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Photo Credit: Dave Sanford/GettyImages. Edit by Owen Skye: @OwenSkyeVisuals

The Jim Benning-Era Utica Comets Have Finally Arrived

The Jim Benning era in Vancouver began ahead of the 2014/15 season and at the time he took over the club, the farm system wasn’t exactly bursting at the seams with high-end talent.

The best Canucks prospects who would play for the Utica Comets in that season were: Alex Grenier, Hunter Shinkaruk, Alex Friesen,  Brendan Gaunce, and Nicklas Jensen up front, to go along with Andrey Pedan, Adam Clendening, and Frank Corrado on defence. Jacob Markstrom and Joacim Eriksson were the goaltenders of record for the Comets in the 2014/15 season.

Of the above group, only Markstrom and Gaunce remain with the organization. Corrado was lost in the Great Waivers Fiasco of ’15, while Shinkaruk was dealt for Markus Granlund. Jensen was shipped out in favour of Emerson Etem, and Clendening became one of the pieces moved in the Brandon Sutter trade. Grenier, Friesen, and Eriksson all left as free agents.

If we take a look at the NHL games played by the above group, Gaunce and Markstrom stand out from the crowd.

  • Grenier: Nine NHL games, all with Vancouver. (2018/19 season, Laval Rocket).
  • Shinkaruk: 15 NHL games. One with Vancouver, 14 with Calgary. (2018/19 season, still in Flames organization). * It was announced this morning that Shinkaruk’s rights have been traded to the Montreal Canadiens for Kerby Rychel.
  • Friesen: One NHL game, with Vancouver. (signed overseas).
  • Brendan Gaunce: 114 NHL games, all with Vancouver. (2018/19 season, still in Canucks organization).
  • Nicklas Jensen: 31 NHL games. 24 with Vancouver, seven with NYR. (2018/19 season, signed overseas).
  • Andrey Pedan: 13 NHL games, all with Vancouver. (2018/19 season, signed overseas).
  • Adam Clendening: 86 NHL games. 17 with Vancouver, four with Chicago, nine with Pittsburgh, 20 with Edmonton, 31 with NYR, and five with Arizona. (2018/19 season, with CBJ organization).
  • Frank Corrado: 76 NHL games. 28 with Vancouver, 41 with Toronto, and seven with Pittsburgh. (2018/19 season, remains unsigned).
  • Jacob Markstrom: 167 NHL games. 124 with Vancouver, 43 with Florida. (2018/19 season, remains with Vancouver).

The above prospects were surrounded by AHL veterans like Cal O’Reilly, Brandon DeFazio, Bobby Sanguinetti, and Cory Conacher. None of whom outside of maybe Conacher would have been effective for NHL call-up duty if needed.

In the years since, Jim Benning and his staff have slowly been accumulating better prospects for the system and have been surrounding them with some somewhat upgraded veteran players who are younger and fit better within their system.

Benning has gone on record numerous times stating that he wanted to have actual NHL ready players available to be called up from Utica and it has taken him close to four NHL seasons to get to that point, but I think he is there.

Last season, the Canucks were able to summon the likes of Reid Boucher, Nikolay Goldobin, Darren Archibald, Michael Chaput, Patrick Wiercioch, Ashton Sautner, and Philip Holm to fill in the gaps when needed in Vancouver.

Obviously, most of those players named aren’t really considered prospects, nor will they send Vancouverites running to buy tickets for the game, but all were capable of filling that tweener role if needed.

This year, things look a little bit more inspiring. Of course, this assumes that this year’s group will all, or mostly all pan out, and that may not be realistic.

It should also be noted that Comets GM Ryan Johnson has gone on record as saying that the club isn’t looking to yo-yo players up and down during the season, but would rather call a player up when they are ready to stay up.

If that is indeed the way the organization is looking to do things this season, that would identify players like Gaunce, Boucher, Archibald, Tyler Motte, Tanner Kero, Thatcher Demko, and maybe Ashton Sautner and Evan McEneny as the leading call-up possibilities. I feel like any of the players listed above should be able to handle some call-up duty in Vancouver and be more than able to keep their heads above water.

