Utica Comets Season In Review
M*A*S*H – Defencemen Edition
In the first edition of part six, I took a look at the injuries faced by the goaltenders in Utica in the 2018/19 season and how many netminders the team had to dress for games this year.
— Botchford's Army (@CanucksArmy) May 19, 2019
Today I will take a look at how the backend was impacted by injuries in the 2018/19 season for the team.
The Comets started the season with Ashton Sautner, Guillaume Brisebois, Evan McEneny, and Olli Juolevi as lefties supplied to them by the parent Vancouver Canucks. They were joined by righty Jalen Chatfield as players who had two-way deals with the team. If you are thinking that the team needed to add to the right side, you are probably thinking the right way.
The Canucks have since signed Mitch Eliot and Brogan Rafferty to the system as right shooting defenders. Between those two and Chatfield, things could look a fair bit brighter on the right side in Utica for the 2019/20 season.
The Comets supplemented that group with a crew of players on AHL deals to round out their backend and supply some much-needed depth to be called upon.
Comets GM Ryan Johnson wanted to make sure that he had adequate depth on the backend this year and made sure to add to the group for that purpose. The club came into the year with five defenders on AHL deals and ended up adding 10 more on tryout offers while trading for one more with an AHL contract, (Stefan LeBlanc).
The 36-year-old Sifers was in the second year of his two-year deal with the team and announced his retirement at the end of this season. The right-shot veteran played a steady, physical, no-nonsense game and worked very well with the younger players on the team. He will be missed in the room and in the community as he is as good of a human being as they come, by all reports. I have heard several of his young teammates gush about what he brought to the team.
Removing Sifers from the roster relieves the team of one of their five allowable veterans who can play in a given game, as per AHL rules. Sifers suited up in 70 games for the club this year, leading the team in that category. According to my notes, Sifers missed just one game with an injury and spent the other four games missed as the veteran scratch.
Putting up points was not the calling card of the grizzled vet as he did more than his share of the heavy lifting on the defensive side of things. Sifers did manage to pick up four goals and 10 helpers to give himself 14 points to go along with 51 minutes serving time in the penalty box this year.
Jesse Graham was brought in to help out with the offensive side of things on the Utica blueline as the former forward-turned-defenceman had shown the ability to put up points in the past. Graham, also a right-shot defender, was originally drafted in the sixth round of the 2012 NHL draft by the New York Islanders.
The 25-year-old managed to get into 52 games for the Comets in the 2018/19 season, a few of those even coming as a winger at the expense of the Canucks young prospects. Graham picked up four goals and 14 assists to give himself 18 points to go along with 32 minutes in the penalty box. Those 18 points were enough to place Graham as the team’s second-leading scorer on the blueline behind Evan McEneny’s 31.
Graham missed a total of six games to injury while his other absences came via the healthy scratch route. I am not sure that we will see Graham back with the team for the upcoming season, but time will tell on that front.
Blujus, another right-shot defender, was in his second season with the Comets after earning an AHL with the team last year. He had started out with the club on a tryout deal in the 2017/18 season before earning an AHL deal to finish the season. He was previously in the Tampa Bay system after being drafted by the Lightning in the second round of the 2012 draft and as such, has a previous relationship with head coach Trent Cull.
The six-foot-three-inch, 203-pound blueliner has proven to be an effective player on the defensive side of things who can handle penalty killing minutes. He played in 43 games for the Comets in the 2018/19 season, picking up one goal and seven helpers to go along with 41 penalty minutes.
Blujus suffered a couple of injuries this season, but it was a broken hand that resulted from a blocked shot that kept him on the shelf for the longest duration. The blueliner spent a total of 23 games out of the lineup with injuries this year.
Even with Rafferty and Eliot likely joining the Comets right side for the 2019/20 season, I can still see Blujus being brought back for a third campaign with the club. He might be able to pick up some of those minutes that will be available with Sifers retiring. At the very least, I feel that he has proven to be a solid depth option for the team.
LeBlanc didn’t start the year with the Comets as he was acquired in a midseason trade with the Toronto Marlies that sent fellow AHL contracted player Tanner MacMaster out of town. That deal looked to have been done as a way to make a little more room on the wings for the Comets young prospects up front. Both players were 22-years-old at the time of the deal.
LeBlanc is a lefty who stands six-feet tall and tips the scales at 185-pounds. He started his season bouncing back and forth between the Marlies and their ECHL affiliate in Newfoundland. The ginger-haired defender got into 25 games for Utica, grabbing six helpers to go along with 16 minutes in the box.
