects who have improved their stock the most. The general opinion on Clendenning was already high, and he still remains higher than Corrado on the depth chart.

  • argoleas

    I hope you are correct Kevin, but I just dont see Benning being able to move the big contracts out. With the cap coming down, not many teams are going to bite. But they may end up being a blessing in disguise, as this seasons team might suck bad enough to get some good picks

  • argoleas

    Despite a couple of games on the bench, I’m surprised that Gaunce doesn’t make it onto your list (at least ahead of Corrado). He’s been both effective on the defensive end and has chipped in some big goals (and had two assists in the last game as well). For a player who was seemingly going to be a bust he’s really had a pretty decent first year overall and has carried it into the playoffs. Likely won’t top out at more than a 3/4 C but that’s not really that bad for a late first-rounder. Also why no real mention of Friesen at all? He’s played well all playoffs and really solidifies that second line with Baertschi and Virtanen.

    • Really not surprised that Gaunce didn’t make this list. As always, he seems like the prospect that gets the least respect but keeps working away and having big games when the Comets really need it. He’s also doing all of this while getting matched regularly against the opposition’s top lines and playing PK. I haven’t looked into this but I think he’s also their most efficient PP/60 player in the playoffs because he seems to score every rare time that Green puts him out there during a PP.

      He’s not even playing his natural position to boot. He’s done everything asked of him in his first year and still making an impact. Calling it a successful year is an understatement.

      He’s never been expected to bust though. While his upside might not seem high due to his non-flashy play, the kid was always expected to make the NHL in some capacity thanks his to IQ. He was probably one of the safest picks of the draft.

      Hope everyone just keeps ignoring this kid because he keeps finding ways to show up.

      • Really not surprised that Gaunce didn’t make this list. As always, he seems like the prospect that gets the least respect but keeps working away and having big games when the Comets really need it. He’s also doing all of this while getting matched regularly against the opposition’s top lines and playing PK.

        I totally agree with you. Gaunce is the perfect third line player on a team with a first line and three third lines. Gaunce is safe and reliable, and has a good chance of making the show as a steady Eddie.

  • peterl

    It is early to consider these players locks for the Canucks next season. In 2006-07 Nonis and company were touting the likes of Jesse Schultz, Jason Jaffray, and Patrick Coulombe. These Utica players are lottery tickets, some may turn out, some won’t.

    It is easy to speculate that they have roster spots right now due to them playing in the playoffs and the Canucks are not. I think it is more likely to pencil in last years’ team into those spots for now and let these younger players beat out the veterans in training camp.

  • peterl

    Yeah, seems Gaunce has been real good (I said it, feels real good).

    Can’t recall if I read the comment in a Vancouver daily or this site, but Benning gave Virtanen a bit of a shot saying he needed to get in shape. Lazy dough boy or injury related – not sure.

    Regardless, it’s great the prospects are winning in the minors. Tampa’s young guns did the same in the AHL and they are money now.

  • Silverback

    Great Read,

    I would have gone with Gaunce over Corrado as well in the 5 spot as Frankie has been limited by injuries and IMO has done little to improve his stock, in fact I’d say his stock is artificially inflated by the fact he has seen some NHL time and played reasonably well in short stints and he’s barely breaking even on that based on his playoff performance thus far.

    On the flip side, Gaunce came into the season as a 4th line bubble player for Utica at best and likely to be the victim of falling off the radar in favour of veterans and other higher touted prospects in the line up. He managed to stay afloat as a fixture on the fourth line although forced to play the Left Wing despite being drafted as a Centre, and then in the first round playoff series against the Wolves was sat down for games 3 and 4 of the series. Inserted back into the line up for the game 5 elimination game, Gaunce scored a pair of second-period goals to propel the Comets into the second round with a 4-2 victory. Since then he has been a fixture in the line up and currently has 4 goals ( tied for 2nd on team ) 3 of which are PPG (Tied 1st ) , 5 assists ( 3rd) for 9 points ( 6th) and is a +4 (7th) in 15 playoff games and is ahead of both Jensen and Shinkaruk in all of those statistical categories. Not sure what more he could have done at this point to raise his stock but I’d say he’s going to be in the mix to be on the recall depth chart at forward on a fairly regular basis next year and likely a fixture top 9 guy for 2015-16 with the Comets in no small part as a result of his performance in the playoffs.

    • rallen621

      Jensen by far Hunters play is ok but his scoring has slowed down Nicks skating has gotten better but he’s just not putting the puck home my guess they’ll probably try b move him

    • Silverback

      A putative scorer has to put pucks in the net.
      Shinkaruk doesn’t.
      Jensen has solidified his position as a career minor leaguer. And on a call-up a couple of years ago some media were hyping him as the next Sendins’ triplet.

  • peterl

    I think Gaunce and Friesen deserve some credit too. They’ve steadily improved over the last couple years and have become much better two way players. I think they might have bottom six NHL upside just like Kenins, hopefully they get a chance here

  • rallen621

    I think that’s a pretty fair assessment.

    I don’t think the Canucks should rush Virtanen. A nine game look-see is fine, but the kid shouldn’t be pressured at 18 to pull a Horvat.

    Interesting that Gaunce wasn’t listed, given that he was the Canucks top prospect in the eyes of some just a couple of years back. I believe he’s still got bottom six potential.

    Baertschi is interesting. He didn’t show much in his call-up, but has been lighting up things in the AHL. But, so did Vey. I just can’t see the team going with him, Vey and Shinkaruk against teams with size like the Kings, Ducks, Sharks, Jets and Blues. Two of them need to be moved.

    • Silverback

      and a Vancouver cast-off is your GM.

      You know, the one who threw away your #1 draft pick and took a #2 draft pick in return….

      don’t let the door hitcha where the good Lord splitcha.

    • Silverback

      That could be a negative comment on Vancouver’s depth; it could also be seen as a very disparaging remark about Calgary’s asset management. It all turn on how Sven does in the upcoming season.

      • Silverback

        A comment like this is like saying a Bruins castoff is Dallas’ best player.

        You’re right, it’s hard to make the call on Baertschi yet but given that he’s a 22-year-old with 70 games NHL experience (including several clearly mis-used stints with the Flames) and who has scored at an excellent clip in the AHL and has not looked out of place at the big league level, I think I”ll trade a #13 for a #45 most days.

        I love how the fact that this being touted as a deep draft means you’re guaranteed to get a good player. Even in the sainted 2003 draft, the second round (#39) produced the superb Tim Ramholt for Calgary (who has had, in fairness, one more NHL game played than Vancouver’s outstanding 2nd rounder from that draft MA Bernier. That would be a total of 1 game between the two of those 2nd rounders…)

        If we had traded our 2nd rounder in this upcoming draft for say a 40 year old defenseman like Timonen, or a 1st for Vermette or Santorelli and Franson I think I’d have been a lot more upset…

  • Silverback

    I don’t care that Gaunce didn’t make this list but I will be very unhappy if Vey is on the team and not Gaunce next fall. All the talk about players having to make the big team and then they gave Vey a starting position he didn’t earn nor deserve. He is awful in the face-off circle, he’s very weak in puck battles and you can watch an entire game and not notice him or hear his name. Why did we trade a 2nd round pick for him?