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Photo Credit: Lindsay A. Mogle / Utica Comets

Could the Utica Comets Be an Offensive Juggernaut Next Season?

The Canucks were a busy team during the NHL’s free agent frenzy on July 1st, picking up 5 new contracts and renewing the contract of Anton Rodin, who has mostly been a question mark since undergoing his most recent surgery.

Related: Grading The Canucks’ Free Agent Signings

Following the draft, it seemed like a reasonable assumption that the Canucks were going to have enough space on their NHL roster for Brock Boeser, Nikolay Goldobin and Jake Virtanen to battle it out for one or two spots. Between Rodin and the additions of Sam Gagner and Alex Burmistrov, the Canucks forward group is looking pretty full. In fact, if we were to assume full health of the Vancouver roster, I could easily see all three of Boeser, Goldobin, and Virtanen starting the season in Utica.

Now right off the hop, that’s a fairly risky assumption. Last year, we were told that Rodin would be ready for the regular season, but after playing in 5 exhibition games, he didn’t reappear until December. The year before that, Chris Higgins broke his foot in the first exhibition, and didn’t return until November. Assuming health is risky enough in any year, but probably more so next season, with the Canucks having four forwards that have had surgery since they last played an NHL game (Rodin, Markus Granlund, Brendan Gaunce, and Derek Dorsett), and while each of the them are supposed to be ready for the 2017-18 campaign, we all know that things sometimes go sideways.

But, for the sake of the argument, let’s assume full health. I see the forward group looking something like this (don’t concern yourselves with the line compositions or order for now, so much as who’s there):

Daniel Sedin

Henrik Sedin

Markus Granlund

Sven Baertschi

Bo Horvat

Reid Boucher

Anton Rodin

Brandon Sutter

Loui Eriksson

Brendan Gaunce

Sam Gagner

Alex Burmistrov

Derek Dorsett

In this exercise, Boeser, Goldobin and Virtanen are easy choices to head to the farm, as each of them will be waiver exempt. Jayson Megna (who was re-signed late last season) and Michael Chaput (who was given a QO in late June but as of yet does not have a contract) we’re also fairly easy choices, as they were signed to be in Utica originally anyway. One of them could challenge Burmistrov for a spot, but in terms of creating the most effective NHL lineup (or Rodin, depending on how he’s recovered from multiple knee surgeries), but I think this is how it’ll turn out.

That would leave Boeser, Goldobin, Virtanen, Chaput, and Megna to populate Utica’s top six. Then, we add Jonathan Dahlen to the mix. The 19-year old Swede is now on an Entry Level Contract with the Canucks, but it’s still feasible that he gets loaned to Sweden next year if he doesn’t make the big club, perhaps to join former Timra linemate Elias Pettersson in Växjö. But, if he does stay in North America, he’ll round out what could be one hell of an AHL top six.

Nikolay Goldobin

Michael Chaput

Jayson Megna

Jake Virtanen

Jonathan Dahlen

Brock Boeser

A History of Impotent Offence

For those who have been following the Comets since they entered the league in 2013-14, or, god forbid, have been watching all or most of their games, a strong top six is quite a departure from the norm for them. Even when the team was good (like the squad that went to the Calder Cup Finals in 2015), most of their success was derived from great goaltending, and the offensive prowess they did display was mostly driven by veterans like Cal O’Reilly, Dustin Jeffrey, and Brandon DeFazio.

As a team, the Comets have cracked the AHL’s top ten in goals per game just once in their existence, and even then they only just barely made the cut.

Utica hasn’t had a strong top six since then, and they’ve rarely had solid offensive prospects to show off. The Comets have been assigned approximately four high-skilled scoring forward prospects (Nicklas Jensen, Hunter Shinkaruk, Jake Virtanen, and 35 games of Sven Baertschi) in their four years of existence, which, by my math, is one per season. Brendan Gaunce, who began as a defensive forward, turned out to be as prominent an AHL scorer as any of them, and the Comets got several solid seasons out of Alex Grenier while he was aging out as a prospect – but he never topped 0.7 points per game in any season.

