The inaugural season for the Vancouver Canucks AHL affiliate, the Utica Comets, has indeed been a challenging one. Although the Comets have had some good wins over the last month, they still have dubious distinction of having the fewest standings points in the AHL.
They definitely have some hill to climb if they are to secure one of the eight playoff seeds in the AHL's Western Conference. Early season injuries to key players that were expected to lead the way offensively has hampered their performance. As well, a steady stream of injuries to the Canucks' roster has caused the need to keep several Utica regulars in Vancouver's lineup.
Frank Corrado, D, 20
The Woodbridge, Ontario native continues to learn to adapt to the rigors of pro hockey, now fully transitioned from the OHL. There was speculation that Corrado might be rushed onto the Canucks roster, but the signing of Yannick Weber (formerly with the Montreal Canadiens) has given them the opportunity to pace Corrado's learning curve.
If Corrado was to be judged solely on his offensive output to date, some might express disappointment that he has not produced more. That would be shortsighted however, as he has shown signs of improved defensive responsibility. Still only 20 years old, fast-tracking Corrado to the NHL might prove to be too much, too soon. He has proven that he can step in and provide solid minutes at the NHL level, but appears to be making progress at the pro level. Essentially a top-two blueliner for the Comets, Corrado has been exposed to new situations and been counted on defensively perhaps more than at any point in his career. For him to stay nearly neutral as far as plus-minus rating is concerned on a team near the bottom of the AHL standings is a testament to his ability to adapt.
Regardless of how long Corrado's current call-up to the Canucks (December 30th) lasts, it would seem that a full season with Utica is good for his defensive development. Lots of ice-time, many different playing situations and special teams’ opportunities are all positives for this up and coming future NHL player. Interestingly, both of Corrado's goals to date have been power play tallies. His right-handed shot is a commodity at the NHL level, and it is only a matter of time before he gets to show it off regularly for the Canucks.
Zac Dalpe, C, 24
The former Penticton Vee is making a bid to stay on the Canucks starting roster. Now with 29 games under his belt for the parent club, he has bought into John Tortorella’s system and is seeing regular ice time. The interesting thing about Dalpe is that he has normally been a goal-scorer and playmaker first and foremost. Now, within the Canucks system, he has altered his game with an onus on defensive play and shot blocking.
He kicked off the new year in style, scoring against the Tampa Bay Lightning, albeit in a losing cause for the Canucks. He has spent most of his time on the fourth line, averaging just a hair under six minutes a game. No matter how much or little he plays, though, you can still see he is content just to be out on the ice, and playing in the NHL. He briefly opened the season playing with the Comets, but injuries in the Canucks lineup facilitated a call up. Regardless of whether or not Dalpe is returned to Utica, he has earned some valuable NHL experience, and seems loathe to relinquish his spot on the fourth line.
Darren Archibald, LW, 23
The big winger has enjoyed a modicum of success so far in the 2013-14 campaign. He has played in 10 NHL games so far between an early-season stint and his most recent recall. In that span, he has two assists, a plus-three rating, and no penalty minutes. Through 24 games with the Comets, he has maintained roughly the same pace offensively he was on while in Chicago (Vancouver's former AHL farm affiliate).
Archibald signed a one-year contract extension (restricted free agent) in the offseason. He is obviously motivated to earn another contract. Interestingly, through 24 games this season he has already exceeded his penalty minute total earned in 55 games with the Wolves last season. His sandpaper style of play surely earns him a lot of attention on the ice, and he is one of the most effective net presences the Comets have. Archibald has a good solid wrist shot, and is often instrumental in getting the puck to the net. His play earned him another call up to Vancouver on January 7th.
Joacim Eriksson, G, 23
Eriksson has earned respectable numbers this season. More than that, he has gained some valuable experience, not just in Utica, but also recently during his call-ups to the parent club. With Roberto Luongo missing starts due to a suspected groin injury prior to the Christmas break, Eriksson was on the Canucks bench ready to back up Eddie Lack. He made one start for Utica in January before Luongo was hurt again in a game against Los Angeles, prompting the Canucks to again call on Eriksson.
