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Utica Comets 2019-20 Season Preview

UTICA, N.Y. – This Saturday night marks the start of a new beginning for the Utica Comets, the dawn of a completely different team that will look to put its disappointing 2018-19 season in the rearview mirror.
It wouldn’t be wrong to describe the 2019-20 Utica Comets as a completely different team, but it truly is the dawn of a new era of Comets hockey. A stable of Utica staples and veterans the like who won’t be returning to the lineup this season, a group that includes Evan McEneny, Darren Archibald, Brendan Gaunce, Jaime Sifers and Thatcher Demko.
The big question fans will be asking this season is, “has this organization done enough to replace those that have been lost along the way?”
Last season saw the Comets hemorrhage players to call-ups and injuries, by this writers count, over 430 man-games were lost due to injury and over 280 man-games lost due to call-ups to the Vancouver Canucks. Between the constant shuffling of players to IR, to the NHL and trades that saw the team lose several key offensive contributors over the course of the season, the Comets showed that they simply didn’t have the depth that is required to survive multiple major absences while trudging through grueling schedule of the AHL.
Comets and Canucks fans should be excited for this season as prospects such as Zack MacEwen, and Guillaume Brisebois had promising preseason showings and look to be on the cusp of breaking into the NHL for more than just a cup of coffee. Not to mention other surprises like Brogan Rafferty and Tyler Graovac who showed NHL poise in their limited showings.
There are also the handful of young prospects entering their second year as pros, who aim to take the next step in their games and be reliable contributors to the Comets forward group, guys that include Lukas Jasek, Kole Lind and Jonah Gadjovich.

Nuts and Bolts:

2018-19 Record: 34-34-6-2 (76 points)
Division/Conference Finish: 6th in North Division, 13th in Eastern Conference
Goals For per Game: 2.95 (21st in AHL)
Goals Against per Game: 3.38 (27th in AHL)
Power Play: 61 goals for on 339 opportunities (18% efficiency — 17th in AHL)
Penalty Kill: 62 goals against on 308 attempts (79.9% kill rate — 22nd in AHL)

Trending Topics:

Sophomore slump, or comeback of the year? The Comets young guns were taken to task last season, struggling mightily to play up to the expectation level set upon them by management, fans, and themselves. It might be a bit backwards, but I believe the expectations for the rookies that struggled last season have been raised even higher for this season. “What it takes to be a successful AHL player” was the big takeaway last year, now with a full offseason of training and preparation, the pressure is on these sophomores to be able to put it all together and contribute offense befitting their original expectations.
The two guys who caught in the spotlight for much of last season, Kole Lind and Jonah Gadjovich, are quick to admit how unprepared they were for the rigors of the AHL lifestyle and schedule.
In an interview with Canucksarmy.com’s Cory Hergott at Canucks rookie training camp, Lind has as much to say about just how hard that adjustment to pro hockey was:

“It was a big change for me…it was a big eye opener. i had to adjust my game, getting quicker mentally and just making those plays a little quicker than what i’m used to playing from junior.”

In another interview Hergott, Gadjovich echoed similar sentiments:

“Everyone is my size or bigger, i mean, you go from junior, and i was a big strong guy, and i’m still strong. it’s just when you’re playing against every guy who’s basically your size, then you have to adjust your game and that was something i was –trying to figure out.”