In fact, in four seasons, no Comet has played more than 15 regular season games with the Comets and scored more than 0.9 points per game. Even the vets that have led the offence at various points have done so with less than incredible scoring numbers.

Comets players with >15 GP and >0.75 P/GP in seasons since 2013-14

Name

Season

GP

P

Pts/GP

Pascal Pelletier

2013-14

69

62

0.90

Cal O’Reilly

2013-14

52

45

0.87

Dustin Jeffrey

2014-15

49

41

0.84

Cal O’Reilly

2014-15

76

61

0.80

Cory Conacher

2014-15

20

16

0.80

Hunter Shinkaruk

2015-16

45

39

0.87

T.J. Hensick

2015-16

19

15

0.79

Brendan Gaunce

2015-16

46

38

0.83

As a side note, Sven Baertschi is the only player in Comets history to average a point per game or more in more than 10 games played (15 points in 15 games in 2014-15).

In that same span across the AHL, 111 players scored at least 0.9 points per game in single seasons, with 68 scoring more than a point per game (greater than 15 games played). Those point per game players have come from 29 different teams, and 24 different franchises after accounting for relocations, leaving the Comets as one of just six AHL franchises to not have a large-sample point per game scorer in the past four seasons.

Next Season

Two players crested a point per game for the Comets in limited action last season: Michael Chaput (13 points in 10 games) and Nikolay Goldobin (4 points in 3 games). It’s feasible that both players could do so again. Brock Boeser, who scored five points in nine NHL games after scoring 94 points in 74 NCAA games, could conceivably do the same.

Then there’s Dahlen. He put up 45 points in 44 games in Sweden’s second tier professional league, Allsvenskan, last year. According to data that I’ve collected for SEAL adjustments, between 2000-01 and 2015-16, forwards aged-25 and under moving from Allsvenskan one year to the AHL the following year retained 94% of their point per game totals, giving Dahlen a chance to be nearly as productive as the first three.

Next we come to Jayson Megna. As maligned as Megna was at the NHL level last year, he is a reliable point producer at the AHL level. He owns a career 0.52 point per game rate in the American League, and put up three points in four games at the beginning of last season while playing with Michael Chaput. That’s a dip from the first four, but at this point we’re talking about the fifth or so best forward on the roster.

Jake Virtanen is a bit of a wild card. His struggles were well documented last season, but the 13 points he scored in 55 NHL games as a teenager should indicate that he’s capable of producing a lot more than the 0.29 points per game he scored in the AHL last year. After a solid summer to re-condition and re-focus, having him produce at a half point per game in the AHL shouldn’t be an unreasonable bar for him to top, especially if here’s surrounded by other talented players.

Lastly, although I’ve focused on these six, there’s still a chance that the Comets bring back Darren Archibald and Cody Kunyk, who scored at 0.65 and 0.61 points per game respectively last season, while receiving middle six minutes for most of the year, but were asked to carry the load offensively later on.

Another positive factor is the fact that they’d all be playing there together. Not only will playing with other highly skilled players increase the odds of high-output seasons, it may also make being there in the first place a more palatable experience. Each of Boeser, Virtanen and Goldobin has had a taste of the NHL, with varying degrees of length of level of success. They might feel that they deserve a shot at the highest level, and starting the season in the AHL might be disappointing. But perhaps being mired in the minors doesn’t feel so bad when you look around and see two or three other high octane forward prospects. Perhaps the thought of being a damn good American League is more acceptable when juxtaposed against the idea of being on a mediocre-at-best NHL team, knowing that they’ll be in the NHL soon enough anyway.

Hell, they could be in the NHL later that season, when injuries hit, or the trade deadline comes around. I could see the Comets functioning like the 2015-16 Marlies, stocked with prospects that are probably NHL ready, but are kept down in the minors because their parent clubs are getting pummeled on a routine basis. Late in the season, they appear with the big club en masse and demonstrate what they’ve learned while playing together down below.