It is also possible that players like Dahlen, Juolevi, or Gaudette could make the club reconsider its position on giving players a taste here and there if they show well enough in Utica.

Of the 27 players that I believe will be kept on the Comets roster to start the season, only Darren Archibald, Brendan Gaunce, and Evan McEneny are carryovers from the previous regime. This makes sense as it has been long enough since the Benning regime took over that there wouldn’t likely be many players of value left toiling on the farm.

Unfortunately, not many players have been able to make the leap from the Utica Comets to the Vancouver Canucks during that span. There is some light at the end of that tunnel, however. If all goes well, there should be more players making that leap over the coming seasons as the Benning regime acquisitions continue to filter into the system.

In place of Nicklas Jensen, Alex Grenier, Alex Friesen, Hunter Shinkaruk, Andrey Pedan, Adam Clendening, Frank Corrado and Joacim Eriksson are Jonathan Dahlen, Zack MacEwen, Kole Lind, Lukas Jasek, Adam Gaudette, Michael Carcone, Jonah Gadjovich, Petrus Palmu, Olli Juolevi, Guillaume Brisebois, Jalen Chatfield, Ashton Sautner, and Thatcher Demko.

Of course, as mentioned previously, we can’t count on all of these players to become NHL stars, let alone NHL regulars, but it is nice to see that almost the entire Comets team will be made up of young, homegrown talent and that more of the surrounding cast can help support them in the AHL and still be useful in NHL call-up duty.

There have been plenty of mixed messages from this regime in regards to what kind of rebuild has been taking place, but I know that I have heard time and again that the team wants to draft and develop players for NHL duty and that it would take time to do so properly.

I am in no position to judge whether or not the organization has done everything right along the way, however, I do know that it has been quite some time since I looked at the pending roster of a Canucks farm team and saw so many players that I have such a high level of interest in.

I would have to go back to the Manitoba Moose days when the likes of Hansen, Kesler, Burrows, and Bieksa were starting to filter in and we all remember how close those fellows got to a Cup once they got established in the NHL.

There is still plenty of work to do and the team needs to keep drafting well and making shrewd UFA signings out of the college and CHL ranks, but things appear to be heading in the right direction.

I feel like this season could end up being remembered as one when the Canucks farm team finally turned a corner and started to become a legitimate source of quality players available to the big club.

  • Duke Hauser

    There is little doubt thee have been numerous mistakes made by this management team, with questionable trades and UFA signing that make you wonder what they are thinking. But without question this prospect pool added to the likes of Petterssen and Hughes has the making of a powerhouse team in the future.

  • LAKID

    You have to be funny kidding me. How long will they let Gilligan stear this ship to the abyss? Oops too late ! Linden was incompetent but Benning has depth charged the Nuks. Bad picks/signings(Hughie , Louie and Olly). I guess the nuckleheads will be in the running for another bad pick.

  • The team would be even scarier if Pettersson was sent down. It would be really intriguing to see how Dahlen-Pettersson play together on North American ice against lesser competition. Since the coaching trend is to find pairs plus a complimentary player (rather finding a complete line like the West Coast Express or Legion of Doom), I can only see positives to letting them adapt to the smaller ice surface together and then challenge for NHL spots next year.

    • Bornonice

      I think a good second effect of sending Pettersson down for “getting used to the neighbourhood of NA pro hockey” reasons would be that Dahlen could use a burst of confidence to help his own development. I don’t expect the Canucks to penalize EP but it IS going to take some time to get used to the smaller ice….not only is it a smaller area to develop your plays but the angles are different as well.

      The step up in competition to the NHL can be boosted with the trip to Utica as well. I doubt if it happens though because the owner probably wants EP’s drawability for rears in the seats. It’s too bad because people will be out for the beginning of the season anyway and the anticipation of his arrival would be cool, too (assuming he tears up the AHL)

  • Roy

    The farm has been a joke for some years in terms of what was available for call-up, in particular defence. This new pool of players has yet to prove itself. The only one with actual proven promise is Goldobin. All I can think of is Michael Chaput and his Quest for a Point, and how I’d wince every time I saw his name in the roster, and that one time I saw Desjardins at the liquor store and instead of the usual eyebrow wag when someone famous sees that you’ve recognized them, he just had this sheepish, apologetic joke, and I was like, yeah, you should be sorry, you ice Michael Chaput every game. Ugh.

