Photo Credit: Lindsay A. Mogle / Utica Comets
Welcome back to the Utica Comets Week in Review! It’s been roughly six months since the last edition, but the long off season has finally come to an end – although given how they played against the Marlies on the weekend, the Comets might have thought they were still on vacation.
In fairness, games against the Marlies are poor measuring sticks of the capabilities of an AHL team – the Marlies are still a ridiculously dominant American League team, even though top prospects like William Nylander and Connor Brown have moved on to the NHL.
Still, a pair of lopsided losses is hard to swallow. The Comets were tagged for five goals in each one of them, while only managing to score four goals in the two games combined. The most interesting part however may be this: Jordan Subban had a hand in each one of them.
Saturday, October 15th at Toronto: 5 – 2 Loss
The Comets got off to a terrible start in this game and never really recovered. They got into penalty trouble early, with LaBate taking a highs-sticking double minor midway through the first, and John Negrin went off for tripping about a minute later. Marlies rookie Andrew Nielsen scored on a relatively clean look on the ensuing 5-on-3.
They allowed another power play goal less than a minute later. Defencemen Ashton Sautner and John Negrin failed to clear a loose puck in the slot, and Nikita Soshnikov banged home a loose rebound during the scramble.
The Comets were beat again by a Brendan Leipsic one-timer following a pretty passing play between he and Tobias Lindberg. Defencemen Jordan Subban and Troy Stecher crashed into each other on the play allowing a clean pass across the slot.
Toronto’s Andreas Johnsson scored two more power play goals in the second period to bring the score to 5-0. His first was depositing a loose puck in the slot following a blocked shot from the point. The second came off another passing play through the slot. Stecher was on the ice for both, bringing his power play goals against in this game to four.
Utica finally stopped the bleeding in the third period when Curtis Valk tapped in a puck in the crease that had come from a cross-ice feed from Alex Grenier. Jordan Subban picked up the second assist as he riccocheted a stretch pass to Grenier leading to the odd man rush.
Grenier then struck on the power play early in the third period, forcing a one-timer past the Marlies netminder on a feed from Subban.
Sunday, October 16th at Toronto: 5 – 2 Loss
The Comets didn’t fair much better in the second game than the first, although they did manage to score a goal before the Marlies got all five of theirs this time. Andreas Johnsson started things off for the Marlies with yet another power play goal. It came after a net front scramble in which the puck at point bounced off of Troy Stecher’s head.
Subban struck back with a one-time blast on a 5-on-3 Utica power play, after he and Troy Stecher played some catch at the points.
The Marlies struck twice in the second period and then twice in the third, with three of the four goals coming at even strength. Kasperi Kapanen cut in on goal after walking around Jordan Subban like he was the Torts-edition of Alex Edler. Dmytro Timashov scored on yet another pass right through the slot – while his goal was technically at even strength, it came just seconds after a Utica penalty expired, so in reality they were still down a man in the defensive zone.
Colin Greening cut in on new Comet Chad Billins, and while Billins separated Greening from the puck, Colin Smith quickly fired it passed Thatcher Demko. Greening then tipped home a Travis Dermott point that came shortly after Pedan turned the puck over in the defensive zone.
Subban scored his second of the game with a little over eight minutes remaining, again on a power play point shot. This one just trickled through, as the Marlies goalie got a piece, but not quite enough.
There are no roster moves to report from last week, seeing as I gave a full update on the offseason roster turnover, including a review of the opening roster published last Friday night.
Derek Hulak sat out both games with an injury. Not sure what the injury was – it’s tricky to find this information in the AHL, and the people reporting the rosters pre-game don’t usually distinguish between healthy and medical scratches. The only way I know he was injured at all was because it was mentioned in passing on the broadcast of Saturday’s game.
Tom Nilsson, who’s supposed to be a Comet, is still injured and thus trapped in the NHL – a team cannot waive an injured player on an NHL contract, so they’ll have to wait until he’s healthy before attemtping to send him to the farm. Nilsson was injured before the preseason even started.
† Missed game(s) due to injury/illness; * Missed game(s) due to NHL call up.
Both goaltender’s numbers look pretty abysmal after both of them were on the wrong side of 5-2 scores.
Demko took another penalty for playing the puck in the restricted trapezoid behind the net. The NCAA doesn’t have this restricted area, and clearly the rookie netminder is still getting used to it.
- Jordan Subban was quite clearly the star of the show last weekend, potting two power play goals on Sunday to go with the pair of assists he compiled on Saturday. He was the focal point of the Comets power play, and they had good success using him as such. Subban’s defensive lapses were also on display again, as he was caught flat footed in the slot several times, allowing defenders to cut around him for grade A scoring chances. You take the good with the bad with Subban at this point.
- Alex Grenier, whose time as a prospect may well already be up, had a decent start to the year, potting a power play goal and an assist in the first weekend. An impressive fact: Grenier is the only player to play both games last weekend and not be on the ice for one of the Marlies’ ten goals. On the other end, he was on the ice for three goals for. He spent time on the Comets top power play unit, except during the 5-on-3 when they used two defencemen instead of one.
Troy Stecher’s first weekend as a real professional hockey player was a rough one. The Comets were shelled by the Marlies, and it seemed that Stecher was on the ice for almost every single goal against. He wasn’t actually, but he has been present for six of the Comets ten goals against so far, including four of the five power play goals they surrendered on the weekend. This indicates a couple of things: one, that his penalty killing is a work in progress, and two, that Travis Green has no qualms about sending him right back out there to try again.