I’d like to note that I’d be in full support of this, and that’s partially why I was supportive of what the Canucks did in free agency. While I do think the “let your prospects get overripe in the AHL” gets a little more credit than it deserves, I think the benefits are increased when there are a handful of high-end prospects playing their together.

Remember, this is just a hypothetical experiment, and one that relies on the fairly unrealistic and unlikely event that the Canucks open the season in perfect health. But, on the off chance that that were to come to fruition, I think we’ll see a very formidable offence down on the farm. It’s not necessarily going to be one of the AHL’s best, but put against the impotent offences throughout Utica’s brief history as Vancouver’s affiliate, this could be the most potent offence that the Comets have ever had.

  • defenceman factory

    Jeremy do you see Palmu in the Comets line-up or is he destined for the East Coast League? Does the Comets Dcorp help or hinder the potential offensive juggernaught?

  • MoanElisa

    This is excactly what I’m hoping for. Let Trent Cull (who’s had a hand in developing half of Tampa Bay’s team) get these kids going all in one direction, together. Injuries will happen and all of them will get their call ups. Best summer by Benning so far. Now get Bo signed!

  • FireGillis

    Dahlen is going to the SEL to play with pettersson, and if boeser starts in the AHL I’m going to be so mad, he needs to be our right handed shot to play with the sedins on the first power play unit, and he should probably play with horvat all year.

    • Killer Marmot

      I agree. Keeping Boeser on the farm is too conservative.

      The Canucks are going to have to bring up a lot of players over the next few years, so let’s get on with it. I don’t want the development pipeline to get clogged up because Benning is reluctant to put fringe players on waivers.

      • TD

        The AHL may be the best place for Boeser and the other prospects. There is a lot of practice time in the AHL, while very little in the NHL. Boeser can score, but what about the rest of his game. Would he become a more complete player from spending some time in the AHL? I’m not sure, but if so, then the minors are better for everyone in the long term and that has to be the focus.

        The second reason why the AHL may be a better place is as stated in the article. Having a lot of success on a good minor league team may be more beneficial than facing a lot of losing on a crappie NHL team. It certainly worked for Toronto.

        I would rather watch the kids this coming year, but will suffer through another year if that’s what’s better in the long run.

        • Locust

          Agreed.
          If he isn’t a sure fire hit out of camp and is struggling for a spot he needs to go to Utica with identified goals and when they are reached be brought back up for the last month of the season.

          • Erik Lonnrot

            Not to mention there is bound to be some adjustment to the full time professional schedule from the much lighter NCAA one. No harm in getting used to that playing lots of minutes in a top 6 role in the AHL, even if it’s just for a couple of months.

          • Forward Thinker

            Yes, it is not likely there will be zero injuries, but here is hoping the injuries will not be to Rodin or Boucher and they get to show what they can do.

        • Killer Marmot

          I count six or seven high-quality prospects in the system: Boeser, Juolevi, Dahlen, Demko, Gaudette, and Petterson. Maybe Goldobin or Lind. Plus I count at least six other prospects who have at least a reasonable shot at an NHL career.

          Great, but you don’t want to introduce a crap load of rookies in one year. But that is precisely what the Canucks are in danger of having to do if they hold up NHL-ready players such as Boeser, who is likely aching to play in the big leagues. If he just wanted to improve his skills in the minors he would not have left college early.

          • Whatthe...

            He won’t necessarily be down there all season though. They don’t play as many games in college so IMHO it makes more sense for Boeser get his sea legs in the AHL (for the first half of the season at least). Less pressure, more game time and more training. If he is doing well and the Canucks need him, then bring him up. But if the AHL squad is leading the league, it might be better for him to try and go on a long playoff run…more options if he starts in Utica.

          • Killer Marmot

            Whatthe…

            Boeser’s performance this spring was so impressive that if he is included in the Canuck’s starting roster then he will likely have no shortage of ice time.

          • Neil B

            “you don’t want to introduce a crap load of rookies in one year”. Toronto did just fine doing exactly that last year; in fact, they did it precisely the way this article posits it.

