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NM Roundtable: Utica Comets Edition

Our writers give their takes on Rafferty, Juolevi, DiPietro & the best new Comets to watch next season.

Ottawa Senators v Vancouver Canucks
Michael DiPietro (right) congratulates Thatcher Demko (left) after a win. Will the two form a tandem for the Canucks at some point down the road? Our writers offer their takes below.
Getty Images

Not only were the Vancouver Canucks robbed of a potential playoff push, but the Utica Comets saw their postseason chase grind to a halt as well.

Utica was actually in a better position to make the AHL playoffs, holding a four point lead on a spot in their division with a game in-hand.

For today’s roundtable, we’re going to take a look at some of the prospects who made an impact this year, what their future roles might be, and who we should look forward to watching in Utica next season.

Vancouver Canucks v St Louis Blues
Brogan Rafferty (left) in NHL action against the St. Louis Blues. Will he return to the NHL for the Vancouver Canucks in 2020-21?
Getty Images

1. Let’s start with arguably the Canucks most impressive prospect in Utica this season. Brogan Rafferty was the Comets best defenceman and with a one-way contract next year, he’s seems like a good bet to make the jump? How do you see his season playing out next year? Does he stick around in the NHL full-time?

Westy - Before jimmi says it “Next year?” When starts back and the official “next year” begins, I think he makes the team just because of salary cap issues.

jimmi - If there is a next year. Which isn’t looking good.

Strang (@noahstrang_) - I think Rafferty could make the jump full time next year but I also think expectations are a bit high. Rafferty scored at an impressive rate in the AHL but his defensive game worries me a little bit and the success of recent Canucks rookies may have inflated expectations among fans. I expect him to have a very up and down season as he learns to adjust but I hope he proves me wrong.

Rob - Rafferty will be amongst the 7 or 8 D-men on the Canucks back-line roster to open next season. By the end of the season, he and Quinn Hughes will form the most offensively dynamic defence-pairing in the NHL.

Markus - Yeah I think Rafferty makes the jump next season, and I think the bigger question is in what capacity. There is a world — a scary one, albeit — wherein the team loses both Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher, and Rafferty plays a top four role. It’s also conceivable that he’s more a 7/8. I’ll split the difference and say he’s likely to be a bottom pair guy (alongside Jordie Benn, Oscar Fantenberg, or Nikita Tryamkin), and get some PP2 time. I liked what I saw late in 2018-19, and obviously he had a great season in Utica, so I feel pretty confident in saying he’ll make the jump.

Kevin Wong (@CambieKev) - Brogan Rafferty might be the most NHL-ready player in Utica right now and I think he is capable of challenging for a depth role with the Vancouver Canucks next season, but as I previously discussed in my analysis of his game, he would not necessarily be an upgrade over any of the team’s current players. His promotion to the NHL would be a matter of development and salary cap management.

Bailey - I think Rafferty will make the jump next year, especially considering that Chris Tanev could be on his way out of town. I’m not sure he stays up for the entire year, but I could realistically see Rafferty playing a good portion of the season on the 3rd pairing. I still think he needs to improve his physicality slightly to become a full-time NHLer, which remains to be seen.

Kent- Rafferty was like found money for the Canucks, as they signed him coming out of college after being passed over in the draft the previous summer. It’s another pat on the back due for the Canucks scouting team, for sure. As the Canucks D continues to evolve, and we start to prepare for a future that doesn’t contain Alexander Edler and Christopher Tanev, you have to assume that after the phenomenal rookie season he put together, the Canucks will give him every opportunity to earn a spot next season.

Beggsy - Due to the Canucks tight cap situation and Rafferty’s one-way contract, he makes the Canucks next season as the sixth/seventh defenceman. How he performs in spot duty after that will determine his fate as an NHLer.

2016 NHL Draft - Portraits
Olli Juolevi, selected fifth overall by the Vancouver Canucks, poses for a portait during round one of the 2016 NHL Draft at First Niagara Center on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.
Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images

2. It’s easy to forget about 2016 fifth overall pick Olli Juolevi, when the Canucks two first rounders after him are already tearing up the NHL. That being said, he’s been effective in the AHL. Do you still believe in Juolevi as an NHL player, and do you think he’ll factor in on this team when and if they become a contender?

Westy - If he ever makes the league, I predict a quick injury and retirement.

jimmi - Nucks are already a contender - we have the stats to prove it - but for the lack of safe statistical distancing. Olli could be on the team next season. If there is one, which there isn’t.

Strang (@noahstrang_) - I haven’t given up on Juolevi yet even though I know many have. I don’t think he starts with the Canucks next season but if doesn’t get any games in it will be a disappointment. Canucks are going to need one of their defence prospects to pan out nicely and hopefully that guy is Juolevi.

