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Photo Credit: Cory Hergott

CanucksArmy Utica Comets Mailbag

CanucksArmy 

Utica Comets Mailbag

Okay, folks. I thought I’d give doing a Utica Comets mailbag a go during the offseason and it looks like at least some of you folks were interested in seeing that happen as well. So, let’s jump right in, shall we?

This was an interesting question, but one that I’m not 100% sure that I am qualified to answer as I don’t view nearly as many NHL games as I do AHL contests. That said, I do think that there is a noticeable parallel between the Comets and their parent Canucks.

Both clubs want to employ a speedy, uptempo, physical brand of hockey, but both also lack the necessary pieces to do so, in my opinion. Both coaching staff’s like to see their young players earn their minutes while leaning on veterans for most of the heavy lifting defensively.

I don’t think that it is a bad thing to have the parent club and farm team on the same page in terms of style of play and the culture that they want to instill in their players and prospects. It would seem to be a positive course of action, in my mind.

Hopefully, we will see the club surround their young prospects with some skilled playmakers down the middle this season rather than loading up the wings with veterans who could be roadblocks as they did last season.

For the 2018/19 season, we saw the Comets show up to camp with quite the load of rookies to find minutes for. Up front, Adam Gaudette was the lone rookie pivot, while wingers Petrus Palmu, Jonah Gadjovich, Kole Lind, Lukas Jasek, and AHL contracted Tanner MacMaster were all competing for minutes against the likes of Darren Archibald, Reid Boucher, Brendan Gaunce, Zack MacEwen, and Michael Carcone.

On the backend, Olli Juolevi was the lone rookie in what ended up being an injury-shortened season in his first year with the club.

It is looking like it will be the other way around this year in Utica as we will not see the same sort of influx of rookies up front, while the backend will see a few new faces.

Will Lockwood and Tyler Madden are both going back for another NCAA season, so they will not factor into the equation until their respective college seasons wrap up at the end of the year at the earliest. I haven’t seen any talk yet of Artem Manyukan or Dmytry Zhukenov making the jump this season, so it could be a very shallow pool for rookies up front.

I think that it is possible that we could see a rookie or two signed to AHL deals up front for the Comets as Seamus Malone showed quite well in his brief audition at the end of the season and could warrant an AHL deal with the team.

On the backend, I can see all three of Josh Teves, Brogan Rafferty, and Mitch Eliot as rookie Canucks prospects who will see regular minutes with the team. Teves is a lefty, while Rafferty and Eliot are both righties. Eliot is 21-years-old, while Rafferty and Teves are both 24. Being a little older might help all three men make the adjustment more quickly for the team.

The other place where we will see rookies is between the pipes. Both of Michael DiPietro and Jake Kielly will be in their first season of pro hockey, but one of them might very well be plying their trade with Kalamazoo in the ECHL.

The Vancouver Canucks currently have Jacob Markstrom, Thatcher Demko, Richard Bachman, DiPietro, and Kielly under contract for the 2019/20 season. Markstrom and Demko will be manning the net in Vancouver, while the other three could be battling it out for the two jobs in Utica.

Bachman is coming off of an Achilles’ injury and by the time the season starts, he will be 32-years of age. The Achilles’ injury might be a tough one for him to bounce back from, and the veteran netminder had a tough go in his one game with the Canucks this past season. I have heard some whispers that the team might be ready to move on from him and bring in a different veteran to be their number three behind Marky and Demko while Kielly and DiPietro get their feet under them at the pro level.

This is an interesting question because the answer will depend on what you consider to be a difference maker. For the most part, the difference makers in the Canucks system are already playing with the big club. Players like Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson, and Quinn Hughes would be considered difference makers by most, but the club doesn’t currently have anyone on the farm who projects to be in their stratosphere.

The team does have a few players who I think can be solid contributors further down the lineup once the team is ready to compete.

Up front, Zack MacEwen is far-and-away the player who is most NHL ready, in my opinion. TheBigFella made his NHL debut this past season and looked solid in his short time with the parent club. If he doesn’t make the Canucks out of camp, I see him being the go-to-guy offensively for the Comets while also taking on more work on the defensive side and penalty kill.

After MacEwen, the picking gets pretty slim as far as players who are close to ready for an NHL shift. I think that Kole Lind and Jonah Gadjovich will both need at least another full season on the farm before they are ready for a cup of coffee in Vancouver, but I think there’s an outside chance that we could see Lukas Jasek get a look later in the season if he can keep going the way that he has.

Jasek led the rookie crew in Utica with nine goals and 20 helpers to give himself 29 points in 63 games. While it is nice to get some offensive production from the versatile forward, I feel like he could eventually carve out an early Jannik Hansen type of role with the big club down the road. I see Jasek as a player who will be able to handle some defensive duties while being a very good puck retriever for his linemates and providing some secondary scoring. He will have to keep improving his game, but I do think that he could get there.

