Utica Comets Season In Review Series
The Facts Of Life
When I sat down to sort out my offseason writing schedule, I thought that I would try to challenge myself to come up with some sort of theme when breaking down the Utica Comets season. As someone who watched a ton of TV as a kid, I thought it might be fun to go with a theme of TV shows that I watched or at least was aware of when I was growing up as a way to describe the season in Utica.
So, what was it about The Facts Of Life that made me use it for part one of this series? Well, it comes down to the opening of the theme song for me…
“You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both & there you have, The Facts Of Life”
I think that those words do a pretty solid job of summing up the season that was, in Utica. Did everything go smoothly for the Comets this year? No, things were not all peaches and cream in Utica, but they also weren’t as dire as some may believe.
Let’s take a look at some of the good before we jump into the not so good.
After a rocky start to his season with a concussion suffered in training camp/preseason while up with the parent Vancouver Canucks, Thatcher Demko eventually made his way back to Utica long enough to shake off some injury-layoff rust and get some games under his belt with the Comets. From there he graduated to the Canucks to become Jacob Markstrom’s new understudy on January 4th, 2019.
People can, and have debated at length as to just how much credit should be given to “the Comets” for Demko’s development as goaltenders have their own coaches and are handled differently than forwards/defencemen. I understand that side of things to a point, but that isn’t the point being made here.
The point is, Thatcher spent 107 games in Utica over three seasons where he put up a record of 55-35-12-3 while posting a goals-against average of 2.56 and a 0.915% save percentage along with three shutouts. He also saw five games of playoff action against a powerhouse Marlies team that went on to win the Calder Cup. He posted a 2.69 GAA and 0.927% save percentage over those five contests.
All of that adds up to him gaining valuable experience in high-pressure situations as well as helping him learn how to be a professional hockey player on and off the ice. It also allowed him to take the step up to the NHL this season.
So, what did that equate to for Thatcher by the time the season came to a close? Demko finished his season with the Canucks having played nine games this year. Over those nine games, he posted a goals-against average of 2.81 and a save percentage of 0.913% while going 4-3-1. Demko looked more than capable of handling the backup duties going forward in Vancouver. That was a nice way for him to build on his one game with the team at the end of last season.
Ashton Sautner also saw time with the Canucks at the end of last season, getting into five games and collecting two assists. For an undrafted defender out of the WHL, that alone should be considered at least somewhat of a success. Is Sautner likely to be a top-four man in Vancouver who runs the power play and piles up points? Probably not.
He did, however, look like a player who should be able to handle third pairing minutes and likely kill penalties once he is a little further along. That might not be sexy, but players like Sautner will be needed to offset the high-dollar, higher end picks/prospects who will form the core of this team going forward.
Sure, you can grab a “Sautner” from any team off of waivers. I hear that often. The thing is, Sautner has come up in the Canucks system. He has been learning the style of play that the team wants to play. He has also been learning the culture that they want to have going forward. He is a product of the Canucks/Comets development system and understands the amount of hard work and dedication that it took for him to play NHL games.
Sautner was the Comets best defenceman, in my opinion, at the time of his injury, (facial fractures) that cost him two months of the season. When he got back into the lineup, he looked like he hadn’t missed a beat. He continued to play his aggressive game in his own end while using his strong skating to leg pucks out of the Comets zone.
By the time the season had wrapped up, Sautner had 17 more NHL games under his belt, collecting another assist along the way. That Sautner, an undrafted defenceman, was able to battle back from a two-month injury absence and still be able to play NHL games without looking out of place says a lot about both the player himself and the coaching/training staffs who helped him along the way.
Speaking of undrafted players, TheBigFella made his NHL debut on February 11th of this year and played in four games while up with the big club before finishing up back in Utica. Not bad for a guy who was an afterthought as far as Canucks prospects go for many in the Vancouver market.
MacEwen picked up an assist in his first game with the team and also had his first NHL scrap along the way before heading back to Utica. Zack finished his season in Utica with 22 goals and 30 assists to give himself 52 points in 69 games this year. He is now sitting in eighth place on the Comets all-time points list after just his second season with the club. He is also eighth on the club’s all-time assists list.
The Comets have never had more than one 20-goal scorer in a season until this year when Reid Boucher, Tanner Kero, and MacEwen all hit that mark this year, along with each of them surpassing 50 points, which was also a first for the Comets, but we will get to that in our Three’s Company segment of this series.
The fact that MacEwen was able to put up 20 goals and 52 points this year as a second-year pro seems like a pretty good story to me. Once again, not unlike Sautner, MacEwen beat some pretty sizable odds to play NHL games this season. Does MacEwen project as a top of the lineup player at the NHL level? Maybe not, but I am not going to bet against him getting there at some point.
