The Utica Comets have only been in existence for three years - but what a three years they have been. This season preview will take a look at what we can expect from our AHL affiliate, as they attempt to return to the Calder Cup Finals in what has become a very competitive league.
HOW HAVE THE COMETS DONE SO FAR?
The Comets' 2013/14 inaugural season saw them finish just outside the playoff race, led in scoring by Pascal Pelletier and Cal O'Reilly and seeing young stars such as Alex Grenier, Nicklas Jensen and Frank Corrado take steps forward. As a foundational season, it was as good as one could expect.
The following season, 2014/15, saw the team achieve something extraordinary: a Calder Cup Finals loss to the Manchester Monarchs. With a Monarchs team paced heavily by the free-scoring pair of Brian O'Neill and Jordan Weal, ably assisted by Michael Mersch, Nick Shore and Sean Backman, the young Comets could not deliver come the hour. The season was quite incredible however, with the Comets winning the Robert W. Clarke Trophy as the Western Conference Champions and seeing playoff contributions from Sven Baertschi (15pts in 21 Playoff games), Alex Grenier (15 in 23), Brendan Gaunce (9 in 21) and Hunter Shinkaruk (8 in 23). This team was inexperienced, but was taken forward by a combination of a brilliant coach (Travis Green), a fantastic captain (Cal O'Reilly), and the sheer can-do attitude of a deep roster. The Canucks TV team did a great end-of-season review for this one:
Last season saw a slight dip in performance. O'Reilly moved on, as did several other veterans, leaving gaps in the roster for more youngsters to fill. They did just that - Alex Grenier leading the team in scoring with 48pts, with support from Hunter Shinkaruk (39pts in 45 before he was traded), Brendan Gaunce (38 in 46) and even Jordan Subban (36 in 67). However this young team was taken out by a very deep Albany Devils team featuring NHL players Damon Severson, Pavel Zacha, Reid Boucher, Joe Blandisi and Brian O'Neill (him again).
The coming season has seen yet more turnover but, for once, the line-up will depend on which players the Canucks decide to keep up, rather than acquire to flesh out the ranks.
WHAT WILL THE ROSTER LOOK LIKE?
At this very early stage this is somewhat tricky to deduce, as the Canucks will need a full training camp to determine the futures of (amongst others) Jake Virtanen, Brendan Gaunce, Alex Biega, Andrey Pedan, Nikita Tryamkin, Alex Grenier, Anton Rodin and Mike Zalewski. My current guess (and we'll all differ on this) is that neither Gaunce nor Virtanen make the opening night Canucks roster, as they'll be sent down for development purposes allowing Rodin to stay with the Nucks, with Zalewski as the scratch. Biega will make way for Pedan, while Tryamkin starts on the Nucks' 3rd pairing with Larsen.
This therefore is my best guess as to how the Comets will line up when puck drops on their first game of the 2016/17 season, on October 15th against the Toronto Marlies:
Brendan Gaunce - Jayson Megna - Jake Virtanen
Borna Rendulic - Michael Chaput - Alex Grenier
Carter Bancks - Cole Cassels - Darren Archibald
Derek Hulak - Wacey Hamilton - Mackenzie Stewart
Scratches/Alaska Aces: Michael Carcone, Yan Pavel Laplante, Joseph LaBate, Cody Kunyk
Alex Biega - Jordan Subban
John Negrin - Troy Stecher
Chad Billins - Ashton Sautner
Scratches/Alaska Aces: David Shields - Tom Nilsson
Backup: Thatcher Demko
Scratch/Alaska Aces: Michael Garteig
More players will sign, some will depart, but that is probably the deepest Utica team in the team's history. Players will move up and down the line-up (and I'm far from an expert on projected Comets lines), but there are more talented players than roster spots. The new arrangement with the Alaska Aces will allow Michael Garteig some starting time, as well as some of the younger signings such as Carcone and Laplante.
Who will lead the team?
In terms of leadership, you cannot look past Alex Biega. I can't see him sticking on the Nucks roster, not with Philip Larsen and Andrey Pedan there, so I believe he is passed through waivers and ends up as Captain in Utica. He'll have vets in Negrin and Billins behind him, with the determined youth of Subban and Stecher on the back line. It's a dynamic D core.
Scoring will come down to Gaunce, Virtanen, Grenier and the three veterans Rendulic, Megna and Chaput. I expect one of those may depart before the season begins, as Carter Bancks is due a top six spot. I am excited to see Gaunce and Virtanen take serious scoring responsibility, to play in all situations and put up some big numbers. With Subban on the PP, I believe both can top 50pts this season.
Where will the Comets finish?
With such a competitive league, you cannot guarantee a conference title; I believe this Comets team will easily make the playoff however, and with a little bit of luck (and however the season unfolds), perhaps another deep playoff run.
Verdict: Round 2 or better.
So how are you feeling about the Utica Comets this season - excited? Uninterested? Hopeful? Expectant? Leave your comments below and we'll see how these young guns go as we look at their progress with weekly updates.