I would like to start this article by apologizing for leaving the rabid Comets fans hanging since the Marlies ended their season a couple of weeks back. I have been dealing with some medication issues that made writing a little difficult, but I am back up and running now and hope to bring a few more articles to you in the coming weeks.
Today, I would like to have a look at the Utica Comets 2017/18 season and give you an overview of how things went for the Canucks’ farm hands over this past season.
To say that the Comets had their challenges this year would be an understatement. The team faced injury after injury all season long, coupled with having their best players called up to the parent Canucks for extended stays. That said, we all understand, or at least we should, that the purpose of a farm team is to develop players to make them NHL ready, and to supply the parent club with players when injuries occur or when the big club wants to take a look at what they have in a given player.
This season, the Utica Comets were forced to use 15 forwards and 10 defensemen on PTO/ATO, (professional tryout/amateur tryout) deals. The team also used four goaltenders on PTO/Emergency backup deals. That is more or less the equivalent of an entire second roster of players used by the team this season. This doesn’t include the use of goaltender Michael Garteig, defenders Anton Cederholm, and Mackenze Stewart, and forward Danny Moynihan, who were all summoned from the Comets’ ECHL affiliate, the Kalamazoo Wings, at times this season.
There was a point this season when the Comets entire top line of Nikolay Goldobin, Michael Chaput, and Reid Boucher were all up with the big club, leaving the likes of Cole Cassels, Cam Darcy, Michael Carcone, and rookie Zack MacEwen to pick up the slack in their absence.
Those players and a few others were able to not only help keep the Comets’ ship afloat — they were also able to take forward steps in their development along the way. The injuries and call-ups served to immerse a handful of rookies into the AHL, allowing those players to take on minutes that they otherwise might not have been afforded.
Let’s take a look at the Comets’ players who had rookie status this season and see how they fared in their first year of pro hockey. A few of these players did get into pro games previously, but they were still considered rookies by the AHL.
A total of 16 players with rookie status skated with the Comets this season, 11 forwards and five defensemen. Some of those players were only able to get into one game, while others spent all season with the club.
As you can see above, some of the Comets’ rookie forwards managed to get into more games than others, while some made the most of the limited number of games that they were able to play in. Brian Ward and Brady Brassart both played games with the team on PTO deals, while Danny Moynihan had an AHL deal with the club, but spent the bulk of his season with the Kalamazoo Wings in the ECHL. Alex D’Aoust was also with the club on an AHL deal, and he spent the full season with the Comets. Tanner MacMaster and Lukas Jasek both came in on tryout deals with the Comets late in the season, and both have since earned fulltime deals with the club. Jasek was signed by the Canucks to a two-way deal shortly after joining the team on a PTO, while Tanner MacMaster turned his ATO into an AHL deal with the Comets for next season.
The Comets’ crop of rookie forwards played in a total of 240 games as a group, putting up 47 goals and 62 assists, good for 109 points. Nearly half of those points came from rookie points leader Zack MacEwen and fellow winger, Alex D’Aoust. Lukas Jasek, Tanner MacMaster, and Jonathan Dahlen all showed well during their late-season auditions, putting up solid point totals, while Kole Lind looked better with each game that he played, even if he didn’t pile up points at the same rate as the other three mentioned above.
It bodes well for the future that young players like MacEwen, Dahlen, MacMaster, and Jasek could very well make up the bulk of the Comets’ top-six forward group next season. We will have to wait to find out if the team will be bringing D’Aoust and Molino back for next season as D’Aoust is a pending UFA, (unrestricted free agent) while Molino is a pending RFA, (restricted free agent). I feel like D’Aoust did enough this season to earn another deal, while I am less certain about where Molino fits with the club going forward.
Kole Lind, for his part, looks like a good bet to slide into a middle six role with the Comets for next season, depending on whether or not the team decides to move MacEwen back to his natural position as a pivot. If MacEwen does move back to the middle, it could allow Lind to start as a top-six winger rather than as a third line player. For the record, I can certainly see a case for making that move with MacEwen, but we will get to that in another article this summer.
Speaking of MacEwen, the big fella had a heck of a rookie year with the team. He finished with 33 points, which was good enough to place him fourth in team scoring. He played in the team’s top-six for the bulk of the season and saw plenty of five aside time. He was also used as a net-front presence on the power-play and put up four of his 10 goals with the extra man this season. The biggest thing that excites me about MacEwen is that I saw huge gains made in his skating from the start of the season to the end. Late in the season, MacEwen was closing on pucks that he just wouldn’t have gotten to at the start of the year, and the power moves to cut hard to the net occurred more often as well.
The rookie picture on the back end looks a little less rosy than it does up front for the Comets. Defenders Guillaume Brisebois and Jalen Chatfield both had solid rookie seasons, even if their point totals weren’t spectacular, but after those two, there wasn’t much to write home about as far as rookie defensemen go. This is an area that the team will need to address going forward if they want to build a playoff contending team for the future. Maybe we will see right-shot defender, Matt Brassard land a deal with the club so that he can make his debut in the 2018/19 season.
Brisebois has been somewhat of a whipping boy with the Vancouver media/fan base, mostly because of who was traded for the pick that landed him, (former Canucks fan favourite, Eddie Lack) and the fact that management speaks so highly of him at every turn. I would like to go on record as saying that I think this is unfair to the player, as it isn’t his fault that he is brought up every time the team talks about their young defensemen, nor is it his fault who he was traded for.
There are only so many young defenders in the Canucks’ system, and like it or not, Brisebois is close to the top of that list as far as players who could play for the team going forward. I saw Brisebois take strides towards becoming an NHL player over the course of the season. He saw his share of 5-on-5 minutes and was a staple on the penalty kill. He also started to see a little bit of power-play time down the stretch. Brisebois was the third-highest scoring rookie on the Comets’ roster this season and I expect that he will improve on his 18-point rookie season next year.
