Which Utica Comets from the 2019/20 squad are ready for NHL duty?
Photo credit:© Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports
By Cory Hergott2 years ago
Who is ready if called upon?
When you cover the AHL affiliate of an NHL team, you will often be asked one question more often than others. In my three seasons of “riding the bus” with the Utica Comets, the question that I have been asked most would be: “Is insert player name here ready if called upon?”
I have always tried to be careful with how I answer that question. There are many things to consider before replying. At the end of the day, I usually tend to shift the answer to whether or not I feel that a player is ready to play a regular shift for Travis Green, as that is who will ultimately make the call. The other main consideration is what the team is in need of at the time of any recall.
Some players, as we have seen in recent seasons with the Vancouver Canucks will step right into the NHL and have success. Others will have to spend some time plying their trade in the AHL in order to iron out enough wrinkles to earn the chance for an audition at the highest level.
If you’ve started your season in the AHL, it likely means that you have areas of your game that aren’t yet up to snuff to play in the best league in the world, or your particular skillset no longer a fit for the parent club.
The Utica Comets had players who fit both descriptions on their roster last year and we could see more of the same in this shortened season. Today we will try to answer which Comets from last season who are still around “are ready if called upon.”
- Sven Baertschi: LW/RW, 28-years-old.
- Tyler Graovac: C/W, 27-years-old.
- Justin Bailey: LW/RW, 25-years-old.
- Kole Lind: RW/LW, 22-years-old.
- Lukas Jasek: W/C, 23-years-old.
- Jonah Gadjovich: LW/RW, 22-years-old.
- Ashton Sautner: LD/RD, 26-years-old.
- Jalen Chatfield: RD, 24-years-old.
- Guillaume Brisebois: LD, 23-years-old.
- Brogan Rafferty: RD, 25-years-old.
- Olli Juolevi: LD, 22-years-old.
- Josh Teves: LD, 25-years-old, (turns 26 in mid-February).
- Mitch Eliot: RD, 22-years-old, (turns 23 in early February).
- Mikey DiPietro: G, 21-years-old.
- Jake Kielly: G, 24-years-old.
As you can see from the list above, the team has six forwards who remain from last season, along with seven defenders and two goaltenders. With a shortened season, I feel like the Canucks could end up having to test more of their depth than they’d like to. Some of these names could end up getting a look, whether the team feels they are ready or not.
For the purposes of this exercise, we need to stroke a couple of these names off the list straight away. Josh Teves and Mitch Eliot both spent time in the ECHL with the Kalamazoo Wings last season and didn’t really see enough time at the AHL level to make them a legitimate option at the NHL level this season. I will be keeping an eye on both with the Comets this season. Netminder Jake Kielly is in a similar boat.
The other two players who likely need more seasoning before being considered for NHL duty this season are Lukas Jasek and Jonah Gadjovich. I’m not sure that Travis Green would have had time for either player to get a cup of coffee with the Canucks in a normal season, so I think they are longshots to get a sniff in this truncated campaign.
Sven went to Utica last season and put up 13 goals and 33 assists to give himself 46 points in 43 games. That’s decent production for an AHL forward, but you’d hope for more from someone with nearly 300 NHL games under his belt and making over $3M per season. Sven played in all situations in Utica and had some of the better linemates available to him on most nights. He worked hard and by all accounts was a good teammate and from early reports, more of the same is going on with him at camp this year. We can’t question the effort level of the player.
At this point in his career, and with where the Canucks are in their trajectory, it looks like even though Sven probably still has the chops to hang at the NHL level for some teams, he might not be a fit for this group for anything beyond spot duty as a stop-gap measure in an injury situation.
Graovac’s injury-plagued season saw him spend more time with the big club, but playing in more games for the Comets. In his eight games with Vancouver, he managed two points and played a bit on both special teams. In Utica, he picked up three points in eleven games. He kinda is what he is. Is this a player who will be a long-term piece here that can grow with the young core? In a word, no.
What Graovac can be for this team is exactly what he has been for the bulk of his pro career. A player who can rip it up on the minor league team while playing a responsible two-way game and helping young prospects develop with a capable linemate with great habits.
Alternatively, Graovac can be the big club’s extra forward and not hurt them when pressed into duty. The fact that he can line up at any forward position and play in all situations helps his cause. Ideally, you’d want his skating to be a bit more fluid for the NHL level, but for his role, he gets by.
If there is someone on this list whose skating will never be in question, it is Justin Bailey. Dude has wheels for days and that is more than apparent to anyone who has seen him step onto the ice. Bailey spent the bulk of his time in the AHL last season and he had a fantastic season, picking up 47 points in 53 games while going pointless in his two games with Vancouver.