Rob - The only thing I know for sure is he will be the first player in the Canucks’ organization to test positive for Covid-19. The source of the infection will be traced back to his not keeping a proper social distance from Sami Salo while home in Finland this summer.

For me Jack Rathbone has passed him on the Canucks’ depth chart. That said Olli will likely get an NHL opportunity next season when Edler begins again to show his age and goes down with injuries for much of next season.

Markus - I’ve always been a defender of the Juolevi pick, but I am starting to lose hope at this point. The injuries have just messed his trajectory up so bad. I’m still gonna say he’ll be an NHLer — I’ll guess he’s one of the first call-ups next season — but as a top four guy? Honestly, seems like a stretch.

Kevin Wong (@CambieKev) - Olli Juolevi has lost quite a bit of development time as a result of his injuries. Relative to the other players available in his draft class, he has been a significant disappointment. He turns 22 years old next month, but time remains on his side. Now that he has experienced a full season in the AHL, the team must consider increasing his role.

By all accounts, Brogan Rafferty usurped Juolevi’s position with the Comets this past year. If Rafferty is no longer available to the Utica Comets next season, Juolevi may have an opportunity to play an elevated role with the team. One more season of development may be required in the AHL before the Canucks can evaluate his play at the NHL level.

Bailey - Unfortunately, no, I don’t see Juolevi ever becoming a full-time NHLer, at least not with the Canucks. The extensive injury issues already are a real red flag. Every time I think of the Juolevi pick I just think, man, we could have Matthew Tkachuk instead and probably be a sure-fire playoff team already. Benning could still potentially flip Juolevi for an asset if any teams are willing to take a risk on Olli’s development and/or health, so we’ll see.

Kent- I think the thing to remember with Juolevi is that the Canucks still don’t know what they have in him yet, as the injuries have prevented them from getting a prolonged look and having constantly resetting his development path. Fortunately he’s young, and could overcome these early challenges, but I foresee (especially if the aforementioned Rafferty makes the squad next season) that they try to see how he handles a full season in a lead role on the back end in Utica. It will be a make or break year, but if he can stay healthy and continue to show the glimpses of what they hoped they were getting he could be a long term project that pays off.

Beggsy - Juolevi is going to factor into the Canucks roster at some point. This team still has a lack of organizational depth on defence. It’s easy to become impatient with Juolevi, but he will play for the Canucks in some capacity. He could really use a full healthy season in 2020-21 before permanently making the jump after that.

Pittsburgh Penguins v Vancouver Canucks
How does Michael DiPietro factor into the Canucks plans? Our writers weigh in.
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3. There was lots to like about Michael DiPietro’s performance in the minors this season, going 21-11-2 with a .908 save percentage. How does he factor into the Canucks goaltending puzzle?

Westy - To be honest, and I am not a goaltending expert, I don’t think he is an NHL goalie...yet. He needs another year or two or three, to get better.

jimmi - I am a goaltending stats expert, but the expertise stops there. Mikey has played at the same level as any other elite goalie on the Canucks in the postseason - less an inch or so.

Strang (@noahstrang_) - Mikey seems to be progressing great but is still too far away from being a contributor to really depend on him or alter any plans. Needs more time before decisions are made.

Rob - Mikey has stared down doubters his entire life. He’ll eventually back up either Markstrom or Demko depending upon which of the two is anointed as the #1 starter. But that won’t happen until the 2021-22 season after the expansion draft.

Markus - The results seem promising. I didn’t watch him play in Utica this year, but the experts seem to like the way he’s progressing. If he pans out, that’s a huge plus for the organization and gives them great flexibility with how they handle Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko moving forward.

Kevin Wong (@CambieKev) - There was much to like about Mike DiPietro’s performance this season. He has shown great potential and is a crucial prospect in the system. His status with the organization will depend on the team’s decisions about its current goaltending personnel at the NHL level. Whether the Canucks choose to retain Markstrom and Demko over the course of its short-term future and gradually acclimate DiPietro to the NHL or promote him quickly will depend on the stability of the team’s current duo.

Most likely, he will wait for quite some time before he receives a full-time position with the Canucks. DiPietro is only 20 years old and needs to establish himself as a star at the AHL level before one can consider promoting him to the NHL. He may not be ready for at least a few more years.

Bailey - The reality of this situation is, DiPietro really won’t have a good opportunity to show his stuff at the NHL level until at least 2021-22, when likely one of Markstrom or Demko is let go in the expansion draft. Come back to us then after we see what Mikey does for Utica 20-21.

