If and when the Vancouver Canucks get back to business playing hockey, they will have the option to summon some of their prospects/players from Utica up to the big club. The parent club should have a fairly healthy roster of players available to them as it stands, but we all know that players get dinged up in the extra season and it’s a good idea to have some extra bodies around who know the systems and what the coaching staff expects from them.
When we look at the Utica Comets roster, there are a decent number of players who fit the bill in terms of the Black Aces role. We have everything from AHL/NHL tweeners to outright rookies who could end up as part of the Canucks’ taxi-squad, so let’s take a look at who could potentially be called up and their likelihood of getting that assignment.
When pro hockey seasons ground to a halt, the Comets had Mikey DiPietro and Jake Kielly in Utica, while Richard Bachman was overseas playing with IK Oskarshamn in Sweden and the newly acquired Louis Domingue was up with the Canucks with Jacob Markstrom dinged up.
It sounds like Markstrom will be healthy and ready to play and I would expect the same from Thatcher Demko. Domingue and Bachman will both be unrestricted free agents when the actual offseason eventually gets here, while DiPietro and Kielly are the young rookies.
Most likely, one or both of Domingue and DiPietro will be summoned to join the big club. Domingue would give the Canucks a goaltender with 139 regular-season games of NHL experience under his belt if one of Markstrom or Demko gets injured.
In DiPietro’s case, it would just be good to let the young netminder experience the atmosphere of an NHL playoff race/series. Mikey D did well to take the starter’s reigns in Utica this season and I think that being around for any kind of playoff run would make for a nice reward. After all, he was on pace to best Demko’s single-season record for wins on the Comets roster.
Nearly the entire Comets blueline could potentially be called up as all but Dylan Blujus, Stefan LeBlanc, Matt Petgrave, Aaron Thow, and Zach Frye are eligible. Josh Teves and Mitch Eliot got into just 29 and 27 AHL games respectively this year and for that reason, I don’t expect either to get the call.
Ashton Sautner is the oldest of the group as he turns 26 on May 27th and he also has the most games of NHL experience with 23 to his credit. Sautner has picked up three assists in those 23 games while playing a safe and simple game. He got into 51 games with the Comets this season where he was a workhorse on the penalty kill while spending the bulk of his season paired with one of the organization’s coveted rookie defenders. Olli Juolevi and Brogan Rafferty both saw the benefit of lining up with Sautner on their off-side.
Ashton put up one goal and added 11 assists in Utica this year while spending 41 minutes in the penalty box. While he doesn’t pile up the points, Sautner does have a heavy shot, skates well and plays a physical game that might serve him well if he ends up being pressed into duty. He will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season, so a good showing, even as a Black Ace in practice could help Sautner in his quest for a new deal. I could see Sautner as the first defender used if the need arises.
Next up experience-wise is Guillaume Brisebois. Brisebois will turn 23 in July and has a total of eight NHL games under his belt. Although he was called up to the big club this season, all of his NHL games came in the 2018/19 campaign.
Brisebois spent the first half of this season riding shotgun with Brogan Rafferty and we all saw how well things went for Brogan to start the year. That isn’t all due to playing with Brisebois, but Guillaume’s steady game did allow Rafferty to explore his offensive side a little more freely than if he were paired with a less experienced defender.
While Brisebois’ point totals don’t jump off the page, he has improved each season and can be counted on in his own end. Guillaume has been playing big minutes on the penalty kill since early on in his rookie season and shows well in that role. I see Brisebois getting called up.
Brogan Rafferty is next up with the two games of NHL experience that he got into with the Canucks after signing as an undrafted college free agent at the end of the 2018/19 season. Rafferty was held pointless in those two contests but didn’t look out of place at the NHL level.
It seemed from the get-go that the Canucks wanted Rafferty to spend the full season in Utica this year as he didn’t get a sniff with the big club, despite having a fantastic offensive year. Rafferty piled up 45 points in 57 games with the Comets and did some nice work on their first power-play unit.
As the season went on, Rafferty cleaned up some areas of his defensive game and was looking like a guy who was ready for another challenge. That challenge should be at the NHL level, in my opinion as Rafferty has done pretty much all he can be expected to do in his first year of AHL hockey. That said, he didn’t see much time on the penalty kill and that is an area where many defenders at the NHL level will need to show well in order to earn minutes.
If there is an area of his game that could use a bit of improvement, it might be the physical going. Rafferty doesn’t shy away from it… we saw him dish out a couple of big hits this season, but he doesn’t go looking for it either. I’m not suggesting that the player will have to be blowing guys up all over the ice at the NHL level, but it is an area where I feel he could add a touch more aggression. Brogan turns 25 the day after Sautner turns 26 this year. He will be up for the playoffs.
