Utica Comets Season In Review
Eight Is Enough
In part two of this series, I took a look at the Full House that the Utica Comets started their 2018/19 season with.
— Botchford's Army (@CanucksArmy) May 7, 2019
Today, in part three, I will take a look at the Comets rookie crew for the 2018/19 season and how they fared. Much has been made of how the young players were deployed in Utica this past season as the team saw Petrus Palmu head back to Finland and Jonathan Dahlen traded to the San Jose Sharks for center Linus Karlsson.
Dahlen is gone, but the team can still learn from how his situation was handled. The same goes for how Petrus Palmu felt about his time in Utica this past season. Palmu could still make a return to Utica, but time will tell if that happens.
In part two of this series, I spoke about how the team came into the season with an overload of players who were bloating their roster, especially up front on the wings where the bulk of the rookies were scheduled to play. We know how that played into the rookies’ deployment/ice-time as the coaching staff often played Dahlen and Jasek down the lineup with players who fit the checking line/grinder mould, while Palmu, Gadjovich, and Lind struggled to find regular minutes as they made the adjustment to the pro level in North America.
So, how did the rookies fare with limited minutes early in their rookie season? Let’s take a look.
Eight Is Enough
Last year, the Comets started the season with rookie forwards Zack MacEwen, Alexis D’Aoust, and Griffen Molino on the roster, along with defenders Guillaume Brisebois and Jalen Chatfield. It was a little bit easier for the coaching staff to find minutes for that group as D’Aoust and Molino projected more as bottom six forwards and when healthy, saw minutes in those roles.
MacEwen missed the start of last season with an injury but worked his way up from a bottom six role into a middle/top six role once he was healthy. Chatfield and Brisebois, for their part, were thrown to the wolves, taking on big minutes early on as the team was racked with injuries/call-ups.
This season was a different story as the Comets started the year with eight rookies, including one defenseman, one center, and six wingers. It was a little bit tougher for the coaching staff to find regular minutes for all eight of this year’s class, especially with the logjam of wingers that were provided by management.
The following players made up the 2018/19 rookie class for the Comets:
- Olli Juolevi: LD.
- Adam Gaudette: C.
- Jonathan Dahlen: LW.
- Kole Lind: RW.
- Lukas Jasek: RW/LW.
- Jonah Gadjovich: LW/RW.
- Petrus Palmu: LW/RW
- Tanner MacMaster: RW/LW.
It would be easy to dismiss MacMaster as a player who should have played behind the actual Canucks prospects, as MacMaster was only with the team on an AHL deal. The thing is, the 22-year-old MacMaster showed pretty well after signing a PTO, (professional tryout offer) with the team at the end of last season and looked like he could have been found money of sorts.
The versatile forward put up seven points in 13 regular season games with the Comets before grabbing another four points in five playoff games to lead all Utica rookies in post-season scoring. Those four points came while playing on a line with Michael Chaput and Zack MacEwen.
When this season started, the Comets coaching staff looked to be giving MacMaster a chance to pick up where he left off as he was the winger chosen to ride shotgun with Reid Boucher and Cam Darcy on what was one of the team’s top two lines to start the season. Tanner Kero was swapped into the spot that was held by Darcy after the second game.
MacMaster continued on with Boucher and Kero until game seven, when he was a healthy scratch for the first time of the season after picking up five points over his first six contests. He would go on to put up two goals and nine helpers to give himself 11 points in 29 games before he was moved out in favour of the left-shot defender, Stefan LeBlanc. LeBlanc coincidentally was also a 22-year-old on an AHL deal.
You are probably wondering who Jonathan Dahlen was lined up with while MacMaster was getting those sweet assignments higher up the roster. Well, he had Tanner Kero and Carter Bancks for game one, Brendan Gaunce and Kero for game two, Darren Archibald and Adam Gaudette for game three and four before sitting out as a healthy scratch in game five. In game number six, he was back in the lineup and playing on the left side of Carter Bancks with Lukas Jasek on the right side. In his first five games, Dahlen had managed three points, all assists. Dahlen finished his time in Utica this season with 14 goals and 15 assists, giving him 29 points in 50 games before his trade.