Now that they’ve had their first taste of pro hockey, the real test begins as the two highly touted second-rounder’s attempt to re-stake their value on the Canucks depth chart and prove they can hang in the big boy leagues.
It’s certainly a tall task, not just for Lind and Gadjovich, but for the host of other young players in the Canucks prospect pool, who will look to build on the strong impressions they left in NHL preseason games and look to leapfrog their way up the depth charts to hopefully earn that cup of coffee with the team during the regular season.
Calm before the Storm: The Canucks should be proud that they’ve assembled, what looks to be, a pretty solid d-core for the season. That said, every true Canuck fan knows that their d-core can’t stay healthy or together forever; the universe demands balance in this regard! When that time comes, the big concern turns to the team’s lack of veteran defensemen to supplant the team in the event of another injury armageddon.
Last season, the team had an experience defense group that consisted of Sifers, Ashton Sautner, Dylan Blujus, and McEneny, with brief appearances from Alex Biega and Luke Schenn. To start the season, only three of these players were regulars in the rotation and by the end of the season; just two were in the lineup, with Sifers being the lone veteran to appear in more than 60 games.
This is where I get into the cosmic balance thing…while injuries befell Alex Edler and Chris Tanev, the Comets went through their own stretches of brutal injuries; injuries that decimated the available depth and left the Comets relying on ECHL PTO’s to play HUGE integral first pair and second pair minutes in front of less than stellar goaltending.
Some of these brutal injuries:

  • Olli Juolevi blows out his knee 18 games into the season – done for the year
  • Jalen Chatfield breaks foot at same time as Juolevi – misses three months of play
  • Ashton Sautner, has face caved in by an elbow from Eric Tangradi – misses two months, returns for six games then spends rest of season with the Canucks
  • Dylan Blujus gets injured the game before Sautner’s return – misses a month and a half
  • Same time Blujus gets injured, Guillaume Brisebois gets called up and essentially remains with the Canucks for the remainder of the season
  • Evan McEneny tragically blows out his knee with less than a month and half remaining in the schedule

Essentially, the final two and a half months of the Comets 2018-19 season, they were consistently out four to six of their seven veteran defensemen every single game – it’s no coincidence that in that same timespan that the Comets posted a less than stellar record of 11-16-3-0.
Now, we can’t think too negatively yet, as the season has yet to start and maybe luck is finally on the team’s side! But, should injuries befall the Canucks (as they do), does this MUCH younger, veteran-less defensive group for the Comets, have what it takes to step up in the absence of their best players in the event of call-ups due to injuries at the NHL level?
Dead on Arrival: The waiver wire on Monday as NHL teams looked to finalize their rosters lead to some heated exchanges, after centerman Adam Gaudette left the Canucks no choice but to make roster space for him. What fans didn’t expect though was the waiving of top-six staple, Sven Baertschi, who was papered down alongside perennial seventh defenseman Alex Biega and struggling Russian winger Nikolay Goldobin. The question now that they’ve cleared to play for Utica is…do they even have room to play?
The AHL mandates that teams can only play six veterans in any AHL game, the five veterans being those who’ve played more than 320 professional hockey games and one of those six being classified a “veteran exemption” player that has only played between 260 and 320 professional games. The remaining 13 in the lineup are classified as developmental players who’ve played less than 260 professional games.
With Baertschi, Biega and Goldobin added to the Utica roster, they now have seven veterans as well as two veteran exempts (VE). With Gaudette (the only developmental center in the Canucks system) up with the NHL, this complicates things when it comes to figuring out a starting lineup each night to ensure everyone gets their fair share of ice time.
Veteran Class

  • Tyler Graovac
  • Carter Camper
  • Alex Biega
  • Reid Boucher
  • Sven Baertschi
  • Wacey Hamilton
  • Carter Bancks

Veteran Exempt class

  • Nikolay Goldobin
  • Justin Bailey

No doubt, any combination of these two groups is going to force prospects down the lineup outside of the top-six and push established veterans to the press box. One of the most widely criticized aspects of the Utica Comets last year was the perceived poor-development and ice time allocated to prospects…with this additional bloating of the roster, the Canucks and Comets are likely heading down a path that demands even further critique of their ability to develop prospects for the NHL.

Coach Speak:

Prior to the Canucks training camp opening, head coach Trent Cull dropped this little nugget of gold that riled up Canucks nation!

“I’m excited. I like some of the depth signings Vancouver made. From the outside in and looking at Vancouver, they have a glut of forwards. Hopefully that turns into a glut of forwards for us. You might get an opportunity to see some players in Utica who, maybe, we wouldn’t normally see. So that could be a good thing for us.”