Jalen Chatfield checks in with zero NHL games played, but he has collected a few Airmiles due to being called up to Vancouver. It’s true that Chatfield’s NHL experience has been of the pressbox variety, but the fact that the team has rewarded him with a handful of recalls and has said each time that they wanted to get him into some games, bodes well for the player.
Chatfield isn’t the sexiest name on this list. His offensive starts are nearly non-existent as he has just 17 points in 142 games of AHL experience, but it is the defensive side of the puck where his bread is buttered.
Chatfield, like Brisebois, has been a penalty-killing regular for Trent Cull’s Comets’ since his first season and that is where Chatfield’s game shines. He is a shot-blocking machine and has no issues with getting as greasy as he needs to in order to keep the front of his goaltender’s net clear.
The 24-year-old righty is an effortless skater, which helps him wheel pucks out of his own end, but the offensive instincts seem to fall off once he is in the other team’s end. No matter, as Chatfield does enough defensively to make up for it and he does skate the puck out of his own end on a regular basis. I feel like Chatfield will get the call.
Finally, on the back end, we have Olli Juolevi. We have all talked to death about Olli’s draft position and injury issues. Both have conspired against him in one way or another.
Of all the players in the Canucks’ system, Juolevi might be helped most by the season shutting down early. He had missed a handful of games with hip soreness leading up to the cancellation of the season, but with such a long layoff, he might finally have a healthy, injury-free offseason of training.
Juolevi turned 22 this month and has just 63 games of AHL experience spread over two injury-filled seasons. That said, he has accumulated 38 points over that span to give himself a pretty decent 0.60 points/game for his efforts. I don’t know that those offensive numbers will translate completely to the NHL level, but he looks like a decent bet to help out with some secondary offence.
Juolevi did some great work on the penalty kill this season in Utica where he was fearless as a shot-blocker, showing that even though his body appears to be made of glass, he isn’t afraid to sacrifice it for the betterment of his team.
The issue for Juolevi this year, and last, is his ability to pivot and explode quickly with speed to track down opposing players when they get by him. Olli’s back, knee, and hip issues have kept him from being able to properly train for that kind of movement, resulting in him being beaten wide on the regular. That will have to improve before he is getting regular minutes at the NHL level.
So, who gets the call on the back end? I think we will see Sautner, Brisebois, Chatfield, and Rafferty with the big club in order for them to get the experience of being in that environment. I think Juolevi is also a possibility, but for him it might be so that the team’s trainers can monitor his progress.
This is where things really start to get interesting.
The Comets finished the season with 10 forwards who would be eligible to join the Canucks for a playoff run. Realistically though, there wouldn’t be that many coming up as Black Aces. David Pope was acquired in the trade that sent Alex Biega to Detroit at the start of the year and I think Biega has as much of a chance to play games for Vancouver as Pope does.
Nikolay Goldobin also finished the season with the Comets but we already know that the team has moved on from him as he has announced his intention to play in the KHL next year. I think the chances of Vancouver summoning Goldy for a playoff run are pretty slim, even though the creative playmaker finished second on the Comets with 50 points in 51 games this year.
Francis Perron was acquired at the most recent draft in a swap of Vancouver’s sixth-round pick for San Jose’s seventh-rounder. The 24-year-old was coming off of a season that saw him make the AHL All-Star team and put up 47 points in 63 games, but things didn’t go as well for him this year with the Comets.
Perron got into 42 games with Utica this year, putting up a meagre 18 points as he battled injuries and played out of position. Perron, traditionally a winger, spent a good portion of his campaign playing the middle. I feel like Perron’s game was better suited to the wing, but by the time he was being used there on a regular basis, he had already suffered a serious eye injury that left him with less than perfect vision in his damaged peeper. Frankie is a pending restricted free agent and might end up being allowed to walk as the team shuffles the deck for next year.
Sven Baertschi has more NHL experience than any other player who finished the year in Utica with 291 games at the highest level to his credit. He has 138 points over that span to give himself nearly half a point/game in the NHL. He has shown chemistry with Bo Horvat in the past and is the type of player who could potentially catch lightning in a bottle during a playoff run.
The Canucks have been trying, unsuccessfully, to move Sven for quite some time and may yet have to add a sweetener that they don’t want to in order to move him on, but showing well if he gets into some games could help the matter.
Baertschi stayed healthy in Utica this year, aside from a few games missed due to a high-ankle sprain. That says a lot as he did not shy away from physical play… in fact, he was often seen initiating it. He finished fourth on the team in scoring, but his 46 points in 43 games were second only to Boucher in terms of points/game. Sven is a guy who could potentially slot into any line on the team if needed, but we also have to remember that the Canucks elected to leave him in Utica while calling up Zack MacEwen and Justin Bailey this year. I’m on the fence with Sven.
