Photo credit: Lindsay A. Mogle / Utica Comets
Hockey is back! The NHL is officially underway, and although the AHL season begins tonight, we’ll have to wait until tomorrow for the debut of the Utica Comets. We like to keep a close eye on our friends in Utica, and I’ll be handling the Comets weekly reports again. Before we get into the day-to-day and week-to-week activity, there was plenty of offseason activity that has affected the makeup of the team.
This is part three of a five part series that examines the changes in the Utica Comets roster between the 2015-16 season and the upcoming 2016-17 season. This article will cover new faces heading into Utica this fall. Unlike last year, when a number of Canucks prospects were graduating to the professional ranks, this list is largely made up of recent signings, including two-way NHL deals, AHL deals, and CHL and NCAA free agents.
Thatcher Demko (G)
We’ll start with the goaltenders today, because that’s where the excitement is. Thatcher Demko, Vancouver’s blue chip goaltending prospects, has turned pro after signing his entry level contract following a devastating loss in the semifinals of the NCAA’s Frozen Four tournament (to Brock Boeser’s University of North Dakota, no less).
It would be foolish to blame that loss on Demko however, as he was among the very best netminders in all of college hockey last season. In fact, he was given the Mike Richter award, deeming him as the best goaltender in the NCAA. He was also among the finalists for the Hobey Baker award, college hockey’s MVP trophy, though he lost to Jimmy Vesey.
Though defenceman Troy Stecher had a much flashier preseason with the Canucks, Demko is still the highest pedigreed prospect heading into Utica this year. The Comets and their fans will have plenty of time to get to know their new star netminder, as the current Canucks regime is committed to following the same development plan that the previous regime used with Cory Schneider. That is, he’ll have at least a couple of full seasons in the AHL before he even starts to compete for a permanent spot on the Canucks roster.
This season, Demko will be competing with Richard Bachman for starts in the Utica crease. Like the relationship that the Canucks have been trying to foster between Ryan Miller and Jacob Markstrom in the NHL, they’d like Bachman and Demko to establish a mentor/apprentice relationship down on the farm. While Bachman was primarily been an AHL goalie in his professional career, he does have 42 career NHL appearances to his name, giving him a little bit of credence as a veteran.
Even more valuable than Bachman’s mentorship will be the coaching advice coming from Rollie Melanson. After years as the Canucks goalie coach in Vancouver, having worked wonders with Roberto Luongo, Cory Schneider, Eddie Lack and Jacob Markstrom, Melanson essentially swapped positions with Dan Cloutier, who had been working with the Canucks goaltending prospects out east. This will allow Melanson to help shape Demko into the NHL starter we all want him to be.
Troy Stecher (D)
Moving out from the crease, we land on Troy Stecher. Hailing from Richmond, BC and coming off a fabulous NHL preseason, it’s hard to know whether Canucks fans are more excited to see what Stecher or Demko can accomplish in the minors this year.
Unlike Demko, the Canucks aren’t committed to letting Stecher percolate in the minors for a couple of years. He’s a year and a half older than Demko, and barely missed the cut to start on the 2016 opening roster. Canucks management fully intends to see Stecher in Vancouver this year, and it’s really only a matter of time – though it certainly wouldn’t hurt if he got his pro career off to a hot start in Utica.
Though he’s undersized, Stecher is smooth and offensively creative, while also being reliable in his own end. His offensive skills were on full display in his first exhibition game with the Canucks, where he scored a goal and added two primary assists.
Stecher and Edler with assists on Rodin’s goal. That’s three points for Stecher and three assists for Edler. pic.twitter.com/5iwc3oEk3Y
— Vancouver Canucks (@Canucks) September 29, 2016
During the time he spends down on the farm in Utica, I’d expect him to get a whole lot of minutes at even strength as well as quarterback the top power play and probably kill penalties as well. Travis Green will likely be testing Stecher in every situation, as the Canucks will undoubtedly want to see how much he can handle – and how soon they can bring him back to Vancouver.
Chad Billins (D)
An undrafted native of Marysville, Michigan, Billins played four years of college hockey at Ferris State University. He was showered in accolades during his senior year, as he was named to the CCHA First All-Star Team, the NCAA West Second All-American Team, the NCAA Championship All-Tournament Team, and was named the CCHA Scholar-Athlete of the Year. The following year he played with the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL, where he was an all-star and a Calder Cup Champion.
The following summer, Calgary Flames signed him to his first NHL deal. He spent most of the 2013-14 season with the Abbotsford Heat (where he was again an AHL all-star), though he did get a cup of coffee in the NHL, playing in ten games with the Flames, collecting three assists.
After that, Billins headed overseas, spending the last two hockey seasons in the KHL and the SHL. After some lackluster production in 2014-15, Billins put up decent numbers in the Swedish League in 2015-16, compiling 31 points in 50 games, which likely punched his ticket back to North America.
