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Photo Credit: Cory Hergott

CanucksArmy Utica Comets Mailbag

CanucksArmy 

Utica Comets Mailbag

We are back with another edition of the CanucksArmy Utica Comets Mailbag. Let’s get after it with our first question.

If I am still on the right side of the dirt and around to see Halley’s Comet in 2061, at the age of 89, I will consider myself fortunate and will be watching from wherever I may happen to be.

For me, it will be interesting to see how the Palmu situation plays out.

I believe that he has the requisite skill level to play in the AHL, but he looked like he had difficulty finding the time and space that he needs to be successful in North America. He played on North American ice for his entire junior career, so the adjustment to the size of the surface shouldn’t be the issue. I think that for him, it is more about the size/speed of his opponents and being able to make his decisions a bit more quickly.

Palmu might decide to stay in Finland where he has had more success at the pro level.

If he does come across to play for the Comets, his ability to play either wing could help his case to find minutes. The Comets currently have wingers Jonah Gadjovich, Kole Lind, Zack MacEwen, Lukas Jasek, Vincent Arseneau, Seamus Malone, and swingmen Wacey Hamilton and Carter Bancks who can play wing or the middle, (Malone can play the middle as well).

I would imagine that we would see the coaching staff employ a similar approach as last year with Palmu where they would be spotting him in on the bottom two lines until he is up to speed and can handle a regular shift.

Personally, if Palmu is back, I’d like to see him lined up with Gadjovich on the other wing as they have some chemistry/familiarity with each other from their junior days. If they had a pivot like Cam Darcy with them, I think they’d be able to be a reasonably successful third/fourth line. Darcy is sound defensively and has shown the ability to provide “some” secondary offensive production as well.

It’s still a little early in the offseason to be hearing about who will be back on AHL deals with the Comets for the 2019/20 season, but we will be seeing some names trickling in soon enough.

Last season, the Comets came prepared with 15 players signed to AHL deals. The following were on AHL deals with the Comets last year:

  1. Ivan Kulbakov: G
  2. Jaime Sifers: RD
  3. Dylan Blujus: RD
  4. Jesse Graham: RD
  5. Jagger Dirk: LD
  6. Brandon Anselmini: LD
  7. Carter Bancks: F
  8. Wacey Hamilton: F
  9. Vincent Arseneau: RW/LW
  10. Cam Darcy: C
  11. Brendan Woods: C
  12. Tanner MacMaster: F…Traded to the Toronto Marlies for Stefan LeBlanc: LD
  13. Reid Gardiner: F
  14. Kyle Thomas: F
  15. Brendan Bradley: F

Carter Bancks and Wacey Hamilton each have one year remaining on their AHL pact with the Comets, while fellow veteran leader Jaime Sifers announced his retirement after the season wrapped up.

The team recently announced that they were bringing forwards Vincent Arseneau and Seamus Malone back on AHL deals for the upcoming season.

Malone joined the team at the end of the season and managed to put up three goals, plus a shootout marker before breaking his arm. He and Arseneau are very different players and will each bring something that the team needs. Malone has some offensive creativity and has proven to have a knack for putting the puck in the net, while BigVinny brings a robust, physical game and has no qualms about dropping the mitts when needed.

I can see the team being interested in bringing back both of Cam Darcy and Brendan Woods as both players have provided some leadership for the club while playing the middle where the team lacks depth. I think that both players can bring something that the team needs, but having all of Bancks, Hamilton, Darcy, Woods, and Arseneau back might not be ideal.

I think that the team needs to change things up a little and try to find a pivot or two who can help out offensively. I’d be okay with one of Darcy/Woods coming back, but I’m not sure that having both back is a great idea.

Darcy can provide more offence, while Woods brings the size and toughness that could be lacking on the roster. If I had to choose between the two, I think I’d lean more towards Darcy and hope to keep him in a third/fourth line role for the season rather than seeing him bumped further up the lineup.

On the backend, I can see the team wanting to bring Dylan Blujus and Stefan LeBlanc back as a righty and a lefty to compliment what should be a youngish group of defenders. LeBlanc and Blujus both ate minutes on the penalty kill and have proven to be capable defenders at the AHL level. Neither man has provided a ton of offence, but they can both be trusted with regular minutes without hurting the team.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we see the team add another couple of defenders to keep handy either in Utica or with their ECHL affiliate in Kalamazoo. Aaron Thow and Colton Saucerman come to mind on that front. Both players spent time with the team on tryout deals in the 2018/19 season and both showed well enough to warrant an AHL deal from the team, in my opinion.

