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Photo Credit: Graig Abel: Getty Images. Edit: Owen Skye | @OwenSkyeVisuals

Options Down The Middle For Trent Cull’s 2018/19 Utica Comets

In recent weeks I have been asked by a few readers to have a look at what options Trent Cull will have at his disposal this season as far as his centre ice position goes. It is definitely worth looking into, so that is what we will be discussing today.

First up, I will take a quick look at the outgoing players who spent the bulk of their time in the middle with the Comets last season.

Michael Chaput played in 55 games last year for the Comets and put up 17 goals and 25 helpers to give him 42 points in the regular season. He followed that up with three points in five playoff games. The 26-year-old is a veteran of 301 AHL games played, during which time he has accumulated 77 goals and 121 assists to give him 198 points. That is good enough for 0.66 points-per-game at the AHL level.

Chaput played big minutes for the Comets last season, seeing first unit power play time as well as heavy use on the penalty kill. He also lead the team with nine power play goals while putting up 11 helpers with the man advantage.

The former Comet is now a member of the Montreal Canadiens organization and will likely be playing under the tutelage of former Canucks legend, Alex Burrows with the Laval Rocket, along with former Comets forwards Alex Grenier and Hunter Shinkaruk.

Cole Cassels also spent the bulk of his time with the Comets as a pivot. The 23-year-old Cassels played in 69 games for the Comets last season, picking up seven goals and 19 helpers to give him a career-high 26 points on the season. He followed up with three points in five playoff games as well.

Cassels played up and down the lineup for Cull and did some heavy lifting on the penalty kill. He has a career points-per-game of 0.22 in the AHL. Cole was not given a qualifying offer by the Canucks and thus became a free agent. He will be plying his trade in Germany with Grizzlys Wolfsburg for the 2018/19 season.

While Chaput and Cassels each brought different elements to the team, they both had value. Both players brought a physical edge to their games and both were more than capable on the defensive side as well. Chaput brought more offence though, and that is an area where someone new will need to step up.

Now, on to the players who will be with the club for the upcoming season. As always, until the season opens, anything could happen. Some of the players on this list might make the Canucks out of camp, some might end up getting traded, or some may end up injured to start the season. For now, I will work with who I am assuming will be Trent Cull’s options on opening night.

There are several multi-position forwards amongst the group who can line up at any forward position or at one wing as well as in the middle. If I look at the players who have mostly been dedicated centres, that gives us a group of Tanner Kero, Adam Gaudette, Cam Darcy, and Wacey Hamilton.

Kero is 26-years-old and has 130 AHL games under his belt. He has picked up 40 goals and 44 assists during that span to give him 84 points in the league. That works out to 0.65 points-per-game. That more or less replaces Michael Chaput, in theory. Both players are outside of prospect territory but are useful AHL/NHL tweeners.

Whether Kero clears waivers to get to Utica and is able to replace what Chaput brought to the lineup has yet to be seen, but he is one option for Cull.

I see Kero as a player who may bounce back and forth between Utica and Vancouver this season, much like Chaput did last year. Kero did have a 20-goal, 39 point season for Rockford in the 2015/16 season and he should be able to provide some offence for the Comets.

Up next is Adam Gaudette. The 22-year-old, (in October) is a natural centre and that is where the parent Canucks drafted him to play. While Gaudette doesn’t have any AHL experience, he did get into five games with the Canucks, (going pointless) to end the season and he did not look out of place.

Mar 31, 2018; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; Vancouver Canucks forward Adam Gaudette (88) shoots the puck against Columbus Blue Jackets goaltender Joonas Korpisalo (70) during the first period at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

The Hobey Baker winner played in 116 games over three seasons with Northeastern in the NCAA, putting up 68 goals and 74 helpers to give him 142 points for his efforts. That works out to 1.22 points-per-game. In his final season with Northeastern, he put up 30 goals and 30 helpers, good for 60 points in 38 games.

Clearly, the NCAA and AHL are different leagues, but Gaudette improved his points totals with each season played and took on more responsibility along the way as well. Many think Gaudette will be ready for NHL minutes right out of camp this year, and that is entirely possible.

If he does end up in Utica, I expect him to be handling big minutes before Christmas and taking on work with both special teams. People should enjoy Gaudette while he is with the Comets because his stay may not be an extended one.

From Gaudette, we move on to Cam Darcy. The 24-year-old Darcy joined the Comets on a tryout deal to start the season before earning an AHL deal to finish the year. He has 136 games of AHL experience, during which time he has picked up 13 goals and 30 helpers. to give him 43 points. That’s good for an AHL points-per-game of 0.32.

It should be noted, however, that in 46 games with the Comets last season, Darcy put up 24 points. That works out to 0.52 points-per-game. It is difficult to say if last season’s points-per-game total was a one-off, or if this will become his new norm, but it was enough to earn him an AHL deal with the club for the 2018/19 season.