            As per Boeser being NHL ready, well, we don’t really know that. He visibly slowed last season into the 3rd period of games. He’s never had to deal with 5, 7, or 9-game road trips on a compressed schedule. As both TD and Whatthe… have pointed out, the practice time-to-game-time ratio in the AHL is better than it is in the NHL, so any rough edges in his game would be best to work off in Utica.

            By all means, if he looks like he might be capable of inserting himself into the Calder conversation, he stays. If he has a better game with the Sedins than Granny or Eeriksson, then he stays. But if he’s overall our third best RW, or lower, then he should go to Utica for a year.

          • Killer Marmot

            NeillB:

            You would only insert a 20 year old into the lineup if he’s a Calder Trophy candidate and ready to play on the first two lines?

            That’s way to conservative. Horvat was introduced into the lineup when he was a year younger than Boeser is now, and as I recall he centred the fourth line.

          • Fortitude00

            Good prospects we only have a couple high quality ones. Look at rankings down around the league when looking at your own prospects. We fans sometimes over estimate the value of our prospects.

      • In my little experiment, we’ve already waived Chaput and Megna. Maybe Burmistrov goes, but that appears to be an NHL signing at this point. I understand that Boeser is a much more important player, but I do think the Canucks are looking for an opportunity to take things slow with development whenever possible. Starting in the AHL certainly does not mean a whole season in the AHL. Besides, if any of those four post-surgery forwards aren’t ready, or if new injuries occur, I think Boeser is the first to stay or be recalled.

        Also, I wouldn’t call Boucher a fringe player, I think he’s a legitimate middle six NHL player with some power play upside. The Canucks just qualified his contract so I doubt their intent on losing him on waivers. Boucher was waived three times last season, and he never made it through. Someone would pick him up if they waived him again. They won’t try it.

  • Peezy F

    I’m excited to see what Zach Macewan does next year too. He has such great hands for a 6 4 guy. 20 year old CHL free agent signings usually don’t mean much but watching his highlights, there is something to him.

  • Chris the Curmudgeon

    This article is an exploration of overextrapolating tiny sample sizes.

    Also, I really think Goldobin should start in the NHL. The guy has very little left to gain in the AHL. The team could easily carry 14 forwards, too. I hope Reid Boucher gets a shot to stick this year but I think his spot on that 2nd line is precarious.

  • valleycanuck

    What you’ve described sounds like a great developmental experience for some of the best and brightest future Canucks. Interesting question about Palmu as well, from ‘defenceman factory’ but correct me if I’m wrong he probably has another year of CHL eligibility as an over-ager. Looking forward to some CA articles over the summer that might enlighten us on what the Comets defence may look like in regards to actual Canucks prospects as well.

    • DJ_44

      Palmu is signed to play in the Finnish first division next year, if I am not mistaken. I think he played his overage season last year, this was his third draft he was eligible. That said, I would like to see him in Utica.

      • He *could* play in the CHL another year, but it’s unlikely. On top of the fact that he’s already signed for Liiga next season, he’d take up an import slot *and* an overage slot in the OHL next season, and that’s a tough combo for any team. Owen Sound took a Belarussian in the import draft last week with the assumption that Palmu wouldn’t be back.

  • Grapemanca

    Though I want Utica to be better, I’m not sure I agree with all of this analysis. For example, if Boeser and Goldobin can’t beat out Boucher and Burmistrov in camp, then they deserve to be sent down to Utica.

    To be honest, though, I can’t see Boeser not making the cut. And if Goldobin and Jolevi also show well, Benning has shown in the past that he’ll keep the rookie(s) in the big show. Indeed, during his press conference on Saturday, Benning seemed positively giddy about the “good problem” he would have with so many players. I wouldn’t be surprised if he pulls the trigger at the start of the season (or earlier) to clear some (veteran) space and gain some picks.

