I was kicking around some ideas for another offseason Utica Comets article with a Twitter pal and he suggested something along the lines of “Five Reasons Why The Utica Comets Will Be Better This Year”. I liked the idea, so that is what I am going with today. Thanks, Muzzy.
The first reason why I believe that the club will be better is due to the quality of the rookie class that will likely be joining the team for the upcoming season. I wrote about the pending rookie crop earlier this offseason and have provided a link to that piece HERE.
A quick recap of that article reveals a much different looking rookie crop coming in this season as opposed to last season.
Last year we saw three rookie forwards and two rookie defencemen play more than 20 games with the club. Guillaume Brisebois, (18 points in 68 games) was the only player of that group who was actually drafted by an NHL team. The other four were all brought aboard as UFA, (unrestricted free agent) signings.
Rookie points leader, Zack MacEwen had a solid first-year of pro hockey, putting up a half a point per game with 33 points in 66 contests. He was followed by Alexis D’Aoust with 21 points in 57 games. Brisebois sat third, while Griffen Molino and Jalen Chatfield rounded out the rookie crew with 10 and seven points respectively.
MacEwen, Chatfield, and Brisebois are still with the club, while Molino has since been signed by the Toronto Marlies. D’Aoust remains unsigned, as far as I am aware.
I expect all three of the remaining players to improve on last season’s points totals as they take on bigger roles with the club…but I will get to that in a minute.
First, a quick refresher on this year’s rookie class. Up front, we can anticipate seeing the likes of Jonathan Dahlen, Adam Gaudette, Kole Lind, Lukas Jasek, Jonah Gadjovich, Petrus Palmu, and Tanner MacMaster. On defence, Olli Juolevi and Jagger Dirk are most likely to make their first appearances as pros in the AHL.
That is a bump both in terms of quantity, and quality and that is not meant to be a knock on last year’s group.
Juolevi, Lind, Dahlen, and Gadjovich were all selected in the first two rounds of the NHL draft, while Palmu finished as the Rookie of the Year last season in the Finnish Liiga, and Gaudette put up a Hobey Baker winning season in the NCAA before not looking out of place in his late-season NHL audition.
Jasek spent last season playing pro hockey overseas before setting Utica ablaze with seven points in six games after joining the club near the end of the regular season. His play ended up earning him an entry-level deal with the Canucks.
MacMaster had a 13 game regular-season audition with the Comets last year on an ATO, (amateur tryout) and put up seven points before going on to lead Comets rookies with four points in five playoff games.
Dirk could be somewhat of a wildcard as a 25-year-old who could be a late bloomer. The rearguard got into seven games with the Binghamton Devils to finish last season on an ATO and picked up an assist. Prior to joining the Devils, he wrapped up his CIS career with 28 points in 30 games.
The pedigree and skill level of this year’s rookie class alone should make watching the Comets a whole lot more enjoyable for the 2018/19 season.
Second-year players MacEwen, Brisebois, and Chatfield will all have their first season of AHL hockey in the rearview mirror and will have a better understanding of what it takes to be a pro and be able to compete at this level.
All three young men were thrust into prime time roles early on last season when injuries and call-ups left Trent Cull and his staff no choice but to play the kids. To their credit, all three players grabbed the bull by the horns and thrived with those minutes, earning those prime assignments even when the team was whole again.
I expect all three players to take another step and take on bigger roles this season.
I think MacEwen has shown that he can both score goals and set them up while soaking up big minutes for the club. I’d like to see him get a look on the penalty-kill this year and maybe get a look back in the middle as well.
Brisebois and Chatfield each saw time on the penalty kill last season and I don’t expect that to change. Brisebois also saw some power-play time near the end of the season and I would like to see that continue as well. Chatfield rarely saw any time with the man-advantage, but I would like to see that change this season. He needs to work on his shot, but I do believe that he can help the power-play with his transition game and his ample wheels.
Thatcher Demko. Do I need to say any more?
If Demko ends up starting in Utica, and that is where I see him starting, he will be entering his third season there as a pro. Thatcher has taken a step each season since turning pro and this year should be no different. He has gone from backing up veteran Richard Bachman in his first season, to wrestling the starter’s job away from him last year.