  • Doodly Doot

    Kind of fun to have a real Calder Cup contender for perhaps the first time ever. This team will be crazy good if they keep Dempko there. I hope they do.

  • Hockey Bunker

    This is the season we see how JB’s drafting actually stacks up as young players roles get established in the minors and/or with the big club. Waiver eligible players are on the bubble…..they make it….they get exposed, claimed, traded, or get reality check they don’t have an nhl future. It should be the beginning of an annual changeover of “prospects” and an end to picking up others castoffs.

    • canuckfan

      Benning has done a great job successful teams have depth something we have lacked in the past. Not quite there need another couple years and then players will have value to upgrade the team when we make trades.

  • argoleas

    Gaunce, Boucher, Archibald, Kero, Sautner, and McEneny are all waiver-eligible, and Motte is 1 game away from being so. Nevertheless, Canucks should be mostly safe, as all other teams will have their own waiver issues all at the same time. That should provide plenty of depth, in addition to prospects that could/should be ready to play in the NHL like Gaudette, Demko, and maybe Dahlen.

  • Me

    I forgot about Corrado until you brought it up.

    Dude’s played nine games in the past two NHL seasons. He’s currently a free agent looking for work with no bites. Man, how could Benning have let that guy get stolen on waivers. He’d have been a cornerstone for the ‘nucks by now!

    :^P

  • crofton

    “Corrado was lost in the Great Waivers Fiasco of ’15”. Corey, usually I like your articles, and aside from that comment, this one as well. Pointing out later that he was played just 76 games to date and remains unsigned to date only partly eases the ridiculousness of calling waiving him a fiasco.

    • Dirty30

      It’s a just a joke and it’s a funny one.

      The way people reacted to the Corrado situation was a fiasco but it also captured the angst about this team that may be finally dissipating a molecule at a time.

      • wjohn1925

        Yeah, I’d forgotten all about Corrado. How many comments and articles about that whole situation. Goes to show where the club was at in those days. It’s a good reminder of how far we’ve progressed, at least in terms of prospects. Nice article, Cory. A bit of humour without any condescending snark.

          • Dahlenfan

            In response to the corrado thing. Your jest was funny. I remember being like wtf? Hes our second prospect behind subban. And our best forward prospect was hunter shinkaruk and or Brendan gaunce. Wow. Let that sink in. No wonder people were pissed off about corrado. That is horrible talent to be your best talent in the minors. Now fast forward to now(2 yrs behind what it could have been, if they had torn down right away ,but I digress) and we are looking like challengers in the Calder cup this year
            Now this is an exciting time in utica. Plus I’d like to add we have some good veteran presences in utica as well as bancks,hamilton,and others. I’m more excited about utica this year than I am the knuckleheads, even though I will watch every game.1-2more years of misery(unless they can find a way to be competitive)and I think we will take the next step towards respectability

  • Fortitude00

    Prospect pool looks good should be interesting to see if Utica can play at a high level. I’d like them to send EP there for a year but doubtful that’ll happen. Still need a couple more really good drafts to get a good core to get back to the top of the NHL. Some really good 1 center prospects next draft in Vancouver.

    • Cageyvet

      I’m really torn, aside from a lottery win for Jack Hughes which would be a no-brainer. Let the draft order decide, but we need another quality defenseman as much as we need a center. Depending on how Gaudette pans out, you could easily argue we need another top 4 defenseman even more. The bottom line is I agree, we still have holes and have to continue to draft well and fill that pipeline.

      I’m really interested to track the progress of about 10 Comets this year, and that’s an all-time high in my books. I’ve watched this team play in 3 finals and I can wait a little more, you need both high-end skill and really good depth to win it all. Washington was a good example this year, with Eller stepping up when Backstrom got hurt.