In Utica, Eriksson has helped keep a lot of contests close for the embattled Comets. In several games that the opposition should have won outright, he has been able to help salvage a point here and there by forcing the game to an overtime or shootout scenario. A classic butterfly goaltender, the 6'2, 190-pound Swedish netminder has carried the freight this season for the Comets. He sports a 2.84 goals against average and a .905 save percentage through 21 games this season.
Henrik Tommernes, D, 23
One of the older Canucks prospects at this position, the left-shooting, offensive minded defenseman has acquitted himself rather well in his first season in North America. Tommernes has been thrust into a top-four role in Utica this season. His transition from the Swedish Elitserien has not been without a few hiccups, though, as he has learned how physical the AHL can be.
The 6'1, 176-pound blueliner has had some difficulty adapting to the professional level and has earned the worst plus/minus (minus-14) on the team so far this season. That being said, he has been able to muster some offense, his nine points in 27 games ranking him second amongst Utica defensemen. Similar to Corrado, Tommernes has scored with the man advantage with three power-play tallies.
Tommernes plays a very disciplined style of defense, evidenced by only one minor penalty thus far with the Comets. The fact that he has been able to stay on with Utica, and has not been moved to Kalamazoo to play with the Wings bodes well for him. If he can chisel away at the plus-minus rating, Tommernes' first year of pro hockey could be considered a relative success.
Yann Sauve, D, 23
Like many Comet players, the 2013-14 season has to be considered a challenging one Yann Sauve. The big 6'3, 220-pound defenseman is in unfamiliar territory, currently possessing a minus rating for the first time in his pro career. While nobody is hitting a panic button at this time, you would have to go back to the 2008-09 season in the QMJHL with the Saint John Sea Dogs to find Sauve with a minus rating.
The knock thus far on the former 41st overall selection of the 2008 NHL Draft is that while he is a solid, defensive-minded defenseman, his offensive game has not progressed. His eight assists through 30 games, though, is noteworthy for Sauve, as he is on pace to improve upon his previous two year totals while the farm affiliate was based out of Chicago. One imagines that while management would like to see an improvement on his minus-11 rating, they are happy to see him contributing more on the score sheet.
Sauve's blue line-leading 35 penalty minutes shows he has not sacrificed his physical edge for offensive gain's sake. Sauve has been doing a good job of clearing lanes for Joacim Eriksson and Joe Cannata. Since the Comets already possess puck-moving, offensively inclined defensemen, Sauve adds a much-needed defensive approach from the back end. It is hard to envision the Comets enjoying future success without Sauve there to steady the ship.
Peter Andersson, D, 22
The former bronze medal recipient from the 2010 World Junior Championship (Sweden) has had a solid season on the Utica blue line. One of the few players sporting a positive plus/minus rating on the team, Andersson has played well at both ends of the rink. With a strong skating stride, he has been able to recover a number of times this season when out of position. He has been using his size well also, getting both his body and stick into shooting lanes and blocking shots.
Perhaps one of the largest differences between last season with the Chicago Wolves and this season with the Comets has been his ability to identify opportunities to get involved in the offense. He seems more comfortable when in possession of the puck, and he has shown more confidence in his ability to get back to his defensive responsibilities when an offensive chance breaks down. In a season that has had more downs than ups for Utica, Andersson's adaptation to pro hockey has been a true bright spot. In 28 games this season, he has nearly matched his offensive output through 42 games last season, which was shortened by a facial injury.
Nicklas Jensen, RW, 20
Jensen is learning firsthand the realities of expectation that come with being drafted in the first round, let alone into a hockey-mad Canadian market. To complicate matters, the swift Danish winger injured his left shoulder in a pre-season game at Edmonton September 21st. He went on to miss over five weeks of hockey, and he has been trying to catch up ever since.
Though there is still plenty of time to turn this season around offensively for Jensen, there are other bright spots to focus on. Utica head coach Travis Green has seen some growth from Jensen when not in possession of the puck. They have been trying to help him focus on his work along the boards and supporting the puck carrier. The missed time also hampered his trademark speed, which has limited his effectiveness on the forecheck, where he normally excels. In a nutshell, the 2013-14 season has presented a real learning curve for Jensen, who has seen just how much of a difference there is between junior and pro hockey. More than anything, Green and the rest of the Comets coaching staff are looking for a consistent effort from Jensen in all three zones. His ability to provide this for the remainder of the season will go a long way to ensuring he remains a top Canuck prospect.