The speedy winger, (I wonder how many times those three words have been strung together when describing Bailey?) did it all in Utica last year. He was a fixture on the power play and spent some time on the penalty kill where he was always a shorthanded threat due to his breakaway speed. Some players are fast in a straight line, but Bailey is agile as well… and not just agile “for a big man,” he can put you on your heels and dance past you at speed.
Bailey didn’t look confident in his pair of games with the Canucks last year, but I do think that he can help the team in a sheltered role if they need a temporary fix. He’s a smart player and has a nice skill level, but his defensive game might still need a little more work for a full-time role with the big club.
Some extra time working with the skills coaches and NHL practices on the taxi-squad might be just what Bailey needs in order to take the next step if he is to indeed ever take it.
Kole made sizable strides in his second season of pro hockey, going from a rookie year that saw him struggle to adapt to the pro ranks as well as being on the wrong side of a couple of injuries that took him out of the lineup for long stretches, to being the only player on the team to play every game this season and finishing sixth on the team in scoring, only three points behind third-place Bailey. Kole had it going on in his second season.
Lind played up and down the lineup, played both wings and even saw a stretch of games where he played the middle. He was a staple on the power play and by the end of the season was taking all the faceoffs on the first unit. Kole showed confidence and with that came the emergence of the pesky game that we saw from him in junior. His play after the whistles really got under the skin of his opponents.
We saw Kole using his stick and body well in all three zones to force turnovers and that created a lot of offensive opportunities for his line. Lind skates well and is a terrific playmaker. He also has enough size/moxy to back up his feisty game without having to hide behind his teammates.
Is Kole ready for a regular shift under Travis Green? Not yet, in my opinion, but I do think that he would be able to hold his own in sheltered minutes if thrust into duty. I would like to see Kole worked into regular PK duty with the Comets this season in order to help his overall defensive awareness. I think he processes the game more than well enough to get a look there and I think it would give him a better chance of becoming an NHL player.
Ashton Sautner has been a rock for the Utica Comets for a few seasons now. He plays a no-frills/no-nonsense game and has been trusted in the most pressure-packed situations that his team finds themselves in. Sautner isn’t going to blow your hair back with highly-skilled plays, or massive bone-crushing hits, but he will get the job done.
Need someone to park on the left side of your raw rookie prospect in the AHL? Sautner is your guy. Need someone to park on the right side of a different raw rookie? Ditto. Need a shot-blocking, physical defender who eats minutes on the PK? He does that too.
Ashton skates well and can deliver a crisp pass to break his team out of his zone. He also had one of the harder shots on last year’s team according to Kole Lind. Sautner won’t shy away from the physical going and can indeed get downright creative with his stick in close quarters when needed. I’ve seen Sautner get away with some pretty hefty whacks when someone is somewhere that he doesn’t want them to be.
Is Sautner the name that jumps off of everyone’s tongue when talking about prospects? No, and at 26-years of age, he probably shouldn’t be. That said, I do think that he can come in and play a regular shift on the Canucks’ third pair for stretches as needed. Do they have other players there already who do similar things? Sure, but Sautner is a solid option as a tweener who can handle a role.
Like Sautner, Jalen Chatfield has been a minute-munching defender who has been counted on to do some heavy lifting. The offensive numbers just aren’t there for Jalen, and as long as you aren’t expecting him to produce points, he probably won’t disappoint you.
Being a right-shot defender helps Chatfield’s cause as there aren’t all that many in the system. A Travis Green team tends to prefer defenders playing on their natural side, although we have seen some exceptions.
The other thing that will help Chatfield in Green’s eyes is his all-out desire to be the best penalty killer on the planet. Chatfield takes immense pride in his play on the kill. It’s a role that he’s thrived in going back to his days in junior and it didn’t take long in his rookie season of pro before he was a regular on Trent Cull’s PK units.
Jalen has the smoothest of skating strides and that helps him leg pucks out of his own end with success. His play also seems to climb a notch when the physical going gets a little heavier. He’s not a bone crusher, but Chatfield can dish out a stiff hit and isn’t afraid to take one if it means making the right play.
I think Jalen is ready for that 6/7/8th defenceman role at the NHL level.
Brisebois spent a good deal of his first AHL season playing on his off-side and showed well enough in that role to earn a good deal of minutes on the penalty kill. Two seasons later and he continues to refine his game, but has done it more often back on his natural left side.
Guillaume has shown steady if unspectacular improvement from season to season since turning pro. He hasn’t been lighting the AHL ablaze with his point totals, but he has managed to provide a bit more secondary offence from the backend than Sautner and Chatfield have.
Like Chatfield and Sautner, Brisebois has taken on his share of penalty killing duties and has fared reasonably well. He has the trust of the coaching staff to play some of those important minutes on the kill. He skates well and has a sneaky quick release on his shot. It’s something that I would like to see him use more often.