  • PQW

    Selective memory and blind flag-waving from the fickle (non game going) armchair warriors on here again i see.

    Guys, Benning’s charges have achieved NOTHING of note in Utica whilst the GILLIS holdover team actually finished first in the division and reached the Calder Cup Final… much like the big club it’s been a downward spiral ever since… the standings and serious lack of playoff hockey in Utica and Vancouver are proof of that – aren’t they?

    • Cory Hergott

      PQW, as the title of the article says…The Benning era Comets have FINALLY arrived. That would suggest that this season will be the first where the Comets are mostly built from draft picks and acquisitions made by his staff. This is the first season where we are seeing such a large influx of drafted players coming in together as a group in Utica. It is okay for people to show some excitement for that.

      • Braindead Benning

        Good article, however, as a fan of a few decades i can’t seem to fathom why it has taken this long to build a basic amount of prospects with great drafting positions.Blaming the MG regime is way past it’s expiry date, let’s now see what the last 5 years of drafts, trades and signings will come to fruitation

        • Defenceman Factory

          I agree from here on out this is a Benning team and the Gillis regime holds no responsibility for any failure or success.

          That doesn’t change the fact that Gillis deserves a substantial part of the blame for the poor showing over the last 6 years. He completely burnt the franchise to the ground and was so inept at drafting left almost nothing to rebuild from. Even the farm system completely lacked significant potential NHL talent.

        • Hockey Bunker

          It’s the system which prevents junior hockey draft picks from going to AHL for a couple of years. So starting without prospects as JB did, it takes 4 years to get a significant number to the AHL and only if you make good picks and draft some outside of CHL and have picks choose pro hockey over college. So that’s why team was picking up rejects before hoping one or two might be good while building up their own prospects. It shows why win now for an extended period of time does longer term damage.

      • Canuck4Life20

        Cory I really have to wonder why you respond to this guy? You’re above that. He should be banned after calling someone a retard! But it’s the same thing every August on this site for several summers now.

    • canuckfan

      Again a sign that Gillis took a team that was close to winning made trades at the deadline to add to playoff roster that gave away the future for a win now. After a while the farm team and the NHL team started slipping without adding talent gravity takes over and that is what happened.

    • Dirty30

      So with all the smoke there’s no clouds to yell at, PQW?

      It’s really long overdue to put this tired argument to rest:

      Gillis did a lot of good things, but drafting wasn’t one of them.

      Benning has done a lot of bad things, but drafting isn’t one of them.

      Gillis inherited a good team that needed some upgrades to win, and almost won it all. Gillis bet everything to make that happen and failed.

      Benning inherited a team that needed an overhaul but he thought could win and it failed. He’s now doing the overhaul and it’s sometimes amazing how many players are moved and how quickly.

      Benning is often his own worst enemy and makes some decisions that defy logic, but consider the alternative that Gillis could have been drafting for the past four seasons … that’s a terrifying thought!

      The team isn’t as good as it could be, but it’s not as bad as it could have been.

  • TheRealPB

    Another great article Cory. Your reference to the last great farm team for the Canucks made me go back and look at that Moose squad with Burrows, Kesler, and Bieksa (Hansen was a few years later) and consider what that one looked like, even with a few young players who looked good in the AHL but never made it in the NHL (Sarno, King) and those who did have more than a cup of coffee but were fringe players (Josh Green, Baumgartner). I don’t think those Moose squads were comparable to the potential of this Utica team with blue chip prospects at almost every position.

    Someone mentioned suggesting to the Canucks to organize a team-sponsored or supported road trip to see some games in Utica. I went to watch them in the Calder finals a few years ago (where they got smoked by a superb Manchester farm team of the Kings unfortunately) and it is well worth going to see them — the crowd is exceptionally supportive of the team and it is a fantastic atmosphere, almost rivals some of the best stadium crowds in the NHL (of which right now I think Nashville and Tampa Bay are the best). I can really see this team winning the hearts of the Utica crowd, one of the reasons I’m ok with having the young talent gestate in such a place and I like the fact that the plan is not to yo-yo them.