Dahlen spent his time in Utica bouncing around the Comets lineup this season, spending time on all four lines up front. The bulk of his points came on the power play, where he showed some nice playmaking creativity along with an opportunistic scorer’s touch. Putting up points wasn’t a problem with the extra open ice that the power play afforded him, giving Dahlen that extra time and space that he had when he lit up the Allsvenskan the previous season.
Dahlen had a tougher time finding points regularly at five-on-five for the Comets and I think that can be attested to both that lack of open space, and the skill level of the linemates that he often found himself with. It isn’t all on one of those issues or the other, but a combination of both, along with the fact that the young winger often left the coaching staff wanting in the two zones that didn’t contain the opposition’s goaltender.
In fairness to Dahlen, that side of his game did look to be coming along somewhat right around the time of his trade. I said it at the time, and I am still of the mind that the Dahlen trade was done a little sooner than it needed to be. I think that if both sides had shown a little more patience, and a willingness to solve the issues, perceived or real, the relationship could have been salvaged. At the very least, a move could have waited until the offseason when there could have possibly been more value for the Canucks in the deal.
All of this said, if the player wasn’t happy with their situation the point of asking for/suggesting a possible change of scenery, the move probably needed to come before the situation got worse.
Petrus Palmu is a curious one. He showed well in training camp and looked like he might have a bit of an edge over some of the other rookies as he had already played a year of pro hockey over in Finland, taking home their rookie-of-the-year honours for his efforts. The diminutive forward was not able to translate that success while in Utica this year as he had a difficult time finding regular minutes under the coaching staff.
Palmu ended up playing in just 12 of the team’s first 29 games before heading back to Finland where he put up 18 points in 29 games while once again, finding himself as a healthy scratch on occasion.
It was a small sample size for Palmu in Utica this year, but in his time with the team, I saw a player who showed an active stick in all three zones. He was able to force some turnovers with those efforts but seemed to struggle to find the time and space that he needed to play the game that he’s had success with in the past.
The pace of the game seemed to make it difficult for him to be the most effective player that he could be. I saw him get rubbed off the puck a little easier than I think he should have been as well and that is something that he will need to adjust if he is going to have success as a pro in North America.
Palmu and Dahlen voiced similar concerns about ice-time, deployment, and a lack of communication from the coaching staff. Whether those issues were real or perceived, they need to be looked into so that other players don’t end up feeling a similar way in the future.
Dahlen and Palmu had both seen success in pro leagues before joining the Comets and both had bigger roles in those other leagues. They had success in those bigger roles and I think that it is possible that one or both felt that they had already proven themselves ahead of the other rookies, to a certain extent. That is just speculation on my part.
At the end of the day, the Comets saw two young, skilled players feel the need to leave town in order to have a better chance at developing their game. That isn’t a good thing, no matter how you slice it. These are both situations that should be audited in order to move forward without a similar occurrence.
For the record, I would not be surprised if Palmu comes back in the future for another crack at things.
MacMaster, Dahlen, and Palmu all started the season as rookies in Utica, but none of that trio finished there. Let’s move on to the remaining rookies who either finished the season with the Comets, graduated to Vancouver, or ended up on the injured list.
Adam Gaudette split his season between Utica and Vancouver this year, having played in 56 games for Vancouver and just 14 in Utica. He managed to put up very similar points totals with the two clubs as he picked up five goals and seven helpers with Vancouver along with five goals and six assists in Utica.
While with the Comets, Gaudette saw time on the power play along with the odd appearance on the penalty kill. Gaudette has done the bulk of his development at the NCAA and NHL levels, but he showed a little more confidence in his offensive game in Utica when he was there. As a center, Gaudette didn’t have the same issues with finding minutes as a rookie while with the Comets, but his three-zone game was also a fair bit further along than the other rookies and the coaching staff showed that much more trust in his game. There isn’t a whole lot to say about Gaudette’s time with the Comets, outside of the fact that he played well in Utica.
Juolevi managed to get into more games with the Comets than Gaudette did, but not by many. The Canucks former fifth-overall pick suited up in 18 games for the Comets, picking up 13 points for his efforts before a knee injury ended his season.