I would be on board with the team bringing Ivan Kulbakov back as well if he is agreeable. I think that he also showed well enough to earn a longer look. The team already has three goaltenders to juggle with Richard Bachman, Michael DiPietro, and Jake Kielly in the fold, so Kulbakov isn’t a “must sign” type of player, but the added depth would be nice when it is needed. There could also be moves made on the goaltending front before the season starts, so keeping Kulbakov handy might be wise.

All of this is to say that I’d like to see somewhat of a changing of the guard on the AHL contract front. The team had a tough time producing offence last year, especially near the end of the season and I think that a new look is in order. Hopefully, the team leans more to offensively minded players who play the middle when they go shopping this time around.

As you mentioned in your question, it was a very small sample size for Juolevi in the AHL last year. His 13 points in 18 games were promising, as was his ability to run a powerplay so early on. One of his goals and seven of his helpers came while up a man.

He looked quite comfortable on the left side of second-year-pro Jalen Chatfield and the duo formed the Comets top pairing on the backend until Chatfield went down with a broken foot. Veteran rearguard Jaime Sifers took over for Chatfield before Juolevi’s season was shut down due to a knee injury.

What I saw from Juolevi was a player who did a nice job of skating pucks out of his own end, but his gap control and reads in his end could still use some work. With just 18 games to look at, I don’t want to go too much further with my evaluation. I’d like to see the player a fair bit more at this level before commenting further.

The parent Canucks currently have 32 players under contract for the 2019/20 season. They still have some of their own RFAs to decide whether or not to sign, Brock Boeser, Nikolay Goldobin, Josh Leivo, Markus Granlund, Tyler Motte, Ben Hutton to name a few, along with the RFAs from Utica, including Brendan Gaunce and Reid Boucher.

Rick Dhaliwal of Sportsnet650 has tweeted that the team isn’t expected to give Gaunce a qualifying offer and that they are still deciding on Boucher.

I think that it is safe to assume that both Boeser and Leivo will be back with the team, while the others could end up brought back as well or possibly used as trade pieces. With just Boeser and Levio, it would leave the Canucks with the following forwards under contract:

  1. Elias Pettersson
  2. Bo Horvat
  3. Brandon Sutter
  4. Adam Gaudette
  5. Jay Beagle
  6. Loui Eriksson
  7. Tanner Pearson
  8. Sven Baertschi
  9. Antoine Roussel, (expected to start the season on the injured reserve list)
  10. Tim Schaller
  11. Ryan Spooner
  12. Jake Virtanen
  13. Zack MacEwen
  14. Kole Lind
  15. Lukas Jasek
  16. Petrus Palmu
  17. Jonah Gadjovich
  18. Josh Leivo
  19. Brock Boeser

As you can see, that brings us to 19 forwards where the team can only realistically carry up to 14 and has often carried just 13 during the Jim Benning era.

Roussel starting the season on IR will give the team a little bit of a reprieve, but they have a lot of bodies under contract. I remain unconvinced that the team will not at least qualify the contracts of Goldobin, Granlund, and Motte, potentially adding them to the overcrowded mess up front as well.

I think that it is safe to say at this point that Gadjovich, Lind, and Jasek are Utica bound after Canucks main camp. Palmu is a wildcard in terms of whether or not he will be plying his trade in North America or Finland this year and TheBigFella could potentially push for a job with the Canucks out of camp.

We have already heard talk of potential trades, ie a Milan Lucic/Eriksson based swap, and those types of moves will have an effect on who ends up in Utica as well.

Let’s put together a potential roster for the big club and see what shakes out. This is just an exercise, so let’s not get too wrapped up in line combos and whether or not a player belongs on a first line etc.

*Josh Leivo – Elias Pettersson – *Brock Boeser

Sven Baertschi – Bo Horvat – Tanner Pearson

Jake Virtanen – Adam Gaudette – Brandon Sutter

Tim Schaller – Jay Beagle – Loui Eriksson

*Leivo and Boeser are pending RFAs and are expected to get new deals.

The team also has Ryan Spooner under contract to go along with those pending RFAs Goldobin, Granlund, and Motte.

On the backend, the team currently has the following players under contract:

  1. Troy Stecher
  2. Chris Tanev
  3. Alex Biega
  4. Mitch Eliot
  5. Jalen Chatfield
  6. Jett Woo
  7. Quinn Hughes
  8. Olli Juolevi
  9. Ashton Sautner
  10. Guillaume Brisebois

The club has Ben Hutton, Derrick Pouliot, Josh Teves, and Brogan Rafferty as pending RFAs as well as Alex Edler, Luke Schenn, and Evan McEneny as pending UFAs.

We can expect to see Teves and Rafferty re-signed, while Rick Dhaliwal has reported that Pouliot is not expected to receive a qualifying offer. The team still has to determine what they will do with Hutton, (trade?) Edler, and Schenn. Woo will be heading back to junior unless he blows the doors off of management in camp.