What MacEwen does bring to the table is a big body who can actually play the game and could be used up and down the lineup depending on what the coach is looking for. He has some nice hands and can work the net-front on the power play, set up a teammate for a goal, or he can be the triggerman himself when needed. He has shown the ability and willingness to throw down when necessary and hasn’t been one to pick his spots. TheBigFella is game.
Keep an eye on him after another summer of training.
Guillaume Brisebois also made his NHL debut this year as just a second-year pro, getting into eight games with the Canucks before suffering a hip injury to end his season.
The former third-round pick from the 2015 draft spent another season eating up minutes with the Comets as others around him were dropping like flies with injuries. He played a lot of five aside minutes and was a staple on the penalty kill as well.
Brisebois, along with Jalen Chatfield, earned the trust of the coaching staff last season as rookies when the Comets were hit hard by injuries and call-ups. Earning that trust allowed both players to keep getting those special teams minutes as well as a good amount of time at evens even after the roster was healthy again.
Brisebois picked up where he left off last year but also looked like he added a bit more snap on his outlet passes. The coaching staff even saw fit to give him a look on the power play at times throughout the season, although I don’t know if putting up points will be his calling card if/when he becomes an NHL regular.
When I watched Brisebois in his games with the Canucks, I saw a player who was keeping his game simple and playing a steady game. That is when Brisebois is at his best, in my opinion. He can be an effective third pairing defender, and not unlike Sautner, is a homegrown kid who already knows the system and culture that the organization is trying to put together.
Jasek appeared as if from nowhere at the end of last season after joining the Comets on a tryout deal. The 21-year-old burst onto the scene with three goals and four helpers, giving him seven points in his first six games as a pro in North America. He played in one playoff game for the Comets before getting injured. He was held pointless in that contest.
That debut landed the Canucks sixth-round pick from the 2015 draft an entry-level contract with the Canucks, but also put some somewhat unrealistic expectations on him going into this season. I was guilty of having my expectations higher than they probably should have been for Jasek as well.
What I saw from Jasek over the course of the season was a player who can be versatile for a coaching staff. He can play higher up the lineup and be used as a puck retriever for his linemates, or he can be the shooter on a lower line to take advantage of his sneaky-good release.
It doesn’t really matter where he plays in the lineup, Jasek can be found in constant pursuit of the puck if his team is not in possession of it. His work along the boards impressed me all season long as he had a habit of forcing turnovers. He uses his body and his skating to his advantage to go into those battles and come out with the puck on the regular.
Jasek was a regular on the power play, although the bulk of his 29 points came at five aside. He showed over the course of the season that he can line up at either wing effectively and can play in the middle in a pinch.
If we look at Jasek as a player who has the potential to be an effective bottom-six forward who can help his linemates while providing some secondary offence, I don’t think that we will be disappointed. Down the road, I could see Travis Green using him in a similar way to how he’s used Markus Granlund over the last two seasons.
When Petrus Palmu wasn’t getting any traction in Utica and ended up going back to Finland for more ice time, it was at the very least, a little bit concerning. Palmu was a frequent healthy scratch under Trent Cull and his coaching staff and after getting into just 12 games with the team, it was decided that he would finish the year with his former club, TPS in the Finnish Liiga.
Stories circulated that Palmu was unhappy with his ice-time and how he was being deployed and that he didn’t feel that the coaching staff was communicating well with him. Whether that lack of communication was real or perceived, it needs to be looked into and addressed.
Palmu is still part of this organization and if the Canucks are hoping to see him pan out for them, they will have to figure out a way to get the coaching staff and the player on the same page.
Was this a situation of a player feeling entitled to more ice-time/more favourable deployment after having a lot of success as a junior in the OHL and following that up by winning the Rookie-of-the-Year crown in Finland before coming over? Or was this a case of a coach/coaching staff who didn’t know how to handle this particular player? Was it a bit of both?
Whatever is at the root of the situation, it needs to be flushed out and the game plans need to be adjusted by all parties going forward, in my opinion.
Where Palmu is still in the system and his situation can possibly still be resolved, all that is left of the Jonathan Dahlen situation is Linus Karlsson and a learning experience for the team. I do not know enough about Karlsson at the moment to tell you whether or not the Canucks have improved their chances at an NHL regular, but from what I understand, his upside isn’t as high as Dahlen’s.
That seems like selling low on a player a little sooner than needed, especially as it seemed like Dahlen was just starting to understand what was being asked of him by the coaching staff in Utica and he was starting to show glimpses of the kind of play that he would need to bring regularly in order to get minutes under Travis Green in Vancouver.