Kent- Remember when the Canucks rushed Thatcher Demko into the backup position? Yeah, me neither because they didn’t. If there’s one thing I trust them on, it’s taking their time to make sure he’s ready to step up to the next level so any discussion of DiPietro and the NHL is extremely premature. Demko’s a couple years away from being ready to be the number 1 in Vancouver, so let Mikey continue to learn the game in Utica. There’s no rush here to push him into this next phase.

Beggsy - What kind of editor would I be if I didn’t agree with the consensus from our writers? The Canucks need to continue being patient with DiPietro, but there were some very encouraging signs from his performance this season.

Consider this: As a 22-year-old AHL rookie, Thatcher Demko posted a .907 save percentage with the Comets. DiPietro posted a .908 save percentage as a 20-year-old rookie. That’s nothing to sneeze at, although you should be refraining from sneezing if possible in times like these anyways...

2018 NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7
Jett Woo speaks to the media after being selected 37th overall by the Vancouver Canucks during the 2018 NHL Draft at American Airlines Center on June 23, 2018 in Dallas, Texas.
Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

4. The Canucks prospect pool has dwindled with guys being traded, graduating to the NHL, or guys fizzling out. A few prospects could find themselves with the Utica Comets next year, including Nils Hoglander, Jett Woo, Petrus Palmu, Will Lockwood. How many of these prospects do you think will join the Comets next year, and who are you looking forward to watching most?

Westy - I would like to see Jett Woo progress. The Canucks and defensemen are a timeless issue that will always draw a crowd...maybe a riot. Petrus Palmu will never play in the NHL...with the Canucks.

jimmi - I would like to see the Comets play next year with any of our ageing prospects. But they won’t.

Strang (@noahstrang_) - I agree with Westy in that I want to see Jett Woo play for the Comets next season. Maybe Hoglander as well if the team thinks it would be beneficial for him to get accustomed to the smaller ice.

Rob - I think Palmu will play overseas again and the Canucks are done with him. A mutual contract termination agreement is likely.

Woo is a player I am very intrigued about. I think his game will transfer very well to the pros. He’ll need about 1 12 seasons in the AHL and he will then be ready for an NHL gig.

Watch for the Canucks to sign Carson Focht. There is a big center hole in Utica and Focht will get a good opportunity to help fill it.

Will Lockwood is going to surprise a lot of people. I think he will adjust quickly to the AHL pro game and he will put himself in the conversation to make the Canucks’ 2021/22 NHL roster.

Hoglander will sign and push for a Canucks roster spot at training camp but will be sent down to Utica where he will tear up the AHL. He will then force his way onto the NHL squad duplicating the Adam Gaudette strategic plan.

Markus - From what the prospects guys say, Woo and Lockwood seem likely to join, and Hoglander seems 50/50 (though maybe I’m wrong?). I certainly hope Hoglander joins them. Palmu I tend to think is more or less done with the organization, but I’d be happy to be proven wrong here.

Kevin Wong (@CambieKev) - Nils Hoglander is the player with the most star power and upside of this group at the moment. There will be great intrigue throughout the year about his ability to thrive in the AHL. The Canucks’ prospect pool should no longer include Palmu. He has shown that he does not possess a sufficient degree of quickness to play in the NHL despite dazzling at the Canucks’ prospect showcase a few years ago. Palmu struggled with the pace of the preseason. Lockwood, on the other hand, possesses great speed but perhaps not as much individual skill. The grit and physicality of Jett Woo would be a welcome addition to the Comets as well.

The Utica lineup remains circumstantially shallow because the team’s most recent high-end prospects have all become impact players at the NHL level, and others such as Podkolzin and the team’s NCAA prospects are developing elsewhere. The amount of talent that the Canucks have stockpiled through the draft over the past few seasons is quite impressive, especially considering the team’s draft history.

Bailey - I’m really looking forward to seeing what Nils Hoglander can do in the North American game after all those highlight reel plays from the Swedish league and the World Juniors. I’m also excited about seeing what kind of impact Jett Woo can make in Utica as hopefully he gets a chance in a call-up situation at some point next season.

When it comes to Palmu and Lockwood, I think they are the long-shots, but it’ll be interesting to see if they can surprise. Lockwood will likely have extra motivation to eventually work his way up to the Canucks roster, as he and Quinn Hughes used to be teammates at the University of Michigan.

Kent- Hoglander will definitely get a look from the Canucks if and when he arrives, but it’s likely he spends most of his first season in Utica. Jett Woo is someone who has a ton of potential, but will need a couple years in the A before he’s ready to step up and join the Canucks. Lockwood will have to wait for an injury callup, and Palmu? Who knows what the plan is for him. I have a feeling we’ll be talking about him down the road as one that got away.