An two-way left shot defenceman, Billins has hit double digits in goals in the AHL twice – which is already better than anyone else on the Comets roster (only Jordan Subban has even done so once). Size has been his stumbling block, coming in at 5-foot-10 – so at least he’ll fit right in with Stecher and Subban in that regard.
Tom Nilsson (D)
The Canucks signed Tom Nilsson as a depth option to bolster Utica’s right side on defence, which already boasts Troy Stecher and Jordan Subban in the top four.
Nilsson is a former fourth round pick (100th overall) of the Toronto Maple Leafs, from the 2011 NHL Draft. He played his one and only season in North America in 2014-15 with the Toronto Marlies of the AHL, scoring once and collecting six points in 44 games. Following that season, he headed back to his home nation of Sweden.
Nilsson is currently still on the Vancouver Canucks roster, as he has been injured since before the preseason started. The CBA prevents teams from waiving injured players, so the Canucks will have to wait until he’s back to full health before they have a chance to reassign him to Utica. In the meantime, the Comets have David Shields as an alternative option for the bottom pairing on the right side, so they’ll be fine. Shields may even stay there once Nilsson eventually returns, as he certainly brings more offence. Nilsson hasn’t hit double digits in points in a season since 2011-12, when he tallied 10 points in Allsvenskan, the second tier Swedish professional league.
Michael Chaput (C/LW)
Pronounced like shampoo, but without the ‘m’, Michael Chaput is probably the best position player on this list. A third round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010, Chaput has been a solid contributor in the American League for years, but could never stick in the NHL.
Chaput was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets just eight months after being drafted, and had remained in that organization up until this past offseason. He’s had stints in the NHL in each of the last three seasons, for a total of 58 National Hockey League games, in which he collected two goals and eight points. Chaput was an important member of last years’s Lake Erie Monsters that won the AHL’s Calder Cup, collecting eight points in 17 playoff games.
— AHL (@TheAHL) February 20, 2016
At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Chaput has the benefit of size. He also has versatility on his size, as he can play both centre and the wing up front. Not only will this make him useful in Utica, but it will also be beneficial when the Canucks are looking for forwards call ups. While we consider him a veteran AHL signing, Chaput is also just 24 years old, which is actually younger than Alex Grenier, who we actually still considered a prospect in the preseason rankings.
Jayson Megna (C/RW)
Another high quality AHL pickup, Jayson Megna is an undrafted forward originally signed by the Pittsburgh Penguins following a promising freshman season at the University of Nebraska-Omaha in which he was named to the WCHA All-Rookie Team. He spent his first pro season with the Wilkes-Barry/Scranton Penguins, and has split the last three season between the NHL and AHL, though playing progressively fewer NHL games each year. He played for the New York Rangers organization last year, and has suited up for a total of 54 NHL games, collecting six goals and 12 points in total.
Like Chaput, Megna can play both centre and the wing. Unlike Chaput however, he is right handed, which will give coach Travis Green a lot of flexibility on draws, as Green loves having forwards share centre duties to maximize strong side draws.
He’s got size at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, and plays with plenty of speed. He should a staple in the Comets top six this season and may be in line for a call up somewhere down the road in the event of NHL injuries.
Borna Rendulic (RW)
Easily my favourite name among the group, Borna Rendulic also has the notoriety of being the first ever Crotian-born hockey player to sign an NHL contract. The Colorado Avalanche signed him an Entry Level Contract at the age of 22 following a successful season in the top Finnish League (Liiga). He spent many of his prior years in the Finnish hockey system, as Crotia isn’t exactly known for its developmental leagues. He did play with Crotia in international tournaments however, and he was absolutely dominant, as they were often playing against Division 1 or 2 competition.
Pass it to Bulis revealed earlier this year why the signing of Rendulic is not only a good move for the Comets, but an indication of how well the organization is run – evidently Rendulic didn’t feel the same about Colorado’s minor league affiliate (from Eurolanche via PITB):
In the AHL, you are just playing there. You just feel nobody cares about you. Nobody cares about your development or how you are going to develop. Nobody teach me. We had like those development guys like David Oliver and Brett Clark. When they come over it was nice because they were teaching us, but our coaches didn’t teach anyone. There were so many young players lost their confidence. They couldn’t make the play even when they are good players. It just shouldn’t be like that. It was too much negativity around when I was there.
In keeping with the theme, Rendulic is another forward that possesses size and speed, and like Michael Chaput he is just 24 years old. The Canucks showed some faith in him during training camp while Jannik Hansen was away by putting him on a line with Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi. He’ll be another candidate for a call up this season, if the Canucks need some help on right wing – a decent possibility considering Anton Rodin’s injury and Canucks management’s generally lukewarm response to Jake Virtanen’s preseason.