Once again, the sample size for Juolevi was pretty small, but I did see him showing some signs of improvement over those 18 games. He did fantastic work on the power play, working well to help run things from the backend. The offensive side looked like it was coming along well for Juolevi before his injury.
On the defensive side, things were still a bit of a work in progress, but there was progress being made. Juolevi was doing a better job of managing his gaps, but will still need a bot of work there. I was happy to see him showing a physical side from time to time as well, although it was sporadic, his willingness to engage physically was a positive sign for a player who was coming off of a back injury.
Juolevi was paired with Jalen Chatfield for the most part before spending a few games with veteran Jaime Sifers. Chatfield and Juolevi made a pretty solid pair who did nice work to skate pucks out of their own end as well as being able to move the puck up the ice with a crisp pass. I would imagine that we will see Juolevi start his season in Utica again until his knee is back up to speed unless he comes to camp and blows the team away.
Jasek burst onto the scene in the late goings last year with the Comets, picking up three goals and four helpers in six regular-season games before getting into just one playoff game and missing the rest with an injury.
The former sixth-round pick of the Canucks ended up finishing this season with nine goals and 20 helpers, giving him 29 points in 63 games to lead all Comets rookies. Those numbers might not be as great as last season’s offensive outburst would have suggested, but Jasek was a bright spot amongst the rookies in Utica…at least to my eyes.
In his handful of games last season, I was impressed with what I saw from Jasek with his work away from the puck. It was pretty clear that he had a solid understanding of what was being asked of him and that he had professional experience under his belt.
Fast-forward to this season and Jasek showed up ready to contribute once again. The coaching staff looked like they were trying to find the right role for Jasek as he was used all over the lineup. He played both wings this season in Utica and even spent some time playing the middle. That kind of versatility helped him stay in the lineup when some of the other rookies sat.
It wasn’t just his versatility that helped Jasek earn minutes, but also his work ethic away from the puck. Jasek is a puck possession machine. If his team doesn’t have the puck, he is doing everything within his power to retrieve it. His work along the boards in puck battles impressed me all season long as I watched him come away with the puck time after time while on the forecheck or while forcing a turnover in the neutral zone.
Jasek worked every bit as hard away from the puck as he did when he had it on his stick and that didn’t change no matter which zone he happened to be playing in at the time. He was able to be effective for the coaching staff whether they lined him up in the top-six as a puck hound for more offensively minded linemates, or if they wanted to use him further down the lineup in a checking role where he was able to provide some secondary offence while helping his team defensively.
I like a lot of what Jasek brings. He skates quite well, has a sneaky good release on his shot and he plays a heady game. His work ethic is also a strong suit. I can see him eventually settling into a “bottom-six Jannik Hansen” type of role in the NHL down the road if/when he gets there.
The two prospects that I was asked about most often this season were Jonah Gadjovich and Kole Lind. The pair of former second-round picks were at the forefront of many fan’s mind’s and their ice-time/deployment was constantly being called into question.
As both players were high picks who piled up points in junior, it was understandable for fans to have high expectations for both. Unfortunately, fair or not, those expectations might have been a little higher than what was realistic for either player. I was just as guilty of having my expectations being too high as many others did.
Gadjovich managed to get into just 43 games with the Comets this season, picking up four goals and six helpers along the way to go with his 32 minutes spent in the box. The healthy scratches came early and often for Gadjovich as he got into just four of the team’s first 10 games. He would miss a good portion of the season with injuries as well.
Gadjovich and Lind both commented in the media on numerous occasions about how the jump from junior to pro was a good deal tougher than they expected. Gadjovich was always going to need to improve his foot speed to have success at the pro level and that was evident early on. You could see that the player knew where he needed to be on the ice, but he just wasn’t quick enough to be the first man there often enough to have success.
Credit Gadjovich for putting in the time with the coaching staff and getting down to work. As the season went on, Gadjovich improved his overall game and started to play the brand of hockey that made him so successful in his junior career. His skating will need to see continued improvement, but it did get better this year.