The defenceman didn’t miss many games due to injury for the Comets with just three games showing up in that column according to my notes. LeBlanc is a player that I would have time for going forward. He showed well enough in his games for the Comets that I think he has earned another look on an AHL deal with the team. He can handle penalty killing duties while providing nice depth for the club.
Jagger Dirk/Brandon Anselmini
Dirk and Anselmini were purely depth signings and both spent far more time plying their trade with the Comets ECHL affiliate in Kalamazoo this season. Dirk got into just nine games for Utica, picking up one assist for his efforts, while Anselmini played in 10 games for the team, posting one goal and one assist. I’m not so worried about time missed to injuries for either player for this exercise.
Four of the 10 players that the Comets signed to tryout deals did not play a game for the team as Jett Woo aggravated an existing injury in his first practice with the club, while Mitch Eliot was limited to practicing with the team so that the Seattle expansion draft wouldn’t be an issue for him. The other two on tryout deals who didn’t play any games for Utica were Connor Doherty and Jake Linhart.
I won’t get carried away here with injuries to players on tryout deals, but I figured that I might as well give a quick recap of what some of that group brought to the team.
Saucerman burst onto the scene in Utica after signing his first of two tryout deals with the club back on December 10th. The right-shot defender became an instant hit in Utica, thanks in no small part to his epic ginger beard and his fantastic hockey name. It also helped that he scored a goal in his first game with the team.
Saucerman suited up in 24 games for the Comets, picking up one goal and three helpers. Would I be surprised to see Saucerman back in Utica next season? No, I wouldn’t. He seemed to fit well with this group, although his game still needs some work in order for him to earn a regular shift. I think that the 27-year-old former NCAA teammate of Adam Gaudette could certainly provide the team with some depth on the right side.
As an aside, if Saucerman does earn an AHL deal with the Comets for 2019/20, I will be growing my beard out for the full season. It was a little deal that I made while on the air with Rain, Scoop, and Matt during an episode of Utica Comets Insider on KROCK in Utica.
Petgrave is another 27-year-old defender who was brought in on a tryout deal when the Comets were overrun by injuries and call-ups near the end of the season. The left-shot rearguard got into 12 games for the Comets, picking up two points along the way. I don’t really see a place for him with the team going forward.
Aaron Thow is the last of the group that I will mention as I thought that he showed well enough in his six games with the team to warrant another look next season. The 24-year-old lefty managed to pick up one assist in his time with the Comets and saw some time on the power play.
The six-foot-one-inch, 194-pounder joined the team after spending the past four seasons plying his trade in the NCAA. He’s a player that I could see the team bringing back on an AHL deal next season as a depth player.
This is where things got a fair bit worse for the Comets as they lost a large portion of their top-six defenders to injuries and call-ups. If you would have taken a stab at what the top-six would look like on Utica’s backend when they opened the season, it probably would have looked something like this.
Olli Juolevi – Jalen Chatfield
Ashton Sautner – Evan McEneny
Guillaume Brisebois – Jaime Sifers
That alignment would have seen McEneny playing out of position on the right side, but he has played there before and likely would have handled that role just fine. If not, we watched Brisebois play the bulk of his rookie season on his off-side and he could have lined up there.
As mentioned above, Sifers played more games than any player in Utica this year with 70, but aside from him, none of the group of six listed above got into more than McEneny’s 58 games.
McEneny was the team’s leader in points on the backend with 31, but once again missed significant time due to injuries. He managed to get into just 11 games last year before a disastrous knee injury ended his season. He suffered another knee injury to end his season this year.
Evan missed a total of 15 games to injury this year, but when healthy was able to provide some decent offence for the team. In his 136 games for the Comets spread over parts of five seasons, the 24-year-old lefty has put up 18 goals and 43 helpers, giving him 61 points, or 0.45 points per game for his AHL career.
McEneny brings size at six-feet-three-inches tall and weighing in at 220-pounds, but he isn’t able to use that size to his advantage without ending up in the infirmary. Canucks’ general manager Jim Benning was quoted near the end of the season as saying that the club sees McEneny as more of a depth option than a prospect going forward.
If we add his injury history into the equation, along with the fact that the team will have Juolevi, Sautner, and Brisebois all ahead of him, coupled with the addition of lefty Josh Teves as an NCAA signing, and it doesn’t look like there will be a spot open for McEneny at camp. He is a pending unrestricted free agent and will be able to sign with whichever team is interested in his services.
Brisebois managed to stay relatively healthy for the Comets this season, but still only managed to get into 49 games with the team. By my count, the former third-round pick from the 2015 draft missed just two Comets games due to injury, but he also spent a good deal of time up with the parent Canucks at the end of the season.