    • TD

      I’d be happy to see a trade to gain more assets as well. If Boeser or Goldobin show they have a full NHL game, then they should stay. But if they need further development in any aspect of their game, then they should go to the minors. Boeser and Goldobin are probably already better offensive players than some on the team, but that doesn’t mean they should be on the Canucks if the Comets is a better place to maximize their abilities. I’m more worried about trying to win a cup down the line then winning an extra game or two this year.

    • Killer Marmot

      There’s a great deal to be said for a policy where the best players in training camp make the roster. It sends a message that talent and hard work are rewarded, so don’t even think about riding on your laurels.

      And it might well be working. Although the Canucks had many faults last season, lack of effort was not one of them.

  • wojohowitz

    If I pencil in Gaunce on LW and Boucher on RW (because of his age -23) and Chaput as the 13th forward then the Comets look like this;

    Rodin-Molino-Boeser
    Dahlen-MacEwen-Goldobin
    Labate-Hamilton-Bancks
    Archibald-Cassels-Carcone
    Laplante-Megna-D`aoust

    • TD

      I think Rodin will surprise a lot of people (if healthy) and be in the top 9, if not the top 6 on the Canucks. I wouldn’t mind seeing him play on the right wing riding shotgun with Horvat and Baertschi. They were a lot better as a line with Burrows then without him. I think Rodin has lots of offensive upside with a more mature game that would assist Bo and Baer as they start seeing more difficult match ups.

    • wojohowitz

      I missed a couple of names. Marco Roy can play center along with Molino, Dahlen, MacEwen, Labate, Hamilton, Cassels, Laplante and Megna. Too bad about Megna. I think his name is mud and he won`t get a sniff with the `Nucks. I also forgot Jake and maybe that`s a good thing. He has become an after thought and when he looks around he will realize he has dropped on the depth chart which might be his wake up call to get going.

      The comment from Rodin was; His knee gets better and better every day which does not sound good. Maybe he will be game ready by September but it could also mean his career is over if the knee cannot hold up.

    • Erik Lonnrot

      I think you may well be right. Although personally I don’t think a few months with the heavy practice and game schedule of the AHL would do him any harm. The risk is that we’re so desperate to see exciting young players on the team that it’s hard to be objective. I remember being happy when Virtanen and McCann stuck with the Canucks, that didn’t turn out so well.

  • ENFORCER

    Utica and the Canucks now have the smallest teams in their respective leagues. Unless they intend skating through players legs they will get pummeled like rump steak on a butchers slab. Obvs the management didn’t watch the Preds, Ducks and Coilers in the playoffs. Big mistake!

  • FireGillis

    You don’t know what you’re talking about. Boeser is going to be in our top 6 next year, and on the 1% chance he gets sent down, he’ll be their best player, getting well over a point a game on the first line. Second line in the AHL, what a joke

  • defenceman factory

    Psych Major you are a classic case of Negative Affectivity leading to Chronic Depression. Quit pretending to be something you’re not and seek real help. Maybe once properly treated for your condition you will be able to participate in a discussion in a positive way.

  • pheenster

    New poll. Psych Major is:

    1) Suffering from Small Man syndrome
    2) A 14-year-old posting from the library because his folks won’t let him have an internet-connected device
    3) That guy at the bar girls stay away from because he looks like he might spike their drink
    4) An actual psych major embittered by having a useless degree and being forced to wash cars for a living
    5) Some combination of the above

    Vote early, vote often.

  • Neil B

    Yeah, actually, no. In the profession, it wouldn’t be OCD, because no one posting here believes that their posting has a direct effect on team performance, or that the ritual of posting here will prevent them from thinking ‘bad’ thoughts.

    One could argue that a compulsive need to post derogatory or defamatory comments here could reflect a conduct disorder (ASPD being limited, of course, to those over the age of 18 as per definition) or perhaps oppositional defiant disorder, especially where one actively refuses to comply with consensus-supported rules; performs actions deliberately to annoy others; is angry and resentful of others; argues often; blames others for their own mistakes; frequently loses one’s temper; is spiteful or seeks revenge; and is touchy or easily annoyed. Just as a for-instance.