Worth Watching:

Lukas Jasek: In a season dominated by talks of Petrus Palmu leaving for more ice-time, Jonathan Dahlen being traded and having not so great things to say about his time with Utica and the general shortcomings of Lind and Gadjovich, Jasek had himself a quietly impressive season.
Having spent his previous three seasons floating between various Czech men’s leagues vying for ice-time, Jasek blew the doors off when he made his debut late in the 2017-18 season, scoring three goals and four assists in just six games played, and he quietly had himself an impressive offensive season while floating up and down the lineup in all positions of the ice.
Jasek ended the season leading all rookies in goals and assists, but more impressively earning 75% of his points at even strength while also leading the team in even-strength on-ice goal differential, an impressive feat for a rookie player in a new country, in his first season of pro hockey on North American ice.
Now that he’s got a taste of the North American game, look for him to take the next step in his development and improve his offensive game in what might be a new permanent home for him, at center.
Zack MacEwen: Everyone loves a great underdog story, and MacEwen’s is certainly one for the ages. From barely getting ice-time on the fourth line as double overager in the QMJHL, to a cup of coffee in the NHL in just two years, to say his growth as a player has been astounding would be an understatement. Not since Alex Burrows have the Canucks seen a player work their way up from nothing to earn a shot with the NHL club; and not just earn a shot, but demand a shot, MacEwen had himself a career year last season, posting 22 goals and 30 assists in 69 games played.
Despite a rather quiet preseason, MacEwen’s skating and physicality appear to have not taken any steps back, and in the absence of Brendan Gaunce, he might just be the go-to all situations guy for Trent Cull this season and find himself, once again, leaving the Canucks no choice but to call him up for another NHL opportunity.
Brogan Rafferty: Fans were calling Brogan Rafferty, the next Troy Stecher for the Canucks organization, and after his preseason, it’s hard to not get excited about what he can show at the AHL level to see if he, like Zack MacEwen last season, can force the Canucks hand and leave them no choice but to give him a chance with the club.
I liked his poise and his puck handling for a guy with just two games of pro-experience last season. Giant asterisk, yes, its NHL preseason, so maybe don’t read too much into it, but it is hard to not get excited about a young defensemen who can tee up shots on goal from the blue line; especially in the wake of the Comets losing McEneny and Sifers, the Comets do need someone who can drop bombs from the blue line and if Rafferty can fill that void then that increases his value to this young core and easily pushes him to being THE sleeper pick to watch this season.

Gone but Not Forgotten:

Evan McEneny: Despite essentially skating on a leg-and-a-half last season, McEneny was an incredibly stable defender and offensive contributor for the Comets last season – the Canucks opting to not qualify his contract could bite them if the Comets young D-core can’t put it together.
Tanner Kero: It’s always hard to say goodbye to a borderline NHL fourth line center who puts up career numbers in his lone season with the team. The numbers say Graovac can replace his production, but can he find the same chemistry with Boucher that Kero did?
Brendan Gaunce: His time was clearly up with the organization, but a versatile center/winger that can distribute the puck and kill penalties, that’s always a tough asset to lose for your burgeoning young group of players, especially when it’s to a conference rival.

Sin Bin Swami Sez:

It will take a lot to go right for this young Comets team to find success this season, steady goaltending, reliable defending from the top-six, solid penalty killing and decent offensive contribution from the third and fourth lines; it’s quite the laundry list that you just don’t want to impose on a team as young as the 2019-20 Comets, and because the Comets need so many things to go their way before even considering the likelihood of major injuries, I can’t in good conscience pick them to finish higher than sixth in the AHL’s North Division.
Likely, this will be the second season in a row and fourth time overall, that the Comets miss the playoffs entirely.
If they do make playoffs, I’ll be excited, because that means the proverbial “steps” will have been taken by this young core of players.

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