Taking Stock of the Utica Comets

With the NHL trade deadline mere days away, it’s worth taking into account the AHL affiliates that might buttress NHL lineups after the deadline or fuel trades in advance of it. On the flip side, NHL teams need to be mindful of upholding their end of the bargain to their affiliates too.

Don’t be surprised if you see AHL fodder traded for more AHL fodder. Similarly, you might see team’s dealing for young players with the intention of inserting them into the AHL lineup next season. That brings us to the Utica Comets.

At the beginning of this month, I broke down all the contracts and cap space for the Canucks and included the AHL players. I figured it best to take this one step further and provide an in-depth look at the personnel who might be there next season.

We have to add the obvious caveat that a lot can and likely will change between now and puck drop on the 2017-18 season. That shouldn’t stop us though from exploring the Comets plans based on the available information.

*Edit: This piece was written prior to the Canucks acquiring Jonathan Dahlen.

Forwards

  • Currently Signed: Jake Virtanen, Michael Carcone, Yan Pavel Laplante, Cole Cassels
  • Pending RFA: Joseph Labate, Mike Zalewski
  • Pending UFA: Alexandre Grenier (Group VI), Borna Rendulic (Group VI)

We’ll start by clarifying that Virtanen could also be on the Canucks roster, but he is currently Utica and could be back there next season.

I would expect the Canucks to qualify and retain both Labate and Zalewski, based on the outlook right now. With only two regular AHL players (Cassels and Carcone) signed for next season, there are spots to be had. Obviously, Virtanen could be there, and that makes three forwards, but even then more forwards would be required. Laplante has hopped between the ECHL and AHL this season, and unless he takes a step forward, would continue that role next season.

Possible Reinforcements:

  • Unsigned: Dmitry Zhukenov, Lukas Jasek, Brett McKenzie, Rodrigo Abols, Jakub Stukel, Adam Gaudette, Brock Boeser
  • Signed: None

For Lukas Jasek and Dmitry Zhukenov – the Canuck retain both of their rights until June 1, 2019 despite being drafted in 2015. This is because they were selected outside of North America, this is outlined in Article 8.6d of the NHL/NHLPA CBA.

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Despite that, GM Jim Benning has expressed interest in signing Jasek and getting him over to North America already, thus him joining the Comets next season is the probable course of action. Zhukenov may return to the QMJHL for his overage year, but Chicoutimi will likely see some turnover, so signing him to an ELC and then letting him try at the AHL level is possible.

For Brett McKenzie, Rodrigo Abols, and Jakub Stukel, because they were drafted in their second (third for Abols) year of eligibility, they are will be old enough to not be bound the NHL/CHL transfer agreement. Which is as follows:

Players drafted and playing for CHL teams are ineligible to play in the professional minor leagues (AHL, ECHL) until they are 20 years old (by December 31st of that year) or have completed four years in major juniors.

McKenzie turns 20 on March 12, Stukel on March 6 and Abols is already 21.

Abols has to turn pro next season, and I would expect the Canucks to sign him to an ELC sometime over the off-season. McKenzie and Stukel could conceivably go back to the CHL to complete their overage year, however, I would expect McKenzie to turn pro next season and join the Comets. Stukel has been on a tear recently and there should be ample opportunity for his type of skill set.

Lastly – we turn our attention to the two NCAA prospects that could be in Utica next season, Gaudette and Boeser. I am sure that when everyone read that, alarm bells went off. I suspect that if both sign their ELC this off-season, that Boeser would be in the NHL and Gaudette would likely start his career in the AHL. However, it’s not a foregone conclusion that Boeser will remain in the NHL the entire season, look no further than Kyle Connor. Making the adjustment to pro hockey can be hard, and some time in the AHL is possible for Boeser.

Players currently on AHL deals:

  • Darren Archibald
  • Curtis Valk
  • Cody Kunyk
  • Pascal Pelletier
  • Marc-Olivier Roy
  • Derek Hulak
  • Carter Bancks
  • Wacey Hamilton

Archibald is a fan favourite, and Valk is currently centring the first line – so I would expect both to be in consideration for coming back. I would even advocate signing both of them to contracts for the Canucks, but as always, that’s another discussion for another day.

Bancks is the current captain, and Hamilton wears an A. Both were signed to two year deals, so they will be back. They will provide a good safety net for the incoming prospects that I listed above.

Defence

  • Currently Signed: Jordan Subban, Ashton Sautner, MacKenzie Stewart, Anton Cederholm
  • Pending RFA:  Andrey Pedan, Evan McEneny, Tom Nilsson
  • Pending UFA: Chad Billins

The defensive grouping presents some interesting options as there a couple of pending RFA, some players who are not currently in the AHL and then some reinforcements coming. At this moment, Sautner and Subban would return to Utica.

I would expect Stewart to once again be in the ECHL.