Darcy saw work on the second unit power play last season and was also used on the penalty kill from time to time. Cull has familiarity with him as they both came out of the Tampa Bay/Syracuse system, so that may give him the slightest of legs up.

Last on our list of natural centremen is Wacey Hamilton. Hamilton is another player on an AHL contract and he is one of the older players on the squad at 28-years of age, (in September). He has been a leader since joining the team, wearing an “A” and is one of the team’s best defensive forwards.

If Cull wants to run a shutdown line, Hamilton is a good bet to be at the centre of it. He has played in 381 AHL games, picking up 39 goals and 71 helpers to give him 110 points over that span. That works out to a points-per-game of 0.29.

Those are not mind-blowing numbers, however, last season was his best in the AHL. He had injury issues as well as his veteran status which limited him to just 45 games, but he put up 22 points, his highest total in an AHL season. That gave him a 0.49 points-per-game average and put him on pace for 37 points over 76 games. That would have tied him for third in Comets scoring with Patrick Wiercioch.

I am not suggesting to you that Hamilton will suddenly become a 40 point player for the Comets, but I think he will be an option in the middle that Cull will lean on this season. I would not expect him to be getting any power play time, but he will once again be a staple on the penalty kill…that is, when he isn’t the player in the box doing time.

If Cull and his staff want to go with four natural pivots, those are your most likely players. The order that I have the players listed is the order that I think Cull would line them up when putting his lines together.

If the team is more interested in trying to develop another centre or two, which would be smart for a club so thin down the middle, then maybe they look at a player or two from our list of multi-position guys.

I have been saying for quite some time that I think 22-year-old Zack MacEwen is worth a look back at his natural centre position, and I am still of that mind. He was put on the Brendan Gaunce plan of being shifted from the middle to the wing in hopes of simplifying his game and improving his skating. I think that Zack’s skating has improved enough to warrant a look.

MacEwen was the net front guy on the first unit power play last season but didn’t see any penalty kill action. He put up 33 points in his 66-game rookie campaign. That gives him a points-per-game average of 0.5.

It might make some sense to shelter Zack somewhat by having another multi-position player on one of his wings to take faceoff duty from time to time. I could see Carter Bancks being that guy. The two played together at times throughout last season and will have some idea of what the other’s tendencies are.

Brendan Gaunce is another player who will need to clear waivers to get to Utica, and should he clear, he will be another option down the middle. The 24-year-old has spent the bulk of his time at the NHL level as a left-winger, however, when he was sent down for his conditioning stint last season, Cull was mostly using him in the middle.

Brendan isn’t really considered a prospect anymore at this stage of his career, but if the team can still squeeze a fourth line utility player out of him, that would have to be considered a win. Maybe not in relation to his draft position, but in terms of still being a useful piece going forward.

Gaunce has 129 games of AHL experience and has tallied 32 goals and 41 assists to give him 73 points in that time. That adds up to a points-per-game of 0.57. Gaunce has not been a point producer at the NHL level, but he can certainly contribute for the AHL club. He is another player that I can see shuttling back and forth between Utica and Vancouver when the injuries hit.

Gaunce can handle work on both special teams and he might make another solid winger to pair with MacEwen if the team didn’t want to use Bancks there.

Tanner MacMaster is 22-years-old and will be playing on a well earned AHL deal with the Comets this season. We only have a small sample size to work with here as he played in just 13 regular season games with the club last season, but he put up seven points during that span. That is good for 0.54 points-per-game.

MacMaster followed that up with an impressive four points in five playoff games to lead all Comets rookies. That works out to 0.8 points-per-game for those following along.

MacMaster played on both special teams with Quinnipiac in the NCAA before joining the Comets at the end of the regular season last year. He can play all three positions up front and brings speed and smarts to the table.

Ryan Johnson has been quoted as saying he thinks MacMaster makes the players around him better. He could be a playmaking option for the club and might well be worth developing further.

Tyler Motte, Michael Carcone, and Kole Lind can all play both centre and wing. I see all three as being better options along the boards than down the middle, but they can all slide into the pivot role if needed.

The 23-year-old Motte has 67 games of AHL experience, putting up 21 goals and 11 helpers to give him 32 points. That gives him a points-per-game of 0.48.

Motte can provide some secondary offence at the AHL level and appears to have a fairly strong defensive game as well. He could find himself on the Utica/Vancouver shuttle this season as well. It’s worth noting that he will require waivers if he plays one more NHL game.

Michael Carcone is a 22-year-old who plays all three positions up front. He has 99 games of AHL experience, during which he has put up 20 goals and 25 assists to give him 45 points. That’s good for 0.45 points-per-game.