Brisebois has decent size and he could stand to use that to his advantage a little more often as well. I’d like to see him develop a bit of a mean streak, but I’m just not sure that he is that kind of player. He’s got eight NHL games under his belt so far, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he does indeed add to those totals, but it might take a pile of injuries before he gets a look this year.
Rafferty is an interesting case for me. He was offensively dominant last year in the AHL, setting a new team record for points in a season by a defender for the Comets. His 45 points in 57 games were very impressive. He did great work on the powerplay and improved his game month after month in his rookie campaign. What more can one ask of him at the AHL level?
Brogan is 25-years-old and was coming off of a successful NCAA career. He is closer to a finished product than players like Brisebois, Juolevi, Jack Rathbone, etc. He was playing the type of game that one would expect from him at that point in his career.
Rafferty skates well, though it’s an area that he himself has suggested needs a little bit of fine-tuning. That said, he had no issues skating the puck out of his own end and even fewer when he issued a quick pass up the ice. Rafferty has fantastic offensive instincts as his point totals attest.
We saw Brogan dish out a few very solid hits this past season as well, although his physical game is an area that could maybe do with a little bit more attention. I don’t need him to be blowing the opposition up with massive hits, but a little more edge in his game wouldn’t hurt.
Rafferty does solid work in his own end and I think that if he had been rotated into penalty-killing duty more last season that he would be right at the top of the list of players ready to take a spot. I feel like that is the one thing that will push him to the front of the pack.
Can Brogan Rafferty play a regular NHL shift for Travis Green right now? Yes, I think he could handle it with the right partner, but I also think that spending this season in Utica eating minutes on the penalty-kill would give him that extra edge to earn a spot out of camp next season and not look back.
Olli Juolevi has been such a polarizing prospect since being drafted. He has battled injuries since and that has slowed his progress to the point that many consider him to be a bust. I do not fall into that camp.
The back, hip, and knee injuries have severely hampered his efforts to properly train his body for the rigours of a season and have kept him in a seemingly perpetual cycle of rehab after rehab. Now that he has had an injury-free offseason to actually train his body to compete, I believe that he will start to show us what he can actually be as an NHL defenceman.
Olli has played big minutes in Utica on both special teams, but his work on the penalty kill is what will endear him to Travis Green. Juolevi has a Chris Tanev-like disregard for his own health when it comes to blocking shots on the kill. For a guy who has seemingly been held together by tape and bubblegum since his draft day, Juolevi has no qualms about sacrificing his body to do his job.
If he does indeed make the Canucks roster out of camp, Juolevi does not need to be a top-four option. He can be broken in slowly on the third pair while getting some time on the penalty kill. I do see a role for him with the Canucks out of camp and I feel like he will become a player who Travis Green will trust over time.
Juolevi has a good mind for the game. Once his body catches up, he should be able to have a long career as a steady, reliable NHL defender.
Mikey D wrestled the starter’s job from Zane McIntyre early last season and he had no intentions of relinquishing it. It was a pleasure to watch DiPietro play last season as you could see him dialling in his game with each outing. The sprawling, diving saves were still there, but they were fewer and farther between. In their place was a composed, alert DiPietro who looked to be tracking pucks more efficiently and streamlining his game.
Mikey D has the perfect personality/demeanour to be an effective netminder. He doesn’t let a bad goal get to him, in fact, I’m pretty sure if you looked up the phrase “water off a duck’s back” you would see a photo of DiPietro with a mile-wide smile on his face.
That isn’t to say that he is some sort of throwback, flakey goalie who doesn’t take his business seriously. Quite the opposite, indeed. I spoke with Comets President Robert Esche last season and when I brought up DiPietro’s name, Esche gushed about the kid’s work ethic. Esche told me that in all of his time in hockey that he has never seen anyone work as hard as DiPietro does… go have a look at some of the players that Esche played with over his career and let that sink in for a second.
Do I think that Mike DiPietro can play NHL games this year if called upon? I mean, I think we might end up finding out if the Canucks don’t add another netminder to their squad.
I’m on the fence as to whether I’d rather see DiPietro gobbling up minutes at the AHL and continuing to develop with actual game action, or if I’d rather see him as the taxi-squad goalie and getting to spend this shortened season getting into NHL level practices and working with goalie guru Ian Clark every day.
I think DiPietro could show well enough if pressed into duty, but I don’t think that he needs to be rushed either. He is young and has plenty of time.
Recent articles from Cory Hergott
- Comets Weekly: Jack Rathbone scores first AHL goal while defence partner Jett Woo leads the team in plus-minus
- ‘This has been a perfect opportunity for me’: A one-on-one with Canucks prospect Jett Woo after his first month of pro hockey
- Comets Weekly: Utica goes 2-0, Rathbone lights it up, Gadjovich, Lind, Jasek, and Woo keep improving