The Canucks have generally kept eight defenders around during Jim Benning’s tenure as GM.

With all of this said, I believe that we will see some trades made during this offseason that will move some of these players out.

I could see the Canucks parking Spooner in Utica if they can’t find a taker for the final year of his deal and they decide they don’t want to buy him out. Tim Schaller fits that mould as well, but I think it might be possible that the team could find a home for him elsewhere. I don’t see the club sending Granlund to Utica if he is re-signed, but I could see a player like Tyler Motte ending up there if he gets another deal and clears waivers on the way down.

On the backend, I think it’s possible that any of Biega, Sautner, and Juolevi could end up with the Comets. I expect Juolevi to start in Utica and that Sautner and Biega will be the seventh/eighth men in Vancouver, but if trades are made, everything could change.

With the ever-changing roster in Utica, I think that it is possible for the Comets to win a Calder Cup before the Canucks hoist Lord Stanley’s Mug. A lot of that will depend on which prospects make the jump to pro hockey at the AHL level in the coming seasons.

That said, the Canucks have done a solid job recently of having their better prospects jump right into the NHL while bypassing the AHL altogether. If that trend continues, the Comets might not have the horses to get the job done.

The Comets had forwards Reid Gardiner, Kyle Thomas, and Brendan Bradley signed to AHL deals and playing in Kalamazoo this year along with defenders Jagger Dirk and Brandon Anselmini. Goaltender Ivan Kulbakov was also there. That represents one full forward line, one full defensive pair, and a goaltender at the ready.

All of those players, with the exception of Bradley, saw time with the Comets this year.

I spoke about this last offseason, but I agree that the team could use their ECHL affiliate in a more effective way. I was suggesting that it might be smart to start Gadjovich in Kalamazoo last year in order to get regular minutes while he was adjusting to the pro level, but many in this market didn’t want to hear that.

The Maple Leafs/Marlies/Growlers have done a great job of maximizing the potential of the ECHL as a development tool and I’ve gone on record as saying that I’d like to see Vancouver, and the rest of the league follow suit.

I am hoping to speak with Comets GM Ryan Johnson at development camp this year so that I can ask him about his intentions as far as the ECHL affiliate is concerned as a development tool.

I think that there are valid arguments for and against both sides of this debate.

The Comets have a fantastic fanbase in Utica who support them to the point of loading up buses full of fans and travelling to other team’s barns on the regular to cheer on their club. The team has no problems with selling out their building, win or lose, the fans are behind them.

With the team in Utica, the players spend far less time away from home. Players spend the bulk of their season sleeping in their own beds rather than in hotel rooms. They spend far less time on the road than they would if they were in the West. That translates into more time for training, video work, practices, and downtime for players’ bodies to recuperate.

On the other hand, if the team was closer to Vancouver…as in, somewhere in BC, the local media would be able to cover the team better than they have been able to. It would be great to be able to drive to the rink and watch games, speak with players, coaching staff and management about any perceived issues. The Vancouver management would be able to keep a closer eye on things as well.

In the West, they would be travelling a lot more, which takes away from all of the benefits laid out above.

What if the team moved from Utica to somewhere in California? Would fans be any happier? The local media wouldn’t be able to drive to the rink and ask their questions. Most fans would get to California to watch a game about as often as they’d get to Utica, so there goes that benefit of having the team closer.

The biggest benefit that I see to having the team closer is the ability to move players back and forth easier, but even that is debatable as the Canucks and Comets both spend half of their seasons playing away from their own building. There is no telling when or where injuries will strike.

The Canucks employ everyone involved with the Utica Comets operations. They have hired people who they trust with running the team whether they are down the road in Abbotsford, or in California, or in Utica.

The transfer agreement between the CHL and the AHL states that players must be over the age of 19 before they can play in the league. This will keep Woo out of Utica to start the season, so it will be Vancouver or the Calgary Hitmen for him.

Woo will be eligible to join the Comets once his WHL season wraps up for 2019/20 and that is what I expect will happen for the right-shot defender.

 

 

 

  • argoleas

    As always, great stuff, and thanks for the detailed answers. I expect a lot of the above will find its way into the season previews, especially once the rosters start filling out. It really looks like management will need to find a replacement for Kero should he not return. Ideally, that replacement and another pivot could form that one-two punch down the middle for a Lind, Jasek, and Zack (if he’s back).

  • Hockey Bunker

    As you lay it out Cory, honestly the Comets aren’t icing many true NHL prospects. That’s a pretty sad looking group. If Juolevi is in the NHL, that leaves DiPietro and the surprising BigFella . The Canucks best prospects appear to be in college.