Down at the other end of the ice, Stecher was walking the line with confidence, as you’d expect. He and Jordan Subban sure work well together on the power play, especially for a pair of guys who are supposed to be competing for a call up.
- The Canucks still haven’t signed Curtis Valk to an NHL contract, but I continue to pretend not to notice that and act like he’s a prospect anyways. Valk scored Utica’s first goal of the 2016-17 campaign, banging in a loose puck at the side of the net. He’s getting top six minutes, centering a line between Mike Zalewski and Alex Grenier, two guys that can score at the AHL level. He had six shots on net on the weekend.
- I’ve maintained since watching Cole Cassels at the 2016 Young Stars tournament that the young centre has looked much better this year than last. He looked decent in the Comets’ first two games, but he was held pointless and put just one shot on net – both are problematic if for no reason than the bad memories of last season that they conjure up. Cassels is going to need some early production this season to keep the narratives from returning.
- Joe LaBate started on the top line with free agent acquisitions Michael Chaput and Jayson Megna. Green mixed his lines up a bit on Saturday and LaBate ended up in the bottom six, on a still relatively capable line with Cole Cassels and Borna Rendulic. He managed two shots on goal.
- As expected, Andrey Pedan began the season on the top pair, with late camp cut Troy Stecher on his right side. He put six shots on net between the two games. Pedan and Stecher were also the first defensive unit out to kill penalties, but they were victimized frequently.
- Ashton Sautner played only the first of the two games, and as far as I can tell, his absence on Sunday was of the healthy scratch variety. He had one shot in the game he played, playing on the bottom pair on his off side with newcomer Chad Billins.
- Mike Zalewski, a native of New Hartford, was a great local story in Utica last year, nearly tripling his point total from the year prior, and going from a one-year AHL contract to an NHL contract to receiving an NHL call up to playing in an NHL game – all in the in the span of about a week. Replenished centre depth in Utica has forced the versatile forward back to the wing. He saw time on the penalty kill, as part of the second forward unit paired up with Darren Archibald.
- Michael Carcone and Yan-Pavel Laplante, the Canucks two offseason free agent signings from the QMJHL, alternated spots in the lineup, with Laplante playing on Saturday and Carcone taking his spot on Sunday. Both lined up with the inseparable Wacey Hamilton and Carter Bancks on the Comets’ de facto shutdown line. Laplante had two shots on net in his appearance, while Carcone had none.
The Comets as a whole were very, very bad, playing against a very, very good Toronto Marlies side on back to back days. Their biggest issue seemed to be their discipline and penalty killing. They killed off just three of seven power plays on Saturday, and proceeded to give the Marlies nine more man advantages on Sunday. Overall, they killed ten of 16, for a pretty abysmal kill rate of 63 percent.
Their power play fared a little better, converting three times on 13 opportunities, a rate of 23 percent, which be more respectable if it didn’t pale in comparison to that of the Marlies’. Jordan Subban scored two of the goals and set up the other – safe to say that he’ll be instrumental with the extra man this year.
In terms of general possession and game flow, the ice was heavily tilted towards the Comets end for nearly the entire weekend, with the exception of when the teams were essentially playing in garbage time. Between Saturday and Sunday, the Marlies out-shot the 28-13 during the first periods, and 25-16 during the second periods. The Comets were outscored 8-2 across these periods. They managed to out-shoot the Marlies 15-7 in the third period of the Saturday game, where score effects were heavily present. Not even score effects could help them in Sunday’s game, as the Marlies out-shot them 7-6 in the third.
Jordan Subban jumps out to an early lead in the team scoring race, setting the bar in goals (2), primary power play goals (2), primary points (3), points (4), and shots-on-goal (7).
Player of the Week
There’s no question about this one: Jordan Subban had an impressive weekend offensively. The Comets managed to score just four times, with Subban putting home three of them and assisting on the other. Subban has looked extremely dangerous on the power play, and his heavy point shot seems to be too much for American League goaltenders to handle.
Two of Subban’s three goals were on the powerplay, which is clearly centered around a single purpose at this point: feed Jordan Subban for one-timers. It’s certainly working so far. They deployed a couple of different combinations on the top power play unit – a four forward set, and a standard three forward set – and both were aimed at getting Subban the puck.
Subban is fighting to not be the forgotten man, after playing in just one preseason game (and a non-televised game at that), and watching Stecher be one of the better stories out of training camp and preseason. Now that they’re in the AHL however, Subban is having a dominating performance, while Stecher has mostly been playing second fiddle. Of course, it was Stecher’s first weekend as a professional, so this isn’t to say anything less of his future as an NHLer – it’s just that maybe the competition between the two of them is closer than we thought a week ago.
The Comets play twice this coming weekend, first in Syracuse against the Crunch on Friday, and then in Albany against the Devils on Saturday – both opponents are currently sporting 2-0-0 records to start the American League season.
Both the Crunch and the Devils have seen large changed to their top end and leadership groups. Former Comet Cory Conacher is now a member of the Crunch. The top eight point producers from last year’s Albany roster have moved on, either to the NHL or free agency, yet they’ve still managed to score eight goals in their first two games.
The Comets will have to play a lot better this weekend, cleaning up their defensive zone play, especially on the penalty kill, and taking far fewer penalties, assuming they don’t want to spend the year at the bottom of the standings. There’s no tanking in the AHL after all.