Jalen Chatfield also had a solid rookie campaign. He may never pile up points, but his low offensive numbers this season may not be an indicator of what he will do going forward. Chatfield struggled to put up points this season, but I believe that he has more offence to his game. I’d like to see him work on his shot a little more as he has no problem skating the puck into the offensive zone for scoring chances and he could do some damage there if he improves his shot. If there was one part of Chatfield’s game that stood out, it was his silky smooth wheels; this kid can skate. He also uses his body and stick really well in his own end to protect the puck and to break up plays. Chatfield was also a staple on the Comets’ penalty-kill, but rare was the occasion that he saw any power-play time. Keep an eye on Brisebois and Chatfield next season; I expect both to take on bigger roles and produce a little more in the way of offence.
Now that we have looked at what the rookie crop was able to do, let’s take a look at what part the plethora of tryout players played in the Comets’ season. As mentioned previously, the Comets used 25 skaters and three goaltenders on tryout deals this season. There were a few other players who were signed to tryout deals which never got into the lineup, so we will focus on the ones who did.
Outside of MacMaster and Jasek, there were two forwards and two defensemen who ended up earning AHL deals after coming in on tryout deals with the Comets this season and I will be including those players here as well. Forwards, Cam Darcy and Brendan Woods each started the season with the Comets, coming in on PTO deals and both ended up with AHL deals for the remainder of the season. Woods played just 14 games with the team due to injuries, while Darcy managed to suit up in 46 games with the team and put up 24 points in the process.
Dylan Blujus and Adam Comrie were the two defenders who earned AHL deals off of their tryouts. Comrie played as both a defenseman and a winger with the Comets and that versatility kept him in the lineup on more than a few occasions. Comrie managed to play 41 games with the team, putting up 17 points, while Blujus got into 45 contests and managed 16 points.
The rest of this list is made up of players who played anywhere from one to 39 games for the Comets this year.
Forwards Caleb Herbert, Joel Lowry, Brian Ward, and Brady Brassart also played for the Comets on tryout deals this season but were unable to put up any points with the club.
Defensemen Justin Hamonic, Aaron Irving, and Nolan Valleau also played games on tryout deals with the Comets but failed to register any points.
As you can see, some of the players who were brought in on tryout deals fared better than others, but they all contributed to the Comets’ season in one way or another. The team managed to coax 339 games, 46 goals, 63 assists, and 109 points out of their tryout crew this season, (coincidentally, the same amount of points put up by their rookie forward crop this season).
It wasn’t just rookies and tryout players who helped the Comets get back into the playoffs this season as there were a number of players who had career years in one way or another for the team. Listed below are the players who had careers highs this season for the Comets.
- Reid Boucher: 25 goals, 21 assists, 46 points, and 181 shots on goal.
- Michael Chaput: Nine power-play goals.
- Patrick Wiercioch: 10 goals, 27 assists, 37 points, 121 shots, and two shorthanded goals.
- Nikolay Goldobin: Six power-play goals.
- Michael Carcone: 15 goals, 27 points, and 147 shots on goal.
- Cole Cassels: Seven goals, 19 assists, 26 points, and 92 shots on goal.
- Cam Darcy: Six goals, 18 assists, 24 points, four power-play goals, and 73 shots on goal.
- Wacey Hamilton: 18 assists, and 22 points.
- Ashton Sautner: 10 assists, 13 points, and 84 shots on goal.
- Thatcher Demko: 46 games played, 2781 minutes played, 1340 saves, 2.44 goals-against average, 0.922 save percentage, 25 wins, 13 losses and seven wins in overtime.
As you can see, the coaching staff in Utica did some great work this season under trying circumstances. Between rookies having good seasons and several returning players having career years, coupled with tryout players contributing, there was clearly some nice player development happening in Utica this season. In fact, the team managed to tie their second-best season, in terms of points, with 88. They also put up their third-highest goals-for total since landing in Utica five seasons ago, while also tying their third-lowest goals-against rate.
We only got to see five playoff games from the Comets this season, but they were against the Toronto Marlies, the league’s best team in the regular season. During those five games, we saw Nikolay Goldobin lead the club with six points, all assists, while youngsters Michael Carcone and Tanner MacMaster each put up four points. Cole Cassels also had a solid playoff performance, putting up three points in five games while taking on some heavy lifting on the defensive side of the puck.
Thatcher Demko, for his part, played all five playoff games for the Comets to get his first taste of the playoffs at the pro level and he handled himself very well. The second-year pro posted a save percentage of 0.927 in the extra season, to go along with a 2.69 goals-against average, making 177 saves on 191 shots faced over the series.
The other part of the Comets’ game that helped their success this year was the play of their special teams. Their power-play finished the season tied with the powerhouse Toronto Marlies with an 18.0% success rate, good enough to have the pair of teams tied for 10th in the league for the regular season, while the Utica penalty kill sat second overall, to those same Marlies, with an 85.5% success rate.
The team will want to improve on those power-play numbers a bit for next season, but their penalty kill was in the top half of the league for the bulk of the season. Trent Cull and his staff did some solid work with the special teams in Utica this season.
There is still plenty of work to do going forward in Utica, but at the end of the day, this team saw several players take big steps in their development in the regular season and many carried that play over to the playoffs. It will be interesting to see what year two looks like under head coach Trent Cull in Utica, but I can say this, he should have a better roster to work with for the 2018/19 season.
I look forward to seeing what the team will be able to do next year while watching the Comets’ younger players take on bigger roles while taking more steps in their development on their way to becoming NHL regulars.