The Utica Comets are off to the best start in their franchise history, so I thought I’d take a quick look at five reasons why the club has gotten off to such a blistering start.
#1 – Quality of the Roster
24 Reid Boucher (A) – 19 Carter Camper – 13 Kole Lind
95 Justin Bailey – 27 Francis Perron – 15 Zack MacEwen (A)
47 Sven Baertschi – 9 Lukas Jasek – 77 Nikolay Goldobin
21 Jonah Gadjovich – 36 Wacey Hamilton (A) – 18 Vincent Arseneau
48 Olli Juolevi – 5 Jalen Chatfield
55 Guillaume Brisebois – 25 Brogan Rafferty
4 Josh Teves – 8 Dylan Blujus
31 Zane McIntyre
64 Michael DiPietro
That has more or less been the Comets lineup to start the season. Tyler Graovac played the first game before leaving partway through with a lower-body injury. Captain Carter Bancks got into two games before getting dinged up, putting up two points along the way. Ashton Sautner also saw time before being summoned to Vancouver, while depth forwards Dyson Stevenson and Seamus Malone have played a pair of games each.
The Comets coaching staff have a pretty nice group of players available to them when they are laying out their lines and they look to have found some early chemistry while forming a balanced attack. Sure, it is nice to have players like Baertschi and Goldobin piling up points in a league that they probably don’t belong in. It is also nice that those two players have come to Utica without sulking and are helping their linemate, (Lukas Jasek) as he makes the adjustment to the center-ice position.
The coaching staff has spread the wealth throughout the forward lines and they’ve kept those lines together for the most part. That has allowed for those trios to learn how each other plays and to know where their linemates will be on the ice. Because of this, the team has seen offensive contributions from all four lines as well as some nice help from the defensive group.
The team’s younger players have a supporting cast with a higher skill level than they had last year. Names like Baertschi, Goldobin, Bailey, Perron, Graovac, Camper, and the returning Reid Boucher will go a long way in helping the team’s prospects develop in a winning environment while taking their cues from players who can help them produce points at a higher rate than what we’ve seen over the past couple of seasons.
The Comets started training camp with four goaltenders who had a chance of making the opening night roster and the team decided to keep three of them around.
We have already seen newcomer Zane McIntyre summoned to Vancouver and returned after a two-game absence. Jake Kielly was sent to Kalamazoo of the ECHL to start his season with the Wings. Kielly has played in one game for the Wings so far, taking a loss while posting a 4.14 goals-against average and a 0.846% save percentage.
Richard Bachman has yet to play, but he has ridden shotgun in three games this year. He’s been the backup twice for Michael DiPietro and once for McIntyre.
McIntyre has won all three of his starts, allowing seven goals on 108 shots for a save percentage of 0.935%. His goals-against-average currently sits at 2.30. He came up with 45 stops in his most recent win over the Rochester Americans.
Rookie Michael DiPietro hasn’t been as busy, but he has won his two starts as well. The young netminder has stopped 40 of the 44 shots that he’s faced while posting a goals-against-average of 2.00 along with a 0.909% save percentage. That’s a pretty good start, and after the way his NHL debut went last year, it has probably given the young netminder some confidence.
The 11 goals allowed by the Comets through five games are
currently tied for the fewest allowed in the AHL this season.
The fact that the Comets have Bachman waiting in the wings has to be of comfort to the organization. We saw DiPietro forced into a start that he wasn’t ready for at the NHL level last year, so this added insulation is definitely welcomed.
#3 Penalty Kill
The Comets power play has been abysmal so far, scoring just three times on 22 opportunities, but their penalty kill is currently the league’s fourth-best. The Comets have killed off 23 of the 25 power plays that they have given up for a success rate of 92.0% on the season.
The coaching staff isn’t just rolling their favourite vets over the boards for special teams work as we’ve seen all of the club’s young defenders on the kill, as well as Zack MacEwen, Lukas Jasek, and a little bit of Francis Perron as well.
MacEwen saw time on the kill last year and has become a go-to-guy for Trent Cull when his team is down a man. We’ve even seen TheBigFella as the lone forward on five-on-three kills already this year.
It took MacEwen almost a season and a half before the coaching staff used him regularly on the kill, but that hasn’t been the case for Lukas Jasek, who has quickly become a staple this season with his team down a man.
Lukas is often paired with one of Wacey Hamilton or Carter Bancks on the kill and both have been excellent in that role since I’ve been viewing the team. Jasek is being brought along by the right people on that side of things.
