(Photo Credit Lindsay A. Mogle/Utica Comets)
Last year in Utica, the Comets enjoyed a very successful sophomore season in the AHL, marching all the way to the Calder Cup Finals, where they lost in 5 games to the Manchester Monarchs. As a hockey team, this is just about all you can ask for in a hockey season (although 3 more wins would have been welcomed).
However the Comets are an AHL team, and as such they are primarily a development team, feeding the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks. It is the job of the Comets’ staff to prepare NHL prospects to play at the next level. In this regard, reviews from the Canucks fanbase were considerably more mixed, with many feeling that winning was too much of a priority and development was taking a backseat.
Well some fans in Vancouver may get their wish. The winds of change are blowing, and given the off-season transactions, it’s looking like the Comets will be forced to the other extreme of the win versus development scale.
The Comets second season in the American Hockey League saw them transform from a team that missed the playoffs in the previous year to a serious playoff contender. They topped the Western Conference in the regular season with 103 points before knocking off Chicago, Oklahoma City and Grand Rapids in 5, 7 and 6 games respectively. That’s where the good times ended though, as they were more or less run over by the powerhouse Monarchs.
What drew the attention of fans in Vancouver was not necessarily the success that the Comets were having, but rather who was behind the success. At midseason, Utica was led by first line centre and captain Cal O’Reilly, offensive defenceman Bobby Sanguinetti, point-per-game producer Dustin Jeffrey and goal scoring grinder Brandon DeFazio. None of these are Canucks prospects, and this was evidently frightening.
This was first brought to our attention by Canucks Army’s own Josh Weissbock who, using on-ice goal ratios, estimated Comets players ice times and found the prospects’ shares to be rather lackluster. The apparent discrepancy between veterans and prospects frustrated Vancouver based fans, and the criticism of this deployment became a theme throughout the remainder of the season.
Other “incidents” towards the end of the season further incensed Canuck fans: Shinkaruk, Gaunce and Jensen found themselves scratched from time to time; Ben Hutton arrived from the University of Maine and played all of 4 games, none in the playoffs; top prospect Jake Virtanen arrived and had to wait before being allowed to play, and then only because of an injury to fourth liner Carter Bancks; Jared McCann arrived in Utica but didn’t play at all; Shinkaruk was removed from the top line a few games into the playoffs after going cold. The point is, there were several incidents in which Canucks prospects were passed over to some degree or another, ostensibly in the name of winning.
The Winning versus Developing Scale
Whether or not the criticism towards the Comets staff is warranted is not necessarily the point of this article, but it bears touching on quickly. There are really two questions here: how much ice time should the prospects be receiving to best suit their development, and are the Comets coaches guilty of playing the prospects too little?
There are a two main schools of thought that NHL-centric fans use when determining how prospects should be deployed in the minors. One is the “earn it” method: the prospects start at the bottom and work their way up, earning more ice time and more responsibility, as they would have to in the NHL. The other is the “give it” method: this method, using the principles of scaffolding theory, which suggests that prospects should be constantly challenged in the form of gifted ice time and more responsibilities, without waiting for mastery of previous levels of difficulty.
Personally, I find this the dichotomy artificially built by these two methods to be overly simplistic. While it appears that the Comets staff subscribed more to the “earn it” method, there are other factors at play, including conditioning, durability, and morale.
Players coming from junior leagues often have difficulty handling the same amount of minutes they received in the CHL at the professional level. You’ll hear almost every prospect mention something the lines of, “you realize that this is a job for these guys, not a game” as some point in their rookie season. There are times when ice time is relatively sheltered because the prospect is simply not physically prepared for the workload, and they need time to build to that level. This is particularly true for a player like Shinkaruk, who missed nearly all of his final junior year and was unable to train for much of the off-season leading into 2014-15 – that’s not the type of preparation a player needs to play 18 or 20 minutes in a much more difficult league.
Morale plays a role as well, though people like to shrug it off. Using the example of Shinkaruk again, some young players get frustrated when the goals and points aren’t coming, leading to poor habits, giveaways and further frustration. For Shinkaruk, a reduction of responsibility and a focus on his overall game allowed him to get out of scoring funks without the added stress of costing his team games – and taught him to deal with them more efficiently down the line.
Striking a Balance
The whole idea is to find a balance between developing and being competitive. Of course rookies at the professional level are going to play less to start the year. Ideally, you want them playing larger roles at the end of the season, and that seems to be what happened. Baertschi was a first unit powerplay staple and led the Comets in goals in the playoffs. Alex Grenier rarely left the top line all year. The first line left wing spot was often occupied by either Shinkaruk or Nicklas Jensen, although the odd man out was often relegated to the bottom six. Brendan Gaunce became an essential player in the playoffs, skating upwards of 20 minutes, defending late leads and killing crucial penalties.