Karlsson might end up being a very serviceable player at the NHL level one day and is younger than Dahlen, so the Canucks have time on their side, but for a team that is begging for offensive contributors and creative ones at that, it just seems like the Dahlen trade was a little hasty.
Dahlen, like Palmu, cited concerns about how he was being used by the coaching staff and the type of players that he was lining up with. He also suggested that communication was an issue between the coaching staff and himself.
Again, as in the Palmu situation, I wonder if this is a player who has had a great deal of success playing a certain way, not understanding how/why the coaching staff in Utica was asking him to play a different style.
As I mentioned with the Palmu situation, whether this is a real issue or a perceived one, it needs to be looked into. It is too late now to make it work with Dahlen, but the team can use this situation to evaluate how they handle different prospects going forward.
Clearly, there were at least two players who felt like the coaching staff wasn’t using them in ways that were to their best interest and felt it would be better for their careers if they were allowed to play elsewhere. It is an area of concern that should be addressed.
In a similar fashion to how I had my expectations too high for Petrus Palmu, mine were also higher for Kole Lind and Jonah Gadjovich than they probably should have been. Lind saw his share of healthy scratches early on while he was getting up to speed at the AHL level. Both he and Gadjovich both stated several times in the media that the step from junior to pro was bigger than they had anticipated.
Lind also missed extended time with an injury as he was out for roughly a month, missing part of October and most of November. He would miss another chunk of time later in the season with another injury.
Kole had a tough go at the start of the season, between having trouble getting into the lineup and then struggling with confidence when he did get in. It was after coming back from his first injury when you could see some confidence growing in his game. You could see him becoming more engaged and he started to pick up some points. He finished the season having played 51 games and picking up five goals and 12 helpers to give himself 17 points to go along with 20 minutes in the box.
The issue that I have is that I would have liked to see Lind move up the lineup a little sooner than we did. I do agree that it took playing with energy players like Vincent Arseneau, Brendan Woods, and Wacey Hamilton, (when he was healthy enough to play) for Lind to gain some confidence and for him to become engaged in the games from start to finish. I could see it as clear as day when his game started to take off a bit. However, I would have liked to see Lind get minutes further up the lineup with some of the more skilled players once it looked like things were clicking for him.
Lind works hard and has a nice package of skill and a bit of edge that should translate well at the NHL level once he finds his groove. I’d like to see the team make sure that they can continue to nurture his offensive side by playing him with a little more skill while continuing to grow his three-zone game.
As I mentioned above, my expectations for Gadjovich were higher than they should have been coming into this season and like Lind, he had trouble adjusting to the pro level in the early goings.
Gadjovich plays a rough and tumble game and as such, he needs to be fairly healthy to do so. Unfortunately, Gadjovich had his share of injury issues this season as well. Also, like Lind and Palmu, he was in an early rotation of rookie forwards who were being cycled in and out of the lineup.
I don’t really have as big of an issue with the linemates that Gadjovich saw for much of this season, as I see him likely fitting into a bottom-six sort of role at the NHL level as a player who can provide some secondary offence while bringing a heavy forecheck.
Injuries and healthy scratches conspired to limit Jonah to 43 games this year where he managed to put up four goals and six helpers to give himself 10 points to go along with 32 minutes spent in the box. He showed that he was willing to throw down as he had a couple of solid fights this season for the Comets, but that style of game comes with its bumps and bruises.
I’m not really sure what my expectations were for Gadjovich coming into this year, but I suppose I was hoping to see more than 10 points and more than just 43 games played. The Comets could have a very different looking roster next season and hopefully, that will allow players like Lind and Gadjovich to see more favourable minutes now that they’ve earned a certain amount of trust from the coaching staff late in the season.
This is all to say that the fact is…not everything went well in Utica this season, but things may not have gone as poorly as you might think. There are many factors at play when it comes to developing prospects and it isn’t as simple as just playing the kids.
There were some bright spots this year to go along with some issues that need to be solved, but I do see positive steps being taken by the young players in Utica.
I will be digging further into the Comets season and into individual players as the offseason goes on.
Stay tuned for my Three’s Company piece where I will look at the Comets top three scorers this season. I will also be doing a Growing Pains article that will focus on Kole Lind, Jonah Gadjovich, Lukas Jasek, and Olli Juolevi.
I will look into roster construction with my Full House article and will dig into the rookie numbers in an Eight is Enough based piece.
I will try to sort out who is responsible for what duties with the Comets in my Who’s The Boss piece and I will be digging into the injuries that affected the team with my M*A *S *H based article.
Finally, since folks like to point fingers and place blame on people, I will try to sort out who The Fall Guy could be if the Comets have similar issues next season.
Stay tuned as I break down the Comets in more detail over the offseason.