On the backend, Olli Juolevi is the defender that the team is hoping will pan out as the former fifth-overall pick showed quite well offensively with 13 points in his 18-game injury-shortened season. He will still need to work on his reads and his gap control on the defensive side, but Juolevi could very well end up as a second pairing defender in Vancouver for a very long time…if he can stay healthy.

I am very intrigued by what Brogan Rafferty will bring to the table and I think that he could be a bit of a diamond in the rough. I see Josh Teves in a similar light and hope to see the Comets have less trouble squeezing offensive contributions out of their blueline in the 2019/20 season. Mitch Eliot is a bit of a wildcard for me. He had a very good season as an overager in the OHL this past season, but that might not translate once he is lined up against grown men and not 17-year-old kids.

The Comets will also have one or both of DiPietro and Kielly in goal and both could end up being players that the big club leans on as the years go by, but I’m not sure that we will see much of either player in Vancouver beyond training camp for this season.

The Canucks/Comets will have their work cut out for them as far as fleshing out their roster for the 2019/20 season. They currently have just Wacey Hamilton, (one year remaining on AHL deal) Carter Bancks, (ditto for him) Zack MacEwen, Kole Lind, Jonah Gadjovich, Lukas Jasek, and Petrus Palmu signed up front. On the backend, Juolevi, Jalen Chatfield, Guillaume Brisebois, Mitch Eliot, and Ashton Sautner are under contract. The team is more or less covered in goal, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a move made there still.

All of this is to say that there are plenty of holes to fill. We could see players like Ryan Spooner, Tyler Motte, or Tim Schaller waived to Utica after training camp, and that might affect how the team goes about their offseason in regards to the Comets.

Trent Cull has had a lot of time for pending free agent forwards Brendan Woods, Cam Darcy, and Vincent Arseneau and I would not be surprised to see one or all brought back. All three are better suited to the bottom half of the roster, but they can all bring some value there when deployed to their strengths. That said, with Bancks and Hamilton both coming back already, it makes some sense to shuffle things up a little and bring in some players who can contribute more on the offensive side of things.

On the backend, I can see Cull wanting to see Dylan Blujus and Stefan LeBlanc back as regulars, while also having Aaron Thow and Colton Saucerman handy in Kalamazoo if they are interested in signing AHL deals and spending a portion of their season in the ECHL.

I do think that Cull would like to add some speed and skill down the middle as he mentioned several times last year that the team was challenged on that side of things. I think that the coach would like to have the horses to play more of a skilled, uptempo game if the team can find players who fit that mould.

I have kind of answered a couple of these questions already in this post, so I will focus on the others when answering this one.

I think that the team will have no choice but to hope for offence-by-committee for the 2019/20 season.

We don’t yet know for sure who will be back, who will be brought in as new players, and who might end up being waived to Utica by Vancouver after training camp. Kole Lind, Lukas Jasek, and Jonah Gadjovich will all have to improve on their rookie totals and continue growing their games, while Zack MacEwen could be leaned on for a good portion of offence if he doesn’t make the Canucks out of camp.

It will be the same story on the backend as the three rookies as well as Juolevi will have to provide a good deal of offence because the incumbent crew of blueliners have not yet proven to be able to put up points on the regular. I think that both of Brisebois and Chatfield have a little more offence to provide though.

This past season saw the Comets struggle in net and that will be an area that will need to see improvement going forward. Whichever of DiPietro/Kielly end up in Utica will have to be able to keep their head above water and manage to steal a few wins for the team when they get their opportunity to play.

As for who will be the best player in Utica for the upcoming season? I would not bet against TheBigFella…that is if he doesn’t make the big club out of camp.

I think that it is still a little early to say whether or not the team will be competitive this season as there are holes all over the roster that will need to be filled and other teams around the AHL will be doing the same. Ask me again once we get closer to the regular season.

 

Jonah Gadjovich had a tough rookie season with the Comets. He got into just 43 games for the team, picking up four goals and six helpers to go along with 32 minutes spent in the penalty box. Skating was a concern coming into the season and it was pretty clear that those concerns were valid at the start of the year.

Gadjovich saw more healthy scratches than any other Comets player this year as the coaching staff didn’t feel that he was ready for a regular shift on many nights. Skating was part of that, but so was learning how to use his body to his advantage against larger men than he had to in the past.

It took time for Gadjovich to sort that out, but there was a definite improvement in his skating, as well as his overall game by the time the season came to a close. There is still plenty of work left for him to do, but I think he will get there.