Demko got into his first AHL playoff series last year against the eventual Calder Cup champion Toronto Marlies and he was a massive part of taking that series to five games. Thatcher is on a natural progression to take the back up goaltending job in Vancouver by the 2019/20 season at the latest and he should be able to provide the Comets with elite level goaltending while he is with the club this season.
Trent Cull and his staff. Just like MacEwen, Brisebois, and Chatfield, Trent Cull had his rookie season last year, except his was as an AHL head coach. Cull and his staff did great work last season under trying circumstances. The team used a ridiculous number of players out of the ECHL on tryout deals while the club’s best players were constantly being summoned to Vancouver. This is the life of an AHL coach, but I thought that Cull did great work to keep the Comets in playoff contention, all things considered.
Cull was forced into giving prime time minutes to rookie players because of injuries and call-ups, but to his credit, when those rookies showed that they could handle the minutes, he kept feeding them those minutes even when the team was healthy. I truly did feel like Cull was all about prospect development last season until Vincent Arseneau dressed over Jonathan Dahlen in game one of the playoffs…but I digress.
I think that Trent Cull and his staff will now have a better idea of what they need to do to win, as well as the fact that they already have at least some experience with coaching the bulk of their roster for the upcoming season. As such, they should have a solid understanding of where each player can best be used in order to maximize their development.
Depth. Yes, I have bemoaned the fact that I cannot lay out a Comets roster and dress every player that I think should be playing a regular shift. That said, one should never complain about having “too much” depth, as we saw last season with the who’s who of who are you that the team had to rely on when injuries and call-ups hit.
Those players did an incredible job to keep the Comets in a playoff position and nothing should be taken away from them. It just feels a little bit better to know that the team has some homegrown prospects who could be ready to join the likes of Demko, MacEwen, Carcone, Sautner, Brisebois, and Chatfield as Comets players who have legitimate chances of becoming part of the next Canucks group going forward.
This year, Trent Cull and his staff will have plenty of bodies to choose from. Many of those bodies will be in the form of fast and skilled players who have a high hockey IQ. Sure, a lot of this new depth will also be in the form of raw, green players who will have some growing pains along the way, but there will be no shortage of options.
Gone are Michael Chaput and Jayson Megna, who have both proven to be solid AHL contributors and in their place are the somewhat younger Tanner Kero and Tyler Motte. The speedy Michael Carcone is back and it will be impressive if he is able to build on his 15-goal sophomore season.
Veteran forwards Carter Bancks, Wacey Hamilton, Darren Archibald, and Reid Boucher are all returning and could be joined by former Comets forward, Brendan Gaunce, should the team try to get him through waivers to Utica.
Big Joe LaBate will not be back, but in his stead could slide the young, bruising winger that is known as The Man-Child, Jonah Gadjovich.
Patrick Wiercioch and Philip Holm have both headed overseas, while Olli Juolevi is ready to soak up some of their minutes in Utica.
We won’t be watching Nikolay Goldobin working his magic in Utica this season, but Jonathan Dahlen, Kole Lind, Petrus Palmu, and Lukas Jasek should provide plenty of moments that will leave you with your mouth agape.
This is all to say that watching the Utica Comets this season should be much more like watching actual pieces of the Vancouver Canucks future core than it will be like watching a collection of spare parts just to get by. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself just yet, but we could be watching something special taking place this season in Utica.
There will be players in Utica this season with real chances of becoming Vancouver Canucks down the road. MacEwen, Carcone, Sautner, Brisebois, Chatfield, and Demko are now the elder statesmen as far as the prospects go in Utica, and they have Dahlen, Gaudette, Lind, Juolevi, Jasek, Palmu, Gadjovich, and MacMaster chomping at their heals for their chance.
Is this the start of something good in Utica? Stay tuned this season to find out.
Big thanks to Owen Skye for whipping up the featured image graphic for this article. Owen will be handling the graphics end of things for my Utica Comets articles at CanucksArmy this season and I am looking forward to seeing what he will bring to the table. You can find Owen on Twitter, (@OwenSkyeVisuals) and I highly recommend giving him a follow.