The Florida Panthers made headlines this summer with their blue line movement, specifically the acquisition of defenseman Bryan McCabe, the shipping out of Mike Van Ryn, and the continued uncertainty regarding Jay Bouwmeester’s future with the franchise. And one new member of the Panthers organization is hoping to make headlines of his own in the not-too-distant future.
Ashburn, VA-native Adam Comrie was selected in the third round, 80th overall, by the Panthers at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft (he was the 31st blueliner taken — a total that includes Florida’s second-round selection, Colby Robak). Back in Saginaw for his second OHL campaign, Comrie sees the Sunshine State on the horizon, but insists that he’s not interested in roster watching at this time.
"I never really pay attention to that stuff. I just go out and play my game and do what I need to do to be better," Comrie said, "so that [Florida] wants me to play for them, so they’re kind of like, ‘Oh, I really want you here.’"
Comrie has the physical tools to make the jump. At 6’4 and 206 pounds, he has the size to compete at the NHL level. And with a booming left-handed shot and a flair for the offensive game, he would seem to be an ideal fit for the modern style of defenseman. He also set a solid foundation in his rookie season last year with the Spirit, scoring 10 goals and adding 18 assists in 58 games. Comrie added 90 penalty minutes and finished the year with a plus-17 rating, but knows that he needs to improve on his defensive play.
"I think I have a pretty good shot and I think my skating is pretty [solid]," he said. "Weaknesses? I try to make the perfect play and not just the simple play. And I’m just trying [to play] more consistent as well.
"Over the past year I’ve learned: team first, play hard, play with that edge, every play matters. Just all the little things really matter and just work hard every game and every shift."
Comrie’s coach added that defensive lapses are common for players his age.
"When those kids get a little bit older it might get a little bit easier for them to look at the north end of the rink and want to go, go, go," Todd Watson explained. "But he’s got to take care of his own end first, and that’s the most important thing for us."
Since returning from Panthers camp, Watson said he’s noticed an improvement in Comrie’s approach to the game, both on the ice and off.
"Adam’s really come a long way. I think he had a good first year for us, but he’s really, really stepped up for us in… just everything — his work ethic to his competitiveness, to how hard he competes at practice," the coach explained. "He has really made the steps, he’s taking the game more seriously, the practices more seriously. He’s committed to trying to be a pro one day.
"I did notice that he enjoyed the camp, but I think all the kids do. I think it gives them a shot in the arm and says, ‘Boy, I know what I’ve got to do now to get where I want to be.’ He worked hard before camp, but I think that even pushed him a little bit more."
And while in some occasions there can be some friction caused by the balancing of team needs with what a drafted player’s professional club would like to see in terms of development and preparation, Watson explained that Comrie’s experience with Florida has been positive both for the player and the Spirit.
"I think a lot of the stuff is the same. One of the differences maybe is the players aren’t the same," Watson said. "Maybe up there all the guys can catch every pass on the backhand and give a hard pass off the backhand, where I think our guys might have it boomerang off the stick a little bit. I think the stuff Adam got taught by Florida works with what we’re trying to do here."
Comrie has risen through the hockey ranks rather quickly and shown he’s got the skills to succeed. He split the 2006-07 season between the Omaha Lancers and the Ohio Jr. Blue Jackets of the USHL. And last season he finished third among rookie defensemen in scoring during his inaugural OHL campaign. He said he’s glad he made the jump to the OHL and feels it is the right fit for his long-term prospects.
"I just felt it was the right spot for me to be. I thought the USHL was a great league and a good feeder for college, but I wanted to go to the next level and compete against players that I thought would be better as NHL candidates," Comrie said. "Work with them and get better coaching and all the stuff that comes with it. Be seen by more teams, I thought, and I just thought it was the right place for me."
He felt that the jump in talent wasn’t that significant from the USHL to the OHL, but admitted that he’s growing more comfortable with his role in Saginaw now that he’s in his second season.
"It wasn’t too big, but it was a lot different. It was a lot more toughness, a lot more speed and skill. Players just know where to be at the right time and there’s a lot more scoring," he said. "I feel like now I’m more involved and I can control the game more. Things are a bit easier and I feel like I’ve grown in the league as a player. I hope to do better each year and each game.
"I just want to build on [my rookie season], get better, and control the game more. Have more fun and take control out there and put up some points and be a plus player."
Best of all, his new organization’s desires fit into what both Comrie and Watson feel the player needs to focus on this season. "[Florida] wants to see me as a defensive player and just play my game — just to be a tough player to play against," he said.
One Western Conference scout said that Comrie’s on the right path to NHL success — and that he should be on the radar of future opponents. "I saw him at the [U.S. national junior evaluation camp] in Lake Placid," the scout said. "He’s got size, he’s got mobility, and he’s got pretty good skill. He’s a young guy, though but definitely [one] for all teams to watch because he’s a very skillful player, who if he continues to develop because of his size and his skating ability he could be a good D."
Florida’s a long way from Ashbury and Comrie suggested that growing up in Virginia made it tougher for him to develop. That’s one of the reasons he was delighted to be selected in the third round of this year’s NHL draft.
"It was hard to find a good team around. I just worked at it and I didn’t really think I was going to go anywhere with hockey," Comrie said. "It was fun, though. I made a lot of friends and had a lot of fun, but it wasn’t the place that I would have liked. But I made the best of it.
"Coming out of Virginia, it’s kind of a hard spot to come out of. It’s nice to be drafted and it’s a real honor. To me it’s like a tryout offer and you can’t take that for granted."
This season, the playoffs are by no means assured for the Spirit, although it’s certain that Comrie would like a shot at redeeming himself after a woeful performance in last year’s second season. In only four games, Comrie was held off the score sheet and finished his first OHL playoff sojourn with a -7 rating. However, Comrie insists that he does not look that far ahead.
"I don’t really set goals. I just want to try to win every game and team first, that’s really what coach wants and that’s what he’s going to get from the guys this year," he said. "I just try to play my game each night and try to get a win. Team first."
Despite having the specter of his draft-eligible season hanging over his shoulder last season, along with all the pressure — and scouts — that come with it, Comrie admitted that he’s feeling more stress this year.
"Actually I think there’s more pressure now. There was a lot of pressure last year because I really wanted to do well and get drafted," he said. "Now that I am drafted, there’s more at stake now because there’s a bigger level ahead of me, a bigger step, a bigger fence. So basically I have to work harder to get there."
And he has also added the responsibility that comes from being only one of three players on the roster drafted by an NHL organization and having gone through a professional camp. "[That] makes me think that I should throw my [NHL] experience around the guys a little and be more of a leader."
With the OHL season underway, Comrie’s focus is squarely on the here and now. However, for the player who said he doesn’t really set goals, he did let one slip out — and if he continues to progress at the rate he has to date, it should be more than realistic.
"I think I’m going to just work really hard over the next couple of years and hopefully play in the NHL," he said. "Hopefully in the next three or four years I’ll be playing in the NHL."