Cederholm presents an interesting situation, as he is likely an AHL level defenceman who is hard-nosed and ‘tough to play against’. But he was loaned to the Allsvenskan because there just wasn’t room for him in the AHL. That likely isn’t going to change with some other prospects coming, but he could easily replace the oft-injured Nilsson in the role of ‘defensive defenceman’ for Utica.

It’s a safe assumption that the Canucks will retain and re-sign McEneny. As Jeremy Davis explained very well last week, McEneny has come out of nowhere and had a meteoric rise to being the first call-up during Mumps-Gate. 

If Pedan doesn’t get moved at the deadline, I would also expect the Canucks to qualify and re-sign him.

Possible Reinforcements:

  • Unsigned: Tate Olson, Carl Neill
  • Signed: Guillaume Brisebois

Guillaume Brisebois is extremely likely to turn pro next season and join the Comets. He will have completed his fourth full season in the QMJHL, where he has seen his points, PPG rate, and role year over year. The current Charlottetown Islanders captain is ready to take the leap into professional hockey, and as we’ve outlined above, there is a safety net of existing defenceman there to help him out.

Carl Neill will have to turn pro next season, and I would expect the Canucks to sign him and let him battle for a spot in Utica.

Tate Olson does have the option to return to the WHL for his 20 year old season, but the Canucks only retain his rights until June 1, 2017. So they would have to decide if he is worth an ELC prior to the making the decision of where he lands. I would expect an ELC for him, and for him to also turn pro.

Players currently on AHL deals:

  • Colby Robak
  • David Shields
  • John Negrin

Goaltenders

Currently Signed: Richard Bachman, Thatcher Demko

Pending RFA: Michael Garteig

Not much change will happen in the crease for Utica.

Bachman was signed to an extension so that the Canucks could meet the exposure requirements for the expansion draft. 

Demko will return to Utica – as it’s a safe assumption that the Canucks will sign or trade for another goalie to play with Jacob Markstrom. However, I would expect him to take more of the games then he is this year.

Garteig has been fine in the ECHL, but he hasn’t forced his way up to the AHL. The Canucks may re-sign him to ensure they have depth.

Depth Chart

The players that are currently Canucks property, so that includes players already under contract for 2017-18, pending RFA and unsigned draft picks, are listed below. I have excluded any pending UFA or players on AHL deals. Do not read too much into the lines or depth, it’s just merely a list. Players who are signed or a pending RFA are listed above un-signed picks (which is why Boeser is listed third on RW).

Bancks and Hamilton would also be in the mix below.

LW C RW
Labate Cassels Virtanen
Zalewski Gaudette Carcone
Laplante Zhukenov Boeser
Stukel Abols Jasek
LD RD
McEneny Pedan
Cederholm Subban
Stewart Nilsson
Brisebois Neill
Olson
G
Bachman
Demko
Garteig


It’s clear that the Comets will see some turnover next season with some young prospects graduating next season. Ideally, the organization will let some of the older players, on AHL deals specifically, walk and let the younger players fill those voids. 

The older prospects like Pedan, McEneny, Subban, Zalewski and LaBate have enough professional hockey under the belts to be leaders for the team. Retain a couple of Archibald, Bancks or Hamilton and suddenly the team is full of opportunity for the young kids but allows some veteran leadership.

This past season the Canucks needed to fill out the Comets roster with players like Jayson Megna, Michael Chaput and Chad Billins. Those types of players will still be needed, as the NHL team needs to ensure to have depth in case of injury, but they don’t need to fill out the roster as much for next season.

They do need to add some forward prospects to the group for next season, as I expect Virtanen to push for a roster spot in the NHL, Boeser would be a long shot to start the season in Utica, and Gaudette may return to the NCAA (instead of signing). They need some high-end offensive players to help out there.

It’s entirely possible that they move a defensive prospect for a forward prospect to help balance the outlook going forward.

  • Burnabybob

    Just praying Virtanen can find his groove. So much else about the Canucks is falling into place. They could have a good team in a few years. Maybe even sooner.

  • Steamer

    Comprehensive with excellent attention to detail – thank you, Ryan. Surprised that a) Valk remains unsigned to an NHL deal, b) Pedan can’t seem to break through. Given Marco Roy, Pavel-LaPlante, et al getting ELC’s, wonder why the obviously superior Valk doesn’t rate? Pedan boasts impressive skills, good size, a willingness to compete hard, yet hasn’t been given much of an opportunity ( certainly less than Philip Larsen, for example ), to play – in his natural position – in the NHL. Think he should be given chance to play at this level before considering moving him. Like Subban, he possesses potential that needs to be tapped to ascertain the ultimate value.

  • wojohowitz

    This situation could change quite a bit on Wednesday – after the trade deadline. Players like Chaput, Megna, Skille and Biega could really help the Comets and at the same time their futures in the NHL are quite limited. At the same time players like Grenier, Zalewski, Labate and Archibald could play for the Canucks and have their futures decided by management.