When he was in junior, Gadjovich was known as TheManChild because he was able to use his size and strength to impose his will on the 16-17-year-old players that he was regularly lined up against. That all changed at the pro level when Jonah found himself lining up against the much larger, grown men who make up a good portion of AHL rosters. These are men who are still trying to carve out a career and many are supporting families while doing so…it just isn’t the same as getting into a puck battle with a pimply faced teen who tips the scales at a buck fifty with all of his gear on and doesn’t have the same kind of responsibilities in life.
Gadjovich had to adjust his game to find any measure of success and he started to do so as the season went on and he started to figure out what he could get away with and what he couldn’t. To my eye, Jonah showed some pretty nice hands, often showing a playmaker’s touch while dishing the puck.
He also used those mitts to beat the taste out of the mouths of a couple of opponents when he decided to throw down. While he didn’t outright dominate in any of his fights, he did show the ability to get the job done and he did it by unloading with a jackhammer of a right hand that looked like it didn’t have an off switch.
I think that Gadjovich might take a bit of time before he will be ready for an NHL look, but I think that he can get there if he keeps putting in the work. That side of things does not seem to be an issue as Gadjovich is more than willing to put that work in, by all accounts.
I would have liked to see Jonah used a little higher up the lineup once things started to click for him. He saw some games where he was lined up with Brendan Gaunce and the two had some very nice shifts together.
I believe the young winger could pick up a few more points if aligned with some players with a different skill set than the fellows that he spent the bulk of this season with. Hopefully, the coaching staff will give Jonah a little more rope to start the 2019/20 season and have him playing in a second/third line role with some time on the penalty kill if his skating is up to the task.
Finally, we come to Kole Lind. Kole also spent his share of time on the shelf with injuries this season, missing a little over a month between November and December. Before that injury, Lind looked to be having a difficult time figuring out the pace of the AHL. He looked a little bit lost at times early on as he tried to find his way.
Lind missed three of the Comets first 10 games, but only one was due to a healthy scratch as the other two were injury related. By the time the season had ended, he had played in 51 games, putting up five goals and 12 assists to give himself 17 points to go along with 20 minutes spent in the box.
It was after Lind returned from that month-long injury when you could see things start to turn around for him. The young winger was being used on an energy line with one of Wacey Hamilton or Brendan Woods along with Vincent Arseneau.
The fact that the coaching staff had Lind playing with those players had some fans in Vancouver up in arms about the quality of his linemates. I understood the angst of the fans but also saw Lind become far more engaged in his games as he started to become more involved from the opening whistle until the final buzzer sounded.
While lining up with those role players wasn’t likely to have a positive effect on Lind’s offensive game, it certainly proved to help him stay engaged from start to finish. That engagement led to Lind’s confidence growing and he started to get his nose dirty after whistles. His game took on a bit more of an edge and that helped him as well.
Then something funny happened, Lind started to pick up points while playing with those same role players. He started to figure things out and he was being rewarded for it on the scoreboard. By the time the season came to a close, Lind looked like a far different player than he did to start the year.
Much like the Gadjovich situation, I understood what the coaching staff was doing with the healthy scratches, and with playing Lind with role/energy players. However, also much like the Gadjovich situation, I would have liked to see Lind moved higher up the lineup sooner than it happened for him this year.
I have no issues with making players earn their minutes as rookies. I think that it can be a dangerous game to just hand prime minutes to every young player without first having a solid idea of what that player is capable of against his new peer group. That said, I do believe that once a young player is showing that he is figuring some things out, that it is okay to reward them with more minutes with players with higher skill sets.
It wasn’t ideal to start the season in Utica with so many rookies to find roster spots for, but that is a problem that falls under the good category rather than the bad, in my opinion. Were all of the rookies handled in an ideal way in Utica this year? From the outside looking in, probably not. Did the coaching staff ruin these kids? Once again, probably not.
The 2019/20 season will be a different story in Utica as there will not be the same number of rookies coming aboard up front, while players like Lind, Gadjovich, and Jasek will have the experience of this year under their belt to lean on going forward. I hope to see all three take on bigger roles with the club for the coming season. Add Olli Juolevi back into the mix and the Comets could be relying on some second-year pros in some big roles next season.
Stay tuned for my next piece where I will be looking into the Growing Pains that Kole Lind and Jonah Gadjovich faced this season in Utica.