Alexandre Mallet, C, 21
Alexandre Mallet will continue to be the Canucks' most controversial selection of the 2012 NHL Draft. Selected 57th overall, many felt that he was an "off the board" selection. Because of his age and the stage of his development, there will continue to be questions surrounding the Amqui, Quebec native.
Thus far in his early pro career, there has been little to get excited about for Canucks fans. With limited playing time this season, Mallet is experiencing the growing pains that many of his Comet teammates are this season. On a team that has been hard-pressed for offense, Mallet has had to assume a gritty role with the team. To his credit, he has very responsible defensively, and has been able to avoid handicapping his team via bad penalties. Though he is often the first person to stand up for a beleaguered teammate, he has shown considerable control after the whistle, not being goaded into foolish penalties. Recently, he and linemates Brandon DeFazio and Kellan Lain have started to show some chemistry. Much like Nicklas Jensen, he needs to capitalize on his ice time, and ultimately produce more offensively in the second half of the season. Only then can he silence some of his critics that feel his higher draft position was not justifiable.
Alex Friesen, C, 22
The seven games that Friesen has played thus far for the Comets is surely not what he envisioned prior to embarking on the 2013-14 season. He has played in only 12 games, with his five January games being the busiest month this season. While injuries have been a problem for him in the past, there is no indication that the root cause for his lack of games is injury related.
An effective defensive-minded forward, Friesen has shown a propensity for killing penalties. While he put up some bloated numbers with the Niagara IceDogs (OHL), he is known more for his defensive talents. In a season where the Comets need to fight tooth and nail for any points that they can muster, it is disappointing to see Friesen on the sidelines. It is imperative that he find a way back onto Comet game sheets or risk dropping further down the Canuck prospect depth chart.
Joe Cannata, G, 23
With Joacim Eriksson shuffled up to the Canucks to back up Eddie Lack, Cannata received his best opportunity in the crease for Utica. Having started six of the team’s last seven games, the goaltender has struggled to a 1-4-1 record for the Comets.
Over his 15 games played thus far, Cannata has turned in some good performances. Unfortunately, he has been victimized by a couple of late goals, such as the go-ahead tally for the Senators with 27 seconds remaining in late December. Also, Utica has the last ranked penalty kill, which puts a lot of focus on the goaltender. Luckily for the Comets, Cannata was a workhorse when he played for Merrimack College, so he is used to seeing a lot of rubber. Though his goals against is up some from last season, he is staying the course with Utica and learning the trade at the pro level. Canucks fans cannot ask too much more from a sixth round draft pick. Cannata also turned in a strong performance against Lake Erie to start the new year off on the right foot.
Kellan Lain, C, 24
Centers do not come in much larger packages than Kellan Lain. He is a mountain of power to deal with in the faceoff circle and a strong boards and net presence. His skating stride has come a long way since his Lake Superior State days, which surely helped the Canucks decide to re-up Lain for another 2 years (restricted free agent) during the offseason.
As a Comet, things have been coming together lately for Lain. In his first full pro season, he has seven goals and 11 points through 34 games. Five of those goals have come in his last 10 games. Playing on a line with DeFazio and Mallet, the trio has stepped up their game a notch recently. It appears they discovered some chemistry now that they have spent some time playing together. Though most checking and energy lines focus on stifling the opposition and shutting them down, it is important that Lain is producing as well.
Jeremy Welsh, LW, 25
After being acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes, Welsh got more than the proverbial 'cup of coffee' with the Vancouver Canucks. Although he was recently reassigned to Utica, he played 19 games with the parent club, scoring a goal during that time. The former Union College star gave the Canucks some quality minutes, mostly on their fourth line. He had a few different linemates, but matched well with Tom Sestito and at times (former Hurricanes teammate) Zac Dalpe.
Welsh had to quickly change gears mentally at the seasons outset, only playing two games with Utica before being called up to Vancouver. While there is still a good chance he will be recalled to cover future injuries in Vancouver, he will need to refocus his energies in Utica. If he is able to harness the momentum of his call-up to the bigs, and contribute meaningful minutes, he will increase his odds of an encore in Vancouver.