Furthermore, the rookies were given some rope to start the season. Shinkaruk began the year on the first line with a centre who would be the club’s leading scorer – hardly a “plug” as he was often suggested to be playing with. Shinkaruk also appeared on the power play in the very first game, and Gaunce did the same not too long later. It was at least in part Shinkaruk’s lack of production that forced him down to the bottom six in the middle of the season, rather than just coaching principles.
It seems for the most part that prospects’ responsibilities were increased as the season went on. During the playoffs however, the staff were much quicker to remove prospects when the production wasn’t there, and why not? At that point you want to go as deep as you’re capable of. If you’re of the mind that the prospects should’ve led the team whether producing or not, ask yourself this: are 75-80 games shouldering a first line load really better for a rookie than 95-100 games (with a deep playoff run) in a supporting role?
I would postulate that there were defensible explanations for how the rookies were deployed in their first season in Utica, though not everyone will agree with that. It seems for the most part that prospects’ responsibilities were increased as the season went on, which in my opinion is the most important takeaway. Regardless of how you feel is the proper way to deploy prospects, it appears that the Comets will have little choice but to rely more heavily on their prospects for the coming season.
The Winds of Change
The Utica roster has undergone a tremendous change since they lost Game 5 of the Finals in June. This isn’t really a surprise – AHL turnover is far more prevalent than it is in the NHL, simply for the reason that your most successful AHL players aren’t likely to stick around when better opportunities come calling. That is certainly the case with the Comets, who will see 6 of their 7 highest point producers suit up elsewhere come October. This includes vets like Cal O’Reilly, Brandon DeFazio and Bobby Sanguinetti getting scooped up by NHL teams (although they’ll probably end up back in the AHL to begin the season), Cory Conacher heading to Switzerland, and Sven Baertschi receiving a promotion to the Canucks.
Here’s a full rundown of who has left, and who will be arriving.
While we should all be excited to see how the prospects perform at the AHL level, the lineup is undoubtedly less formidable than the one that made a deep playoff run 3 months ago. While O’Reilly and Sanguinetti won’t have many NHLers shaking in their skates, they are truly AAAA players – they never quite established themselves in the NHL, but they are dominant at the AHL level. Blair Jones and Taylor Fedun are nice additions, but they are basically a poor man’s version of the players that Utica lost, while Adam Cracknell is a less productive iteration of Brandon DeFazio.
Depth is a further concern for the organization, particularly at centre and on defence. Any injuries at the NHL level to those positions and both teams are going to be stretched pretty thin. God forbid Henrik Sedin goes down and your centres are Brandon Sutter, Bo Horvat, Linden Vey and Blair Jones/Cole Cassels; or any two NHL defencemen get injured and the Canucks are forced to call up Alex Biega and Taylor Fedun, leaving Andrey Pedan as the Comets most experienced defenceman. That’s an unsettling thought.
It’s interesting to note that from perusing Twitter and online forums, Comets fans and followers seem perturbed by the fact that Jim Benning hasn’t acquired more veterans to shore up AHL areas of weakness (i.e., on defence), following a year in which Vancouver fans complained constantly that their prospects weren’t in big enough roles.
A potential set of line combinations, with plenty of room for movement. The defence pairings are designed to pair each rookie with a “vet”, although in actuality, Pedan and Fedun would make a much better top pairing.
2015-16 is likely going to be a very different year for the Utica Comets. There is certainly something to be said for learning in a winning environment – it’s easier to work on aspects of one’s game if you aren’t also preoccupied with carrying your team’s offense. With many of the more productive veterans gone, the responsibility of production will sit on the shoulders of the younger players, particularly sophomores Shinkaruk and Gaunce.
All of this isn’t necessarily to say that the team won’t have any success. But if they do it’s going to have to come from the kids. Gone is their AHL All-Star first line centre O’Reilly, gone is their AHL All-Star no.1 defenceman Sanguinetti, gone is the former AHL MVP Cory Conacher, and gone is their AHL All-Star no.1 goalie, Jacob Markstrom, who carried the team through big stretches when goals were hard to come by. With the graduation of Frank Corrado, the trade of Adam Clendening, and Peter Andersson’s flight to Europe, the Comets have virtually lost a full top 4 defence group.
Big jumps will be needed from sophomores Hunter Shinkaruk and Brendan Gaunce. Rookies Cole Cassels, Ben Hutton and Jordan Subban will need to find their professional feet faster than Shinkaruk and Gaunce did the year before. Alex Grenier will need to continue his impressive production. Nicklas Jensen needs to resurrect himself before he falls off the radar completely.
In any case, Canucks fans are likely to get exactly what they wanted last season, as the keys are finally being turned over to the young guns. The 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons will make a good pseudo-scientific experiment, pitting a veteran laden juggernaut against a prospect-driven question mark. It will be interesting to see how the results vary. It’s sink or swim time, if you will. Perhaps this will demonstrate that a prospect led team is best for development after all. We’ll have to keep our fingers crossed. The Comets have little choice but to focus on prospect development this year – they don’t have much else to rely on.