Utica Comets Season In Review
After taking a week to collect myself, I am back with the second installment of my Utica Comets Season in Review series. Last time around, I talked about The Facts Of Life and how things were neither all good nor all bad in Utica for the 2018/19 season.
— Botchford's Army (@CanucksArmy) April 23, 2019
Today, I will be digging into the Full House that the club started the year with in Utica. The Comets started the 2018/19 season having one goaltender, five defensemen, and nine forwards signed to AHL deals. That list of players looks like this.
- Ivan Kulbakov: G.
- Jaime Sifers: RD.
- Dylan Blujus: RD.
- Jesse Graham: RD.
- Jagger Dirk: LD.
- Brandon Anselmini: LD.
- Carter Bancks: F.
- Wacey Hamilton: F.
- Brendan Woods: C.
- Cam Darcy: C.
- Vincent Arseneau: W.
- Tanner MacMaster: F.
- Kyle Thomas: W.
- Brendan Bradley: F.
- Reid Gardiner: F.
Outside of Brendan Bradley, all of those players suited up for the Comets this season. Bradley, Gardiner, Thomas, Dirk, Anselmini, and Kulbakov all spent the bulk of their time this year with the Canucks/Comets ECHL affiliate in Kalamazoo. Out of that group, Kulbakov played the most games in Utica with 25, while Reid Gardiner wasn’t far behind with 21 games spent in a Comets uniform this season. Bradley played in the fewest with zero Comets games to his credit this season, while Kyle Thomas was next with just six games played with Utica this year.
Wacey Hamilton, Carter Bancks, and Jaime Sifers formed a large portion of the leadership group for the team and two of those three will be back to do the same next year…unless something changes between now and the start of the season. Bancks and Hamilton each have another season left on their AHL deals, while Sifers announced his retirement at the end of the season.
Tanner MacMaster put up 11 points in 29 games before being moved to the Marlies in favour of left-shot defender Stefan LeBlanc, who managed six assists and 16 penalty minutes in his 25 games with Utica while also on an AHL deal.
That means that the following AHL contracted players started the season competing for jobs with the Canucks actual prospects:
- Kulbakov. (The Comets did not have any healthy goaltending prospects in Utica during Kulbakov’s time there).
Of that group listed above, Hamilton, Woods, and Darcy played the bulk of their time in the middle, and as such, were not really taking much ice-time away from the prospects. Hamilton did see the odd game on the wing, but he only played in 23 games this year, so he wasn’t really taking much time from the kids there either.
We did see wingers Vincent Arseneau and Tanner MacMaster dress ahead of some of the kids early in the season, as well as defender Jesse Graham, who was used up front ahead of the kids for a few games. On the backend, Sifers, Blujus, and Graham were not really infringing on any prospect’s ice-time…outside of those few games that Graham spent as a winger.
So, we did see some of those AHL contracted players getting looks ahead of the Canucks prospects early on up front, and that isn’t ideal.
If we shift our attention to the players who were on two-way deals with the Canucks, we see more of a logjam, especially up front on the wings.
- Reid Boucher.
- Tanner Kero.
- Brendan Gaunce.
- Michael Carcone.
- Darren Archibald.
- Zack MacEwen.
- Jonathan Dahlen.
- Lukas Jasek.
- Kole Lind.
- Jonah Gadjovich.
- Petrus Palmu.
- Adam Gaudette.
- Evan McEneny.
- Guillaume Brisebois.
- Ashton Sautner.
- Olli Juolevi.
- Jalen Chatfield.
If we take out the AHL contracted wingers and focus only on wingers who were part of the Canucks system to start the year, we end up with 10 wingers to fit into just eight open spots. Five of those wingers were rookies, and if we add in Tanner MacMaster, he brings that total to six. MacMaster was great for the Comets at the end of last season and led their rookies with four points in five playoff games, so you kind of knew that he would get a good look to start the season after earning a level of trust from the coaching staff.
Brendan Gaunce was also one of those wingers, and he could have been used down the middle in Utica for the full season in order to help reduce those numbers, but he was used on the wing quite often.
All of this is to say that the Comets were front end heavy to start the season and that led to players like Kole Lind, Jonah Gadjovich, Petrus Palmu, and to a lesser extent, Jonathan Dahlen and Lukas Jasek on the outside looking in as far as regular minutes went.