Marco Roy (C/LW)
Marc-Olivier Roy, commonly known as Marco Roy, was a second round pick of the Edmonton Oilers (56th overall) in 2013. He produced at a bit under a point per game in his draft-plus-one and draft-plus-two seasons in the QMJHL, which were likely factors as to why the new Oilers regime neglected to sign him by the deadline in June of 2015. After he slipped through the draft that time around, the Oilers offered him an AHL contract to play with their affiliate in Bakersfield, where he put up eight goals and 20 points in 42 games, while also spending 10 games in the ECHL.
Ever the diligent researchers, the gents at Pass it to Bulis dug into Roy’s history to see what went wrong in his post-draft junior seasons, and found that he suffered from a variety of injuries, compounded by less than ideal deployment, with little to no power play time in his final year, in addition to playing down the lineup as the Quebec Remparts doled out prime ice time to the likes of Dmytro Timashov and Adam Erne.
Roy will get another chance to rejuvenate his career in Vancouver, where the prospect depth will allow him to better compete for attention from management. He’s just just 21 years old, and following a strong showing at the Young Stars tournament in Penticton, he’s already endeared himself to the fans in Vancouver.
With the numerous signings of more experienced AHL players, Roy is likely to play down the lineup in Utica, but coach Travis Green is always keen to reward hard working players with plum assignments in the event of injuries and call ups.
Yan-Pavel Laplante (LW)
The Canucks signed Yan-Pavel Laplante to an Entry Level NHL deal at the end of the 2015-16 junior. Laplante, who was completing his draft-plus-three season in the QMJHL has already been drafted once – by the Arizona Coyotes in the third round of the 2013 draft – scored over a point per game for the first time in five QMJHL seasons last year. His physicality and willingness to drop the gloves may have endeared him more to Canucks management than his actual hockey playing skills, as there were more productive options available for signing.
Laplante had an iffy showing at the Young Stars tournament in Penticton. He played on a line with Marco Roy and Alexis D’Aoust, two of the more impressive players at the tournament, but while Roy and D’Aoust seemed to be making magic together, Laplante’s stick seemed to be where plays went to die. His hands were not quite up to snuff when dealing with the speed at which a bunch of NHL prospects were playing at.
Laplante managed to survive the cuts at Comets camp, though as they’re carrying 16 forwards to start the year, it’s unlikely that he’ll be making the opening lineup. It might not be that long until they decide to get him some ice time by sending him to Alaska of the ECHL. Like Mackenze Stewart last year, it could well be that the fact that he has an NHL Entry Level Contract is what has kept him from a demotion thus far. Well, that and his willingness to let his fists do the talking, although I’d be surprised if even AHL teams are still taking that into account when making roster decisions.
— Utica Comets (@UticaComets) October 10, 2016
Michael Carcone (C/LW)
Michael Carcone was invited to the Canucks Development camp in Shawnigan Lake in July and impressed Canucks management to such an extent that they signed him to an NHL Entry Level Contract right then and there. Completing his draft-plus-two season in the QMJHL in 2015-16, Carcone up near the league leaders in scoring – his 89 points ranked ninth in the league, while his 47 goals were tied for second.
Carcone likely went undrafted due to a combination of his size (listed at 5-foot-9, 170 pounds) and that he seems to have been a bit of a late bloomer. He played his draft season in the OJHL (a Junior A, or second tier, North American junior league), earning well under a point per game. In his second year of eligibility, he did play in the QMJHL, but again finished well below a point per game.
This is Carcone’s first season as a professional, so he can expect to be eased into the lineup. That means he’ll receive his fair share of healthy scratches early in the season, likely getting in on back-to-backs to start. When the injuries and call ups arrive, Carcone will likely have get an opportunity to step up. He has played as both a centre and a winger, but the centre depth on the Comets will likely force him to the wing to start.
Derek Hulak (LW) & Cody Kunyk (C)
While all of the above additions (with the exception of Marco Roy) are on NHL deals, Derek Hulak and Cody Kunyk were signed by the Utica Comets to AHL contracts.
At 27, Derek Hulak is a bit older than a lot of the other additions to the Comets this year. He’s played just two full seasons in the American League, after spending four years at the University of Saskatchewan in his early twenties, but he’s been productive in his time there. Hulak has put up 39 goals and 86 points in 142 AHL games, giving him a points per game mark of 0.61 – one of the highest AHL scoring rates among new acquisitions. Hulak will probably be relied upon to provide some secondary scoring by playing left wing somewhere in the middle six – although Utica’s lack of depth on the left side could allow him to play even higher if he gets off to a good start.
Cody Kunyk was a late addition to the Comets roster, signing an AHL contract in September. He’s clearly more of a depth player, having just one season of professional hockey in North America under his belt, and having spent last season playing in Denmark. Kunyk is listed as a centre, but given Utica’s depth at that position, I’d be surprised if he didn’t spend more time on the wing.
That’s it for the new faces joining the Comets for the impending 2016-17 AHL season. Now that we’ve covered the departures, returnees, and new arrivals, we’ll move on to a summary of the opening roster (which was officially revealed yesterday), and a look at how the new additions may signal a change in philosophy for the farm team.