On the back end, the team has used all but Stefan LeBlanc for at least a game this season and to a man, all of the defenders have seen time on the kill.
Jalen Chatfield and Olli Juolevi play together at evens and they’ve been kept together on the kill. Chatfield has always been a penalty killing machine as that has been one of his calling cards in his brief career. Seeing Chatfield throwing his body in front of pucks is nothing new, but I have been surprised at the frequency with which Juolevi has sacrificed his body with a block this season.
Guillaume Brisebois has been paired with one of Ashton Sautner or Dylan Blujus on the kill for the most part and no matter who he is paired with, the job has been getting done. Teves and Rafferty have been sprinkled in on the kill and both have proven equal to the task.
#4 Team Speed
This version of the Comets blueline can move the puck. The group is younger than last year’s squad and they have shown to be a good deal more mobile as well.
Jalen Chatfield has always outskated most of the players he finds himself on the ice with, but this season, he has some company. All of Chatfield, Sautner, Brisebois, Rafferty, and Teves skate really well. Dylan Blujus can handle his own at the AHL level, while Olli Juolevi has struggled at times with his surgically repaired knee but his skating should improve as the season goes on and his knee returns to full capacity.
Up front, Justin Bailey looks like he has a cheat code with the way he blows past guys on the regular. The man has wheels for days and he knows how to use them. He plays on a line with Francis Perron, who also gets around the ice very well, and Zack MacEwen. All three have been wheeling out there this season and have had opponents on their heels.
Reid Boucher and Carter Camper are not known for blazing speed, but both have been in this league long enough to know where to be on the ice and how to get there efficiently. Kole Lind is the third on that line and skating is not an issue for him. While he isn’t a burner, Lind has the speed and the drive to beat other skaters to pucks.
Baertschi, Jasek, and Goldobin make up another line and with 21 points in five games between them, they are getting the job done. Using their speed and opportunistic passing has helped with that production. Jasek has that dog on a bone mentality when it comes to retrieving pucks and he has a pair of wingers who can take advantage of that trait.
#5 Team Depth
Some of this is already covered above, but this team as it is currently constructed is deep.
From the net out, this team has capable options going forward. In Jake Kielly and Michael DiPietro, the team has a pair of young netminders who will be looking to establish their spot in the team pecking order. Both have played big roles with their team’s success in the past and have the potential to do the same for Utica.
The team also has veterans McIntyre and Bachman to lean on and both have a wealth of experience at the AHL level. Bachman has been in Utica since the 2015/16 season and has 261 games of experience in the AHL.
McIntyre, for his part, has 158 games played in the AHL with 93 of those coming over the previous two seasons. He’s put up stellar numbers so far in Utica and has looked like a calming presence in the crease.
On the back end, the team has been leaning on some young players, and those youngsters have proven to be up to the task so far. The oldest member of the Comets blueline is currently Dylan Blujus at 25-years of age. Ashton Sautner is also 25, but a few months younger. Mitch Eliot and Stefan LeBlanc have yet to see any action with the Comets, although Eliot was dispatched to Kalamazoo for a game in order to get some minutes for him before he was brought back to work with the Utica coaching staff.
Having the likes of LeBlanc, Eliot, and Blujus around should prove favourable to names like Brandon Anselmini, Jagger Dirk, and Jesse Graham as we saw last season.
Up front, the Comets are coming at teams in waves with three lines that can light them up on the scoreboard and one that will leave opponents black and blue. They have already had to press depth forwards Dyson Stevenson and Seamus Malone into duty and both have shown utility in being able to move from the wing to the middle when needed.
If they need to reach deeper, they have forwards David Pope, Tanner Sorenson, and Dylan Sadowy plying their trades in Kalamazoo, along with the aforementioned Jake Kielly in goal. On the back end, they have lefties Zach Frye and Aaron Thow in KZOO, while Matt PetGrave is also on an AHL deal with Utica while playing with the Brampton Beast of the ECHL.
The Comets have had to sign a bevy of players to PTOs, (professional tryout offers) over the past couple of years and they might well have to sign a few this year as well, but the quality of the depth from Vancouver down to Kalamazoo looks to be better than we’ve seen in a number of years.
The Comets are back in action on Friday, October 25th when the Binghamton Devils come to town for game number six of the season. Will they remain undefeated?… stay tuned to find out.