Carcone put up 15 of those 20 goals last season and showed a penchant for speed and playing with an edge. He was tending to hang onto the puck a little longer than I’d like to see, but I thought that he showed well for the most part. He played both special teams, seeing some point duty on the second unit power play as well as his share of time on the penalty kill.

Kole Lind will be 20-years-old in October and will be entering his first full season of pro hockey. He got into six games with the club at the end of last season, picking up one assist to give him a points-per-game average of 0.17. That’s a small sample size, folks and I would expect Kole to be much more effective as a pro this season.

Lind has some solid wheels and he has a bit of a nasty element to his game as well. He can get greasy when he needs to and he has a bullet of a shot. I would expect to see him vying for power play time this season and it might not be a bad idea to sneak him some penalty kill time as well.

Lastly, we have Jonathan Dahlen. The 20-year-old Swede was acquired in the trade that sent Alex Burrows out of town, so he has some big skates to fill. Dahlen was linemates with Canucks super prospect Elias Pettersson and spent the bulk of that time as a left-winger.

If the plan for the future is to reunite the pair as NHL linemates, it makes sense to keep Dahlen on the left side where he will likely end up playing when he gets to the show.

There has been some talk that people within the organization envision a future line of Dahlen – Pettersson – Lind in Vancouver. If that is indeed the case, make sure to enjoy watching two-thirds of the Cancuks future top line playing in Utica while you can.

Dahlen got into two regular season games with the Comets last season, picking up a goal and an assist to give him a point-per-game average in a small sample size.

We saw him score a highlight reel goal, splitting a pair of defenders in close for a goal from a dirty area, as well as dishing a dizzying array of filthy tape to tape passes.

If Dahlen gets to Utica, and that is no certainty at this point, he will be something special to watch. I know that his exit from Utica at the start of last season to head back to Sweden rubbed a few of the locals the wrong way, but I would not be surprised if he wins them over with his play this season.

These are the options at the disposal of Trent Cull and his staff. Would I like to see a true playmaker added to the mix? Absolutely! Would I want that playmaker to be an ageing veteran who has no chance of becoming a Vancouver Canuck? Probably not.

I would prefer to see the club try to develop the likes of MacEwen or MacMaster as a pivot instead of looking around for an older guy on an AHL deal who piles up points. If the team didn’t have AHL vets like Bancks and Hamilton around and chose to replace them with more offensive AHL vets, that would be one thing, but I can’t get behind adding more AHL vets to this squad now that there are actual, real, live prospects in the system who should be getting those offensive opportunities.

We aren’t too far out from training camp, folks…I think it’s time to start getting excited about another season of Utica Comets hockey.

  • Locust

    Gaudette needs to stay in Utica and log big minutes.
    Only way he should be in Vanc is for an emergency call-up.
    Let some of these guys learn to be pro’s and bond as teammates – then – out with the old – in with the young.

  • Sandpaper

    Hope too see Lind transformed to a centre, but you are probably correct in your assessment of him being good along boards and wing may be best suited for him.
    Tanner is a player that may be a pleasant surprise, eventually earning an nhl deal.
    Not sure if these young players will be able to gel this season, but should make for some excitement in Utica.

    • Defenceman Factory

      I’m not sure where this idea Lind could be a centre comes from. He did not play as a centre in Junior. Maybe he did when he was 15 or in Bantam but not really ever since.

      • Cory Hergott

        DF, When I interviewed Lind at Canucks Development camp recently, I asked him if he was more comfortable on the left side or the right side. He responded by telling me that he is equally comfortable on either side and then, unprompted, he also said that he is comfortable in the middle if the coach needs to use him there as well. I feel that he is a better option on the wing, but in his own words, he is comfortable in the middle if needed.

        • Defenceman Factory

          I heard him say that in an interview as well. A young player saying I can play wherever they want me to is giving an answer people want to hear. He has no idea if he is comfortable in the middle or not because he hasn’t played there in years and certainly not in the pros. The adults in the room will keep him on the wing.

          • Cory Hergott

            As mentioned in the article, he is an “option” in the middle but is better suited to the wing. This article isn’t about who “will” be used in the middle, but rather, who “could” be used there.
            If your “adults in the room” comment was meant as some sort of dig, it wasn’t necessary.

          • Defenceman Factory

            It absolutely wasn’t meant as a dig. It was meant to say the coaches and managers in Utica will understand where Lind will be effective better than Lind will.

            The notion of Lind being a centre was there when he was drafted despite never playing centre in his draft year or since and the notion seems to persist.

            My apologies if I offended.

          • Cory Hergott

            Thanks for clarifying, DF. All good on my end. I do agree that the team will deploy him on the wing. It’s been said in the past that some in the organization see him as a fit on Pettersson’s wing in the future.