Speaking of Justin Bailey… the man with the lightning legs finished third on the Comets in scoring after a career-year that saw him put up 28 goals and 47 points in 53 games. Bailey led the team with 11 power-play goals this year while also taking on an important role on the penalty kill.
TheGentleman’s size and speed are an enticing package and make him a good fit for a look on any of the Canucks lines if the coaching staff is looking for a jolt to their lineup. He was an all situations player for the Comets this year and isn’t one to take any shifts off. I feel like he could have made a good impression on Travis Green if given a little more time with the Canucks. Bailey will get the call.
How do we talk about potential Black Aces without mentioning the man who sits atop the Comets’ record books? Reid Boucher has been making a mockery of the AHL for the past three seasons as he has piled up 175 points in 154 regular-season games. He has gone from an offensive weapon to a dangerous 200-foot player who eats minutes on the penalty kill and is a threat to score shorthanded.
Skating will always be the thing that holds Reid back as the rest of his game is quite sound. He seeks out physical play and isn’t afraid to get his nose dirty. He doesn’t back down from much larger players when the going gets rough and is, by all accounts, a tireless worker in practice. I’m not sure how many games he would get into, but I do think that Reid will be one of the players who gets the nod.
Tyler Graovac… we barely saw the man play this year, but he was fun to watch when he was available. The 27-year-old played just 11 games for the Comets after call-ups and the resulting injuries kept him in Vancouver for the bulk of the year.
Gravy picked up three points in those 11 games with the Comets while adding two more in eight games with the Canucks. He plays the middle but can also slot in on the wing, making him a versatile player. Couple that with the fact that he was used on both special teams in Utica as well as the power play in Vancouver and he seems like a guy who the coaches in the organization have some level of trust in.
Gravoac showed some nifty moves during his time in Utica and looked to be a player who Travis Green had some time for in Vancouver, so I would expect to see him with the team if healthy.
Now we come to the trio of Kole Lind, Jonah Gadjovich, and Lukas Jasek. All three had differing levels of success in Utica this year, but Lind is the one whose season looked to take the biggest step forward.
Kole was the only Comet to play in all 61 games and he managed 44 points for his efforts, putting himself sixth overall in scoring on the team. The fact that he played in every game this year is a big step forward after missing a good deal of games due to injuries last season. He played a prime role on the first power-play unit all season and by the end of the year was even seeing some spot duty on the penalty kill.
Lind showed a level of confidence in his game this year that wasn’t as apparent last year and that allowed him to bring a feisty edge. That edge helped Kole force a pile of turnovers in all three zones as he was much more aggressive than he was in his rookie year. I don’t really see how the team wouldn’t bring Kole up, at the very least to reward him for taking the steps that he did this year. That feisty edge? It also helped Kole finish second on the team in penalty minutes this year with 64.
Jonah Gadjovich actually played fewer games in his second season than he did in his first, but the major difference is that he didn’t get the healthy scratch treatment at all this year. Jonah played in 43 games in his rookie year, putting up four goals and six assists, along with 32 penalty minutes. He was a regular healthy scratch last year as the jump from junior proved to be a steep one for him. This year, he played just 38 games, but scored 13 goals and added four assists… and another 32 penalty minutes.
Gadjovich had injury issues this year that kept him out of the lineup more than anyone would like, but when he was in, he was an effective energy player who showed a willingness to throw down with anyone who took liberties with his teammates… creating a safe working environment, if you will.
Scoring 13 goals in limited minutes, in limited games, showed that Jonah has some deft hands… especially in tight around the net where the bulk of his goals came from. Like Reid Boucher, Jonah will have to continue to work on his skating if he wants to earn a regular paycheck at the NHL level, but I think there is an outside shot of him at least getting to experience the Black Ace scenario this year.
Last on our list today is Lukas Jasek. Lukas was on pace for a career-year in terms of points before the league shut down, and had already bested last year’s goal total by five. He played nearly the entire season out of position as a winger in the middle and although he had some struggles defensively, he filled that role admirably.
Jasek saw a little bit of time on the second power-play unit but was an absolute fixture on the penalty kill. Trent Cull used Lukas in much the same way that we saw Travis Green using Markus Granlund when he was still with the organization. Jasek skates well and is a dogged worker along the boards… when he is playing the wing and has a sneaky release on his shot.
Lukas is a hard worker and the team might want to reward that with some time up during the playoffs, but I’m not sure how realistic it would be for him to see any time in games.
At the end of the day, it’s kind of cool to have a few more prospects who could see some Black Ace time than in recent memory… let’s hope that any who get the chance to play do the Comets proud!