The Vancouver Canucks opened their on-ice sessions on Friday in preparation for the upcoming season and I was fortunate enough to take a day trip to Whistler to view day one of camp.
My day started with a 4:45 am wake up in order to catch the 6:20 am ferry to Horseshoe Bay, before roughly an hour and a half jaunt up the Sea To Sky Highway to Meadow Park Sports Centre in Whistler. My day wrapped up when I arrived home at roughly 8:30 pm. It made for a long day, but the experience ensured that it was worth every minute.
For the purposes of this piece, I will once again focus on players who will likely spend time in Utica this season.
I had heard in the past that Canucks coach Travis Green likes to kick off opening day with gruelling on-ice sessions and Friday was no different. Several players were seen to be gassed after their drills and at least one player lost his breakfast…we are looking at you Troy Stecher.
The players were split into three groups. The first two groups were mostly comprised of players who will be on the big club to start the season, along with a handful of players who could bounce back and forth between the NHL and AHL this year. The third group was made up of the players who currently have AHL deals with Utica. It should be noted that veteran defender Jaime Sifers, who is on an AHL deal, and the newly signed Jesse Graham, also on an AHL deal, were skating with the first two groups.
I will start off with Graham, who I had never had any viewings of before. Graham is listed as a six-foot, 185lbs, right shot defender over at Elite Prospects. The 24-year-old native of Oshawa Ontario was a sixth-round pick of the New York Islanders in 2012. He has spent the last five seasons splitting time between the AHL and the ECHL. In the AHL, he has played for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and the San Antonio Rampage, putting up 15 goals and 55 helpers to give himself 70 points in 163 games. In 46 games with the Rampage last season, he put up 21 points. That total would have had him sitting second in Comets scoring from the backend behind Patrick Wiercioch and his 37 points.
In 58 ECHL games split between the Missouri Mavericks and Florida Everblades, he has tallied seven goals and 41 helpers to give himself 48 points over that span.
I thought that Graham was showing some nice edgework with his skating and he didn’t look shy about going into the corners with bigger players. The Comets didn’t get a lot of offence from their blueline last season, so maybe Graham is a player who could help in that regard. Being a right shot defender will help his case to make the team as the Comets are looking like they will have a right side consisting of Jalen Chatfield, Jaime Sifers and Dylan Blujus. Graham might slide in nicely as a fourth righty who can be used if Chatfield were to be called up to Vancouver or if injuries occur on the right side in Utica.
Another defender who caught my eye and who could be battling with Graham for a roster spot in Utica is lefty Jagger Dirk. Dirk is also six-feet tall, but he has a little bit more size on his side, tipping the scales at 198lbs according to Elite Prospects. The 25-year-old product of Penticton BC is the son of former Canucks defenceman Robert Dirk.
Jagger just wrapped up a four-year career at St. Francis Xavier University where he put up 73 points in 114 games, good for 0.64 points-per-game. Last season he had a career year with 28 points in 30 games.
At the end of last season, Dirk was signed to a tryout deal with the Binghamton Devils of the AHL where he picked up one assist in seven games played. He was signed to an AHL deal by the Comets not long after.
Dirk plays a heady game and moves the puck well. His skating also stands out when he is on the ice. He showed tenacity and drive during his battle drills along the boards and lead his group during most of their Travis Green bag skate at the end of their session.
I had the opportunity to speak with Jagger once he got off the ice and will share some of that interview below.
I pointed to Dirk’s 28 points in 30 games last season and asked him if that kind of offence was something that we could expect from him going forward, or if it was a one-off, career year type of scenario for him. He was quick to point out that he played on a very good team last year and that he wouldn’t have been able to put up those kinds of numbers without the help of his teammates. He went on to say the offensive side of his game is something that he has put a lot of work into over the last 10 years as a bit of a late bloomer, learning where to be and to make smart decisions with and without the puck. Dirk said that he wants to bring a well-rounded game to the table as a first-year pro.
Jagger tells me that his first priority is to play well defensively and to stop the other team from moving pucks to their forwards and that if he does those things that the offence will come.
I had also noticed that Dirk was playing the right side as a lefty during the Young Stars event and brought that up with him. He told me that he has played the right side off and on throughout his career and that he is just as comfortable on either side and can play wherever the coaching staff needs him to. That ability to play either side could give him an edge to stick in Utica over Graham or Brandon Anselmini, who also signed an AHL deal with the Comets this offseason.
I brought up the subject of Dirk’s skating with him, specifically his edge work and he told me that his father had him on skates very early on at the age of one or two. As Dirk got older, the other kids started to catch up to him and once again it was his father telling him that “you can’t play if you can’t skate”. Since then, Jagger has worked with skating coaches in Penticton, focusing specifically on his edge work as well as off-ice training that focused on building leg strength.
I asked Dirk whether he sees himself starting in Utica or if he will need some time in Kalamazzo first and he responded by saying that he definitely wants to start in Utica, but with players who have already established themselves there that it is his job to show the coaching staff that he can play in Utica and that he can play there for the full season.
Dirk went on to say that if he does start in Kalamazzo that he won’t let that discourage him, stating that this is his first year of pro hockey and that he has to keep doing the right things on and off the ice, be consistent, make his mark and hope that the coaching staff and his teammates will take notice of his day to day work.
When I asked Jagger if he worked on anything specific this offseason after signing with the Comets he let me know that skating is still his focus. He told me that he wants to improve his first two-to-three strides when starting from a standstill. He would also like to make quicker decisions with and without the puck to anticipate where it is going to be, taking time and space away from his opposition, especially forwards in the offensive and neutral zones. Dirk said he is looking to be a little more proactive on the ice to help dictate what his opponents will do.
Finally, when I mentioned to Jagger that I noticed him jumping up into the play often at Young Stars, he told me that he has been taught by his father as well as previous coaches to make the first good play, either to his partner or to a forward and to try to beat his guy up ice if there is an opportunity to do so. He stated that if he can help push the pace of the game by being the guy who turns a play into an odd-man rush that he is going to do it.
Dirk was articulate and thoughtful with his responses and made it easier for a rookie like myself to interview him. I am looking forward to seeing what he will bring this season with the Comets. A team can never have too many defenders, especially those who are versatile enough to play both sides of the ice and who can skate as well as Jagger does.
Dirk and Graham both caught my eye on Friday and watching the pair square off for a regular spot in Utica could be one of the more interesting battles for one of the final roster spots on the backend.
Stay tuned for part two of this piece where I will be looking at Zack MacEwen and Thatcher Demko as well as sharing my interviews with the pair from day one in Whistler. Part three will focus on Ashton Sautner and Guillaume Brisebois and my interviews with them.