  • tyhee

    1. I’m not optimistic that MacEwen is ready yet to play center in the AHL. He has talent but it seems to me he’d be best off continuing to be developed with the simpler game on the wing for at least most of another season.

    But then, I have the polar opposite approach to what CH takes. He wants the Canucks developing a youngster as a center. I’d rather that they try Gaunce or Motte there and let the younger players develop as they have started to on the wing, where the game is simpler. (Gaudette is an exception, a natural center who has three full very successful seasons in the NCAA and has a good chance to adjust fairly quickly to that position in the AHL.)

    Gaunce was a center in junior, has been almost exclusively a LW as a pro but is now a veteran and he’s struggled offensively at the NHL level. I think if he’s in the AHL it is time to try him at center. It allows MacEwen to continue another season at the simpler position and may provide some additional utility to Gaunce for when he gets another try at the NHL level. He’s been a pro for four seasons-I don’t think we have to worry about ruining his development by trying him back at center.

    CH is likely right that Motte is better as a winger, but he’s 23 and another that there shouldn’t be much concern about ruining his development by giving him a try at center.

    2. If Gaudette plays well at center for the Comets, he’ll probably get a promotion to the Canucks after the Canucks get a few injuries.

    3. I’d have been and still would be happy to see the Comets sign a veteran playmaking center-but then, I didn’t want Hamilton signed to an extension. With Lind, Dahlen, Gadjovich, Reid Boucher, MacEwen, Archibald, Jasek and probably Motte the Comets almost certainly will have some talent on the wings this season and some of that talent will be made up of young wingers. It would be best for their development to have a center that can get them the puck. Kero isn’t a big playmaker but he’s ok. Gaudette may be good (though if he is the Comets may lose him to Vancouver.) By no standard though can Darcy or Hamilton be considered a reasonable AHL playmaker, so one injury to a center in Vancouver or Utica and the Comets may have these talented wings waiting for passes that never come.

    Yes, the Comets may have too many forwards-but that excess is not at center. It may mean sitting a vet some of the time, but I’d rather see Cole Lind, to give one example, honing his game with a good all-round AHL center who belongs on the top two lines than with a center who is the calibre of a 4th liner.

    • Cageyvet

      Another good article by Cory, but you are correct, it highlights the fact that we are still thin on organizational depth at this position. Clearly the draft priorities should be C and D in the first 2 rounds in particular, although I’m still a best-player-available guy. I hope that, like this year’s draft, the two concepts coincide. The Comets should be fun to watch this year, and there’s probably enough play-making from the wings to offset the centers’ deficiencies, guys who are slick passers from the wing like Goldobin have thrived in the AHL and helped drive their lines.

    • Cory Hergott

      Tyhee, I think you make a fair point about keeping MacEwen on the wing. He plays well there. My suggestion about giving him a look in the middle is just that, a suggestion to give it a try. He played the middle for the bulk of his career before joining the Comets, so it isn’t all new to him. I can agree that giving him more time on the wing will continue to help his skating improve, but like your suggestion with Gaunce, allowing him to show a more well-rounded game by getting him some time in the middle might not be a bad idea. I’m 100% fine with the big fella staying on the wing but with the depth down the middle as thin as it is, giving him a look there might not be so bad either.

      • Cory Hergott

        Ideally, the organization will focus on the depth down the middle and the right side of the defence with any young player acquisitions going forward. Whether that is at the draft or in trades, free agent signings or waiver wire pickups. The went heavier on the backend in their most recent draft, which might help a bit. Tyler Madden was drafted this year and is a pivot, but he is a bit away from joining the Comets.

  • Chris the Curmudgeon

    Very nice work as always, Cory. I hope Cull focuses really heavily on developing the “prospect” talent at C, especially early in the season. Not only would it be preferable for the parent club, but I think developing Gaudette, and to a lesser extent MacEwen, would also benefit the team later in the season as they have seemingly much more offensive ability than Darcy or Hamilton. Barring an absolute explosion of production, I think Gaudette would be well served to spend the entire season in the AHL, and if all goes perfectly (tall task, of course), that he would be the #1C there by the end of the year, playing big minutes in all situations. I am really pulling hard for MacEwen to show big improvement this year too, as he seems like a guy who could force his way onto an NHL 4th line, which would be a super “found money” scenario.

    I also agree that Lind, Dahlén, Carcone and Motte should remain wingers, though I think only the first two are ever likely to blossom into full time NHL players. Gaunce and MacMaster are tougher calls. The former is plainly good enough to play in the NHL, but maybe not to produce offence there. However, if he got better on the faceoffs, he might be able to stick in the bigs as a bottom 6 player. For that reason, I hope he gets some looks at C. MacMaster I would keep on the wing but if he shows continued improvement and a predilection for the middle, maybe he starts to veer into prospect territory a little too. That’s a real long shot to be sure, but optimism is fun when it’s actually justifiable.