Utica Comets 2016/17 Preview

New Arrivals:

Thatcher Demko- The Canucks’ top goalie prospect since Corey Schneider, and arguably their top prospect overall, is expecting to win the job of starter right away.

Troy Stecher- The most pleasant surprise of training camp, Stecher might have already stolen Jordan Subban’s job as top defenseman.

Michael Carcone- Carcone is the most offensively gifted of the incoming forwards, and was very impressive in Penticton and the preseason. Should play a top-6 role.

Yan-Pavel Laplante- Laplante brings an excessive amount of physicality and a bit of a scoring touch, too. His fights are reminiscent of the great Rick Rypien.

Borna Rendulic- Rendulic, the first Croatian-born player to play in the NHL, looked better than expected in the NHL preseason. Might see some call-up time, but is a grinder at every level he plays at.

Chad Billins- A veteran defender who has won the Calder Cup before, and is returning from a successful stint in Sweden. Billins will make a great partner for either Stecher or Subban.

Michael Chaput- Chaput is still fairly young at 24, but has already racked up several good AHL seasons and won a Calder Cup championship last year with Lake Erie. Also a former Memorial Cup MVP. The guy knows how to win!

Jayson Megna- Megna is two years older than Chaput, and has put up similar numbers at the AHL level. However, Megna has more NHL experience, including nearly a half season with Pittsburgh in 2013-14. The two will battle for the top center role all year.

Marco Roy- Roy won a training camp invite with a strong Penticton performance, and played last season in the AHL for Bakersfield with mild success. Will need to fight for ice time amongst Utica’s forward depth.

Tom Nilsson- Nilsson is currently injured and has not partaken in training camp, but he was presumably signed to be a presence in Utica after some seasons interspersed between the Toronto Marlies and the Swedish Elite League.

Derek Hulak- Hulak followed up a long WHL career with a four year stint in the Canadian college circuit for the University of Saskatchewan. Hulak eventually caught on with the Texas Stars, where he’s played the last three seasons. Provides decent offense.

Cody Kunyk- Kunyk is a veteran of four Junior A seasons, four college seasons, one NHL game, one AHL season, and one season in Denmark. In that order. Despite the colourful resume, Kunyk will struggle to even find a spot in the lineup.

 

Team Strengths:

Goaltending is the most notable strength. Thatcher Demko may be the best goalie prospect in hockey, and is expected to dazzle right away. He’s backed up by Richard Bachman, a veteran presence who is more than capable of starting at the AHL level.  Defense should also be a strength, as the somewhat surprising return of Andrey Pedan bolsters an already strong crop of defenders. Troy Stecher and Jordan Subban both offer amazing offensive skill, which is balanced by the presence of Pedan and Chad Billins. Forward depth is another forte of the Comets, as several players with AHL experience will be pushed out of the lineup unless moves are made. There are at least 16 forwards that have recently played regularly at this level.

 

Team Weaknesses:

Top end offense is something that the Comets lack. The recently waived Emerson Etem will help that, but who knows how he will respond to a demotion. If Jake Virtanen is sent down upon Anton Rodin’s return that will definitely help, but otherwise the team doesn’t really have anyone capable of putting up a point per game. A lack of promising call-ups could also spell disaster for the team if injuries strike, particularly on the backend. Potential for disgruntledness could be a distraction throughout the season, as various players like Etem and Pedan who expected to be in the NHL have been unceremoniously demoted. Hopefully, that is not the case.

 

Veteran Presence:

Chad Billins, Michael Chaput, and Jayson Megna were signed specifically to add veteran presence to the forward corps. All have experience playing in winning organizations. Richard Bachman is the perfect backup for Thatcher Demko, more than capable of stepping in as starter if Demko ever falters. Bachman has also been around long enough to provide valuable mentorship. Darren Archibald is an intimidating presence in the minor leagues, and it is nice to have him watching the prospects’ backs. Wacey Hamilton and Carter Bancks are two veteran players that have been with the Comets for a bit now, but might not have a regular spot this year. John Negrin is a perennial ECHL call-up who has been mocked for his father’s business connections with the NHL ownership, but he’s been a part of the organization for longer than most and must be doing something right.

 

Prospects to Watch:

Demko is absolutely the prized prospect of the bunch. Stecher and Subban will be fun to watch as they directly compete for their spot on the depth chart. Cole Cassels is poised for a rebound after a disappointing rookie campaign. Michael Carcone was an undrafted free agent, but was perhaps the most impressive prospect in Penticton. Joe LaBate was the out-of-nowhere surprise of the preseason, and the development of his physical game makes him a legitimate NHL prospect.

 

Coaching Staff:

Travis Green returns as one of the AHL’s top coaches, but also the heir-apparent to any number of potential NHL vacancies. For the time being, he provides excellent guidance for the players in the system. Nolan Baumgartner, despite his own defensive foibles as a player, has done a solid job developing defenders like Subban thus far. Jason King, the former super-temporary Sedin linemate, is something of a wunderkind, having already picked up plenty of AHL coaching experience at the age of 35. He’s also spent time in the front office of the St John’s IceCaps, and should have a lot to offer the organization.

 

Projected Lineup:

Zalewski-Chaput-Etem

Carcone-Megna-Grenier

LaBate-Cassels-Rendulic

Archibald-Laplante-Roy

Bancks-Hamilton-Hulak

 

Pedan-Stecher

Billins-Subban

Sautner-Nilsson

McEneny-Shields

 

Thatcher Demko-Richard Bachman

 

Bubble Players/Call-ups:

Michael Garteig- By far the most interesting player on the Alaska Aces’ roster, Garteig is a solid goaltending prospect who has NHL potential.

Curtis Valk- Valk has tons of offensive skill, but his size and lack of strength continually hold him back. Will likely put up good numbers at the ECHL level, but only garner sparse call-ups to Utica.

Danny Moynihan- Moynihan signed an AHL deal with Utica after being cut from the Canucks, but was soon cut by the Comets, as well. It is unknown yet if he’ll report to the ECHL or seek an opportunity elsewhere.

Mackenze Stewart- The hulking defenseman/winger has a great backstory and an apparent abundance of character, but he’s just not very good at hockey. Will be slugging it out in the ECHL all year.

John Negrin- Negrin always gets a few call-ups here and there, and seems like a good utility guy. However, he’s about as good as it gets for defensive call-ups.

Cody Kunyk- Kunyk is probably ECHL-bound despite appearing on Utica’s roster currently. There are just too many better wingers competing for spots.

Alexis D’Aoust- D’Aoust received an invite to Canucks camp after a solid Penticton performance, but was quickly cut and then further bounced from Utica camp. It is unknown if he will continue down the line to Alaska.

 

Late Season Reinforcements:

Brock Boeser will be the player that everyone has their eye on once his NCAA season ends. Boeser is likely going pro next year, so it’s not unreasonable to think he will start early. Adam Gaudette is another NCAA player that is quickly climbing the prospect charts, and he’s another candidate to sign. Guillaume Brisebois was traded to a better team in the QMJHL, and thus might not be available, but he’s the junior prospect most likely to get a chance. Carl Neill or Rodrigo Abols could also get a look. Olli Juolevi, a member of the London Knights, is expected to be busy long into the summer.

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