Gadjovich has an excellent work ethic and the right attitude to get the job done. He’s a smart player who knows where he needs to be on the ice but still needs to find a way to get to those places a little more efficiently. I see Jonah taking on a bigger role as an energy player for the Comets in the 2019/20 season, but he will still take some time.

I think that for the most part, Trent Cull has done a pretty solid job, considering what he has had to work with in his two seasons as the Comets bench boss.

Management overloaded the wings this season when that is where the bulk of their prospects were looking for work. Supplying him with a roster flush with defensively minded AHL vets didn’t help his cause when it came to getting any offence out of this group.

Those issues were compounded by the fact that the younger players struggled to adapt to the pro level in North America at the start of the year and needed more time before they were ready for a regular shift.

That said, we also saw Petrus Palmu head back to Finland after saying that he didn’t understand his role, felt that he didn’t get a fair shake and that the coaching staff didn’t communicate well with him. Jonathan Dahlen echoed those feelings on his way out of town after his trade to San Jose. Those are both issues that need to be looked into by management so that we don’t see a similar thing happen down the road.

Did I agree with everything that the coaching staff did in Utica this year? No, I did not. I can, however, understand the reasoning behind many of their decisions. The players who have had success under this coaching staff have proven to have an excellent work ethic and the ability to take advantage of the opportunities that they are given when they get them. Those who did not have success had a tougher time in that regard.

I honestly believe that the team tries to find a balance between winning games and player development.

Playing in a winning environment is pretty important for young players when they are trying to build confidence in their game at the pro level. If rookie players go from being relatively big fish in their previous league, (Kole Lind, Jonah Gadjovich, Jonathan Dahlen, Petrus Palmu) where they were relied upon to be big point producers, to having their teeth kicked in on the regular because they can’t handle the pro level, it can be devastating for their development.

If those same players are sprinkled into different situations until they can handle bigger, more important minutes, I believe that they have a better chance of adapting to the league and becoming players who the coach will trust. I think that we need to be patient and see the long term picture for these kids.

As for resources, I brought this question up when I interviewed Ashton Sautner at the end of the season and he told me that the Canucks organization is excellent as far as getting players what they need. The Canucks sent their skills coach to Utica several times over the course of the season to work with players in groups as well as individually. From what I understand, a lack of resources available to the players is in no way an issue in Utica or Vancouver.

I’d love to tell you how the hotdogs are at the Adirondack Bank Center, but as someone who lives on the Sunshine Coast in BC, I have yet to experience one. Hopefully, that will change at some point, I’d love to take in a game in Utica.

This, folks…is what you call being Coop’d…

I answered a similar question about impact players in Utica earlier in this post, and until I know who will actually be suiting up for the club next season, it is kind of difficult to say.

I expect to see MacEwen take another step and maybe even surprise us once again with another big jump in points totals/team responsibilities, and I think that if Juolevi ends up there again that he will also show us a little more of why he was drafted where he was.

I think that DiPietro could be the player with the highest upside of those who are expected to suit up in Utica for the coming season. I think that it is entirely possible that we could see him start in Kalamazoo and spend a good chunk of the season there before getting a good run with the Comets. That goaltending situation will be one to watch going forward.

Well, that’s it for the first edition of the Utica Comets Mailbag. I’m not yet sure if this will be a weekly or bi-weekly thing, so maybe let me know in the comments section how often you’d like to see it happen.

  • Regarding Dahlen, I read that he may go back to Timra. The sole source was Swedish and speculative but the circumstances around Dahlen make it seem plausible. After he got injured in SJ, he flew back to Sweden. Timra got annihilated in the SHL (won 10 of 52 games with a 115-182 goals for/against) and was demoted to Allsvenskan. It would make sense for Dahlen to go back to where he had success and was happier.

  • LTFan

    Thanks for the Q & A. session Cory. It is probably a tougher job in Managing and Coaching an AHL / ECHL team than in the NHL. You never know what you are going to get from the NHL team and what the financial restrictions are in signing a player to an AHL contract. While nothing is going on at the ice level in all but 2 NHL teams, I’m sure there is a lot going on off the ice as teams get ready for the Draft and not long afterwards – Free agency. Many, many moving parts for all teams at this time of year.

  • Kanuckhotep

    Dahlen, like Shinkaruk, Nicklas Jensen and many others is a dead issue. At some point hockey fans will truly learn of the clandestine mystery at present surrounding this young prospect. And I agree with the assertion made that, in effect, running pro minor clubs is a bigger pain in the butt than managing an NHL team. Too bad for Jonathan. He held out some promise for Canucks fans.

  • Beer Can Boyd

    I still think they should have given Dahlen a chance with EP, but thats water under the bridge now, and if this article is correct, then the Canucks made the right move in dumping him. MacEwen should def be with the big club this season, and barring a trade, Schaller and Spooner should be in Utica this year. Thankfully, both are on expiring deals.