Beggsy - Hoglander will clearly be the “must-watch” player if he does join the Comets, but I’m most curious about 1. Woo and 2. Lockwood. As we mentioned with Juolevi, the Canucks need more prospects to develop on defence. I’m curious how Woo performs after an up-and-down final season in the WHL. I could see him struggling initially (like 2017 second rounder Lind), but his development will be worth watching nonetheless.

With Lockwood, after Benning touted him as a “top-nine player,” I’m curious to see if Benning is blowing smoke or spitting truth.

Colorado Avalanche v Vancouver Canucks
VANCOUVER, BC - NOVEMBER 16: Sven Baertschi #47 of the Vancouver Canucks celebrates a goal by teammate Adam Gaudette #88 (not pictured) against the Colorado Avalanche during the first period at Rogers Arena on November 16, 2019 in Vancouver, Canada.
Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images

5. If the Comets make room for some new players to join the roster, inevitably others will have to find new places to play. Lets end it off my making predictions on two of the Comets highest scoring players last season, Reid Boucher and Sven Baertschi. Nikolay Goldobin recently found a new place to play, will Boucher or Baertschi follow suit?

Westy - I wish Sven was able to be free...by trade or retire. Boucher...well...I doubt he plays for Vancouver, ever. Green doesn’t seem to like him and has never called him back.

jimmi - Sven will retire a Comet. Boucher will retire a Comet. But will they retire before the Comets are retired?

Strang (@noahstrang_) - I hope Baertschi can find somewhere to play in the NHL. I would like to see Benning make a deal like the Leafs did with Leivo and treat Baertschi nicely for his contributions here. Boucher will go down in history as a Comet legend.

Rob - Baertschi’s future is back home overseas even if he doesn’t realize it yet. The Canucks might be able to dump him for future considerations to a bottom-feeder team like the Detroit Red Wings where he might play out the last season of his current NHL contract. He will then be heading home to Switzerland or off to the KHL to join Goldy in his pursuit of the Gagarin Cup.

Markus - I still think Baertschi is an NHL-caliber middle-six winger, but I doubt we see him in a Canucks jersey again. I do hope he finds a spot somewhere. I’ve always been a Boucher Truther and would love to see him get a shot (sadly, it won’t happen). Baertschi I’d say is 50/50 to be with the Comets next season, but I would guess Boucher stays. He seems to have a niche there and I think guys like him are important to AHL prospect development.

Kevin Wong (@CambieKev) - Reid Boucher struggled to find a role with the Canucks when there were opportunities for players in his situation to challenge for roster spots. The team was offensively-depleted for a significant period of time. The organization has long since determined that he is better-suited for American Hockey League competition, and he thrives in that capacity. If he wishes to remain with the Comets, the organization should consider retaining his services. He has built a relationship with the team over the past several seasons. As an on-ice contributor, he supports his teammates offensively, thereby alleviating some of the pressure on the Canucks’ prospects. The Comets’ offensive depth will be severely impacted if both Boucher and Goldobin, the team’s top two scorers this season, both depart from the lineup. Goldobin has already chosen to play next season in the KHL.

Sven Baertschi’s circumstance is different. Baertschi was once an established NHL player, but his post-concussion effectiveness remains uncertain. If he and his agent feel that he can still play at the NHL level, he should attempt a tryout with another club at the next available opportunity. He played 43 games this season with Utica. If he feels healthy and no longer experiences any ill effects from his injuries, then he must explore his options. He represented the Canucks gracefully and was one of the club’s most reliable players of the past half-decade. However, there is no space on the roster for his return. There appear not to be too many incentives for him to remain with the Comets or the Canucks. His departure seems inevitable.

Bailey - I hope that Benning is able to trade both these guys as I think they both still have some value and can fit in as veterans on rebuilding teams in the NHL. It’s just bad timing for both of them as the Canucks are at the end of their rebuild and have a deep enough lineup to where Boucher and Baertschi just don’t fit in anymore. I’ll say yeah, they’ll move on to better situations.

Kent- This is a tough call. Both of them are key to the Comets success, and especially in Baertschi’s case, could still be an effective NHL player in the right situation. I don’t know what to say about how Boucher’s AHL success hasn’t been able to translate with the Canucks, but unless there was some type of a major deal that would help the Canucks take a step forward that he was a part of, I would hate to see them step away from him if for no other reason than how much better he makes the Comets.

Beggsy - Boucher was one of the highest paid forwards in the AHL last season. My guess is that he swings the fences for Europe, as most players his age who haven’t made the NHL do. He’s just too much of a one-dimensional player to crack the NHL as a regular.

Things are a little different with Baertschi because of his contract. Benning would have made a similar trade to the Alex Biega one if he didn’t have to eat cap. Sadly, he would have, which leaves Baertschi at an impasse. I’ll say he plays in Utica next season before jumping to Europe after that.