Brisebois got into eight games with the Canucks, going pointless for his efforts before suffering a hip injury in mid/late March that required minor surgery. He is expected to be ready for training camp.
Brisebois finished his Comets season with three goals and eight helpers to give himself 11 points to go along with 22 penalty minutes. The six-foot-three-inch, 190lbs defender has not been able to pile up points as a pro, but he has shown the ability to play a simple, effective game that didn’t look too far out of place in his limited minutes after his NHL debut.
I’m looking to see Brisebois take another step in the 2019/20 season.
Sautner finished last season strong, making his NHL debut and picking up two points in his five games of action at the season’s end. The 24-year-old had a rough go this year when he was crushed by a questionable hit from Eric Tangredi that left him with facial fractures.
That injury forced Sautner from the lineup when he was having a very effective season as a physical blueliner who was doing a nice job of transitioning the puck up ice with his excellent skating. Sautner played in just 31 games for the Comets this year, picking up three goals and five helpers to give himself eight points to go along with 22 minutes in the box.
Sautner ended up missing 23 games with the broken face before stepping right back into the lineup as if he had missed no time at all. That kind of play soon earned him a call-up to Vancouver where he would finish the season with one assist in 17 games played with the big club.
Sautner will require waivers to get to Utica again for the 2019/20 season, although this time around I am uncertain that he will clear. Sure, most teams have a player or two in their system similar to Sautner, but he could have shown well enough while up with the Canucks this year to catch another team’s eye.
Chatfield was another player who was bitten hard by the injury bug this season on the Comets’ backend. Jalen managed to get into just 34 games for Utica this season after missing time with various ailments, the worst of which was a broken foot.
The six-foot-one, 187-pound righty missed a staggering 41 games due to injuries this year, placing him second on the list of most man-games lost on the backend for the Comets this season. The smooth skating 23-year-old might very well have been able to earn a look with the Canucks this year if not for the injury bug making a meal of him over the course of the season.
Chatfield plays a greasy game, so injuries shouldn’t really come as a big surprise, but it was disappointing to see his promising start curtailed by the broken foot. Jalen started the season making up half of the team’s top-pair on the backend with Olli Juolevi. The duo played quite well together and their styles seemed to mesh perfectly.
Offensive production isn’t Chatfield’s strength as he has put up just two goals and 11 assists in his season and a half, (94 regular season games) of pro hockey, but I do think that he has more to offer on that side of things if he stays healthy. He was jumping into the play a lot more near the end of the season and I think it is only a matter of time before he starts to produce a little more offence.
Ouch! That pretty much sums up the season for Juolevi. The former fifth-overall pick from the 2016 draft has been much maligned since he was selected by the Canucks. Between the fact that other defenders taken later than him in that draft have already been playing regular NHL minutes and doing it well, and that Matthew Tkachuk was selected right after him and has piled up points in the NHL ever since, along with Juolevi not being able to stay healthy, it is kind of understandable…to a point.
We can’t blame the player for where the team selected him in the draft. That isn’t on him. I know very little about how athletes train and prepare themselves for a season of pro hockey, so I don’t really want to put too much blame on the player for his recent back and knee injuries, but they are something to be at least a little concerned about.
Juolevi got into just 18 games for the Comets this season before a knee injury cut his campaign short. That’s right, folks…he missed 58 games for the Comets this year and none of them came via the healthy scratch.
There was no apparent impact or hit that the injury can be attributed to as Juolevi played through some soreness for a few games before being shut down for the season.
Even though he only got into 18 games, Juolevi still finished the season with 13 points, just one behind Jaime Sifers for fourth in team scoring amongst blueliners. Eight of those 13 points came on the power play as the 21-year-old proved to be adept at setting up goals when the Comets had the extra man.
Juolevi is expected to be ready for training camp and if his offseason recovery and training go well, it is possible that he will push for a job with the big club. The fact that he doesn’t need waivers and might need to get his playing legs back under him lead me to believe that he will be starting the year in Utica again until he is up to speed.
As we can see, the injury bug was not kind to the Comets’ backend this year, stripping the team of it’s very best defencemen for a total of 139 games, plus another 33 games lost for Blujus, Graham, Sifers and LeBlanc. That certainly isn’t ideal as the team spent the bulk of the season lining up with a lot of ECHL level defenders making up a good portion of their blueline.
Losing Luke Schenn to the parent Canucks as an injury replacement for the rest of the season after he put up five points in seven games took a big bite out of the Comets’ backend as well.
Stay tuned later in the week for the final installment of the M*A*S*H series when I will look at the forward group and how the injuries affected them.