Jasek and Dahlen were getting in for the most part but were spending a good deal of their time playing down the lineup while more experienced wingers like Archibald, Boucher, Gaunce, and Zack MacEwen were playing up the lineup ahead of them.
Michael Carcone was also shuffling in and out of the lineup early with the rookies before he was eventually dispatched to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a trade to acquire Josh Leivo for the parent Canucks.
There were not the same issues on the backend this year as all of the Canucks prospects were given plenty of minutes when healthy.
Part of the reason behind this logjam of players has to do with the fact that the Comets used about 100 players last year due to injury/illness/call-ups…(the actual number is closer to 60). I understand the logic behind the team wanting to be prepared for a similar situation this year, but at the same time, they had to know that it was going to be tough to keep everyone happy with the minutes that they would be getting.
The team eventually tried to make a little bit of room when they moved MacMaster out for defender LeBlanc and Carcone for Leivo. Another move came later in the season when Archibald was sent to Ottawa, but the team brought forward Tom Pyatt back in that deal and used him in their top-six for the bulk of the remainder of the season.
With all of this going on, Petrus Palmu asked to go back to Finland after not seeing the kind of minutes/deployment that he was accustomed to/hoping for, appearing in just 12 games and picking up one assist for his efforts. The team granted his request and Palmu finished his season in Finland where he put up 18 points in 29 games before finding himself as a healthy scratch there as well.
Jonathan Dahlen also expressed his frustration with his ice-time/deployment and found himself moved to San Jose for center Linus Karlsson.
You can understand the frustration of the two players when you consider their history of producing points while playing prominent roles for their previous clubs. However, if you consider the fact that those two players would have had to outperform/give the coaching staff reasons to play them ahead of players like Reid Boucher, who has been nothing short of elite at the AHL level, Darren Archibald, who is literally called TheMayor in Utica and was the club’s most popular/longest serving player, Brendan Gaunce, who was putting up nearly a point-a-game early in the season, and Zack MacEwen, who killed it as a rookie last year and had already earned the trust of the coaching staff, you can see how it was hard to get regular minutes for them until they were up to speed.
Kole Lind and Jonah Gadjovich struggled with the pace of the pro-level early on and the coaching staff felt that it was necessary to give them a ton of practice time while limiting their minutes before giving them a regular shift. Those regular shifts didn’t really start to come for either player until the second half of the season. Both also missed time with injuries that were significant enough to hamper their ability to play the kind of game that they have had success with in the past.
Lukas Jasek, for his part, managed to pretty much play a regular shift for the team, outside of a handful of games missed due to injury/illness, he didn’t sit very often. He did find himself shuffled around the lineup, being used at all three forward positions and up and down the roster. You could see Jasek playing the left side on the first line with Reid Boucher and Tanner Kero one game, and the next he would be riding shotgun on the fourth line right wing with Woods and Bancks.
I have no issue with the number of players that the management group brought into the fold this season, especially after the merry-go-round of players used last year, however, I believe that the roster could have been assembled in a more effective way in order for the team to have more minutes available to their prospects.
At the end of the day, it becomes about being able to put your young prospects into positions to succeed. While I was fine with young players like Lind/Gadjovich playing further down the lineup until they got up to speed, I would have liked to see both players get looks further up the lineup earlier than they did.
Both players showed that they were not ready for regular minutes early on, but both ended up showing that they could be effective with more minutes and when lined up with some of the more skilled players later on in the season. I would have liked to see both players get those minutes a little sooner than they did.
The way things are looking at the moment, there will not be nearly the same sort of influx of rookies for the Comets in the 2019/20 season, and it is quite possible that we will see a much different looking team going forward in Utica. This will be a big year for players like Lind, Gadjovich, and Jasek to take that next step and give the coaching staff no choice but to play them more often…not unlike the way that Zack MacEwen did this season.
I will dig into what the Comets roster could look like in an upcoming article, as well as giving my opinion as to how the roster could be constructed in a way that would hopefully maximize the development of the team’s young prospects.
Up next, however, in part three of this series, I will be looking into the Comets 2018/19 rookie class and how they fared with my Eight Is Enough piece sometime this week.