Alexandre Grenier, RW, 22
Grenier had a big night at the Utica Memorial Auditorium versus the Binghamton Senators recently, scoring multiple goals in a game for the first time in his AHL career. Over his last 10 games, Grenier has scored six goals and four assists for the Comets.
The stability he has found in Utica seems to have contributed to his relative success during the 2013-14 season. During the 2012-13 campaign, he was moved around frequently, from Austria, to Chicago, then Kalamazoo, and then again to Chicago.
Grenier has also added some strength to his 6'5 frame, making him that much more difficult for opposing defenders to contain. Playing with Darren Archibald and Pascal Pelletier, the trio has accounted for the lion's share of offense for the Comets. Grenier sits solidly in third for points on the team while leading the Comets with 11 goals. One can always hope for more offense, but even if Grenier can muster the same pace, this season will be a successful one as a Comet.
Jordan Schroeder, C, 23
October 19th, 2013 in Pittsburgh will probably be a night Schroeder will not forget for some time. It was then, against the Penguins, that he refractured his left ankle. To this point, he has yet to return to either the Canucks or the Comets lineup.
Parts of Schroeder’s last two seasons have been derailed by injuries. What the recurrence of problems with his left ankle means for his future is unknown at this point. The injury inevitably means he will need time to get back up to game speed, even after he is cleared to play again. There is the likelihood that he will be reassigned to Utica for conditioning once the ankle is healed, but considering the rash of injuries the Canucks have suffered so far this season, they may opt to gamble and rush him back to their starting roster.
Ludwig Blomstrand, LW, 20
The Canucks fourth round pick of the 2011 draft, Ludwig Blomstrand has spent the majority of the season with the Kalamazoo Wings. Like many prospects, Blomstrand has needed to split time with both of the parent clubs' affiliates. The Swedish winger played six games with the Comets, and was neutral on the score sheet.
Blomstrand is still young and has limited pro experience, so giving him ice time in Kalamazoo will undoubtedly help ease his transition. As is the case with several prospects listed above, playing in the ECHL has become a confidence springboard. Currently, he is sixth on the Wings for points (14). He will likely play the majority of the season now in Kalamazoo, but should have his sights set on trying to secure a starting position with the Comets for the 2014-15 season.
Steven Anthony, LW, 22
One of the more enigmatic prospects in the Canucks stable, Anthony has an arduous path in front of him if he is to make the NHL. He missed time with the Kalamazoo Wings last season due to concussion issues, and has been reassigned to the St. Charles Chill in the CHL. The Halifax, Nova Scotia native has three goals and 11 points through 20 games with the Chill, with a minus-10 rating.
Anthony is in the final year of his entry-level contract with the Canucks, before he becomes a restricted free agent. While it is hard to predict what happens after this season, the playmaking winger is really up against tough odds to get a contract renewal. What he does have going for him is that while the Canucks loaded up on forward prospects during the 2013 NHL Draft, none are listed as a bona fide left wing. It is possible though that he may get a short contract extension, taking into consideration the developmental time he missed due to injury.
Wes Myron, LW, 21
Myron's future with the Vancouver Canucks organization is cloudy. After playing 21 games with the Terriers at Boston University in 2012-13, he left the university to try to establish his pro career. He went on to finish the 2012-13 season playing with the Kalamazoo Wings, playing in 17 games. He scored two goals and nine points during that span, with a minus-five rating.
Whatever the reason for his hiatus from hockey, it is hard to envision recent events improving his odds of making the NHL. Interestingly, Myron was the third Boston University Terrier player to leave the program partway through the season in two years. Former Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Justin Courtnall also left the University in the middle of the season. With the Canucks lack of prospect depth on the left wing, Myron's hiatus from hockey spreads them that much thinner.
Adam Polasek, D, 22
Polasek, while not necessarily regressing this season, did not show enough for Utica Comets Director of Hockey Operations, Pat Conacher, to stay with the team. On the same day that Canucks GM Mike Gillis announced that Zach Hamill was given an unconditional release, Polasek was reassigned to the Kalamazoo Wings. The big, heady Czech Republic native has split time between the Canucks' ECHL and AHL affiliates since the 2011-12 season.
After skating in two games for Utica and 16 ECHL games for Kalamazoo, the Canucks terminated Polasek’s contract. The defenseman returned to the Czech Republic, where he signed on with HC Sparta Praha.