Photo credit: Lindsay A. Mogle / Utica Comets
To say the Utica Comets have been a streaky team this season would be an understatement. In 50 games this season, the Comets have had four three-game winning streaks (something the Canucks have not accomplished at all) as well as multiple losing streaks of four games or more. In fact, since Christmas, the Comets have had a seven-game losing streak and an eight game point streak, with their goals for and against fluctuating wildly.
Despite losing last night’s game to Syracuse, the Comets are amid their hottest point of the season, with that loss breaking the aforementioned eight-game point streak. Over their last nine games, they have scored 38 goals – a rate of 4.22 goals per game. Even better than that? This hot streak is been driven largely by the Canucks’ top AHL prospects.
This latest streak of strong play was certainly necessary for Utica. Even though they’ve collected 15 points in their last nine games, the Comets are sitting in the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with a record of 25-18-4-3 and, more importantly, a points percentage of .570. Currently, third place in the North Division, the AHL’s odd playoff structure has them lined up to play the Toronto Marlies in the first round, an absolute powerhouse and the AHL’s runaway leader in the standings. Coincidentally, it was a 7-1 drubbing from the Marlies that sent the Comets on their eight-game point streak.
The streakiness of the Comets throughout the season has required them to put together a strong finish just to make the playoffs, and so far they’ve been up to the task. Reflecting the team’s overall success is that of their top scorers. A series slumps through the turn of the new year has given way to a string of strong performances by numerous Comets, including a set that are expected to be future Canucks.
Over their past nine games, the Comets have been led in points by Brendan Gaunce, Alex Grenier, and Mike Zalewski, while Hunter Shinkaruk and Jordan Subban aren’t far behind – Shinkaruk also leads the team in goals during that stretch. Like the team itself, many of these players are experiencing their hottest streaks of the season.
As you can see, the Comets as a whole go as the Canucks prospects go. Unlike the 2014-15 iteration, the 2015-16 Comets team relies entirely upon prospects to drive them. Last season, they were able to take a backseat to veterans, learning the ropes of the pro game while the bus was driven by capable players who knew the ins and outs of the league.
The players the Comets lost in the offseason would cripple most franchises: their captain and AHL all-star Cal O’Reilly, top defenceman and AHL all-star Bobby Sanguinetti, number one goaltender and AHL all-star Jacob Markstrom, top goal scorer Brandon DeFazio, as well as a solid point producer in Cory Conacher. New captain and defensive stalwart Alex Biega played only 14 games with the Comets this season before permanently moving to the Canucks. Top line centre Linden Vey is likewise unlikely to return to Utica.
To fill some of the veteran void, the organization signed players like Blair Jones, Adam Cracknell,and Taylor Fedun. Following strong starts, Jones and Fedun missed long stretches with injuries, while Cracknell never left Vancouver.
The addition of Chris Higgins and Brandon Prust has helped in a way – in fact, the Comets hot streak just happened to coincide with the arrival of Higgins – but for the length of the season, this team’s success has largely relied on the younger players.
The six prospects listed above are among the most likely to eventually become NHL players, along with Comets rookies Cole Cassels and Ashton Sautner, who are still finding their feet.
Chief among this group are Hunter Shinkaruk, Brendan Gaunce, and Andrey Pedan, who Vancouverites have affectionately labeled The Utica Three. They top the list of Canucks AHL prospects in terms of percentage of statistically comparable players that went on to become regulars in the NHL, at 50.46 per cent, 42.56 per cent, and 42.86 per cent respectively. Alex Grenier (34.69 per cent) and Ashton Sautner (32.89 per cent) fare well in this regard as well, while Subban (16.67 per cent) is hampered in terms of successful comparables by his small stature, and Cassels (12.24 per cent) has had an unproductive rookie campaign after a strong final season in the OHL.
The Utica Three, as well as these others, are leading the way in Utica. Hunter Shinkaruk is a goal away from tying Utica’s franchise record of 22, set in 2013-14 by Pascal Pelletier. Brendan Gaunce surpassed his rookie season points total in just over half as many games. Andrey Pedan is logging major minutes as a top pairing defender, dishing out huge hits, and has a cannon of a shot.
The fact that they remain in Utica while players like Alex Friesen, Mike Zalewski, take tours at the NHL level might irk some fans, but there’s likely a strong benefit to it. First and foremost is the fact that it keeps them out of a fairly toxic environment. I can’t imagine the atmosphere in the Canucks dressing room is very positive right now, given their four straight dispiriting losses, the impending trade deadline, and the general mood of their post game interviews.
Vancouver isn’t the only team to employ this tactic. The Toronto Maple Leafs have sent all of their best players away from the unmitigated disaster that is their NHL team – players that could easily have earned spots over some of the warm bodies filling roster spots on the Leafs – and, as a result, their AHL prospects are carrying the weight on the best team in the AHL.
Not only does remaining in Utica keep them in a winning environment, but they are the key cogs in that teams ability to win. Canucks President Trevor Linden touched on this when the last round of call-ups passed over The Utica Three in favour of Friesen and Yannick Weber.
I think they’re all having good seasons, but we want Hunter on the power play, we want Brendan in a feature role and we want Andrey playing 25 minutes a game. We think that’s the best thing for them.
In the NHL, these young players are unlikely to see these benefits, but in Utica they are running the show. Hunter Shinkaruk has played on the first power play unit in virtually every game this season and has scored a team-leading ten power play goals. While the AHL doesn’t publish ice times, Brendan Gaunce has likely played substantially more minutes per game than any other player – he plays in the top six, on the top power play unit and is a regular penalty killer, with a team-leading eTOI of 21:55.
Note: Be aware that estimated TOI is just that – an estimate – and isn’t likely to be exact for all players. High event players, like Jordan Subban, likely receive a boost compared to their actual TOI, while low event players, like Cole Cassels, likely see a reduction. Based on what I’ve actually seen, I’m guessing that Andrey Pedan’s ice time, estimated at a little over 18 minutes, is being undersold a bit here.
It’s not just the fact that the prospects are getting the ice time, but also that they’re making the most of it. Most of the prospects are in the black when it comes to even strength goals-for ratio, meaning that they’re on the ice for more Comets goals than goals by opponents. The Comets as a team have been roughly even in terms of goals for and against at 5-on-5 (94 goals for, 92 goals against). Even so, it can be telling looking at the percentage of goals for and against the prospects have been on the ice for.
Note: Teams goals for and against in the chart refer to team goals scored only in games in which the particular player was playing.
Many of the players come off positively in this graph, but none better that The Utica Three. They are present for a large amount of Comets goals, and less so for goals being scored against the team.
While every player would naturally prefer to play in the NHL, there are benefits to keeping some of the organizations brighter prospects right where they are. There are also obvious benefits to the team itself, which counts on these players to carry it. While this is of much less concern to fans in Vancouver, it’s likely that the Comets would fail to qualify for the postseason without them.
Given the fact that it’s extremely unlikely that the Canucks themselves will be participating in this year’s playoffs, it would be a shame for players like Hunter Shinkaruk, Brendan Gaunce, Andrey Pedan and others to miss an opportunity for some post season play just to play out the string on a team that is crumbling before our eyes.
To be clear, I’m not opposed to giving them another look in the NHL, especially after a trade deadline in which a few roster players are hopefully shipped off. But preferably it would be one at a time, for brief periods, so they can continue supporting the team they’ve been carrying all season, and take another run at the Calder Cup that eluded them last season.