This past Sunday, Patrick Johnston reported that the Utica Comets had financial concerns about returning to play without crowds. I began to have serious doubts that there would even be a Comets season to watch this year.
Here we are less than 48-hours later, and not only are the Utica Comets back, but it’s as if they’re living out a bizarre, whimsical, Disney sports movie; “Two rival teams from opposite sides of the tracks unexpectedly have to come together before the season! And in order to win, they’re going to have to find out what it takes to work together! Rated G!”
Even without factoring the merger of two clubs players & prospects to a single AHL team, the subject of how the Canucks/Comets were to construct their team without the majority of its star players from last season is a fascinatingly intricate exercise to work through. There were so many implications to take away from the taxi-squad alone, let alone the merger of prospects from two NHL clubs in a competing conference.
Most fans understand that the Canucks are in tough this season by having their affiliate across the border. The Canadian government hasn’t waived the mandatory seven-day quarantine period for re-called players from the AHL. So if the Canucks find themselves in a situation where they have to call up a player, they will have to do so with a week’s foresight. It will be a remarkable season of transactions, and I feel bad for Eliteprospects and Capfriendlys servers during the coming months.
Originally, I had thought the Canucks might opt-out of running a full six-man taxi-squad; instead, running a smaller group to ensure their up-and-coming prospects got more ice-time in the AHL. Unfortunately, that would require thinking ahead on almost a day-to-day basis, something this Canucks management group isn’t exceptionally good at.
Potentially, the Canucks could still opt for a smaller taxi squad group. However, with a condensed schedule, I feel that they will want as many bodies available. This means that of the 36-man training camp roster, at minimum, eight players will be headed to Utica to play out a very truncated and bizarre season in an augmented North Division.
Enter the St. Louis Blues.
St. Louis’s farm team, the San Antonio Rampage, was purchased by the Vegas Golden Knights and re-located to Henderson, NV to become the Henderson Silver Knights.
Crazy name, I know.
Also, it’s kind of incredible that the team responsible for knocking the Blues out of the playoff bubble is now going to be responsible for playing, training, and developing their players/prospects in the immediately ensuing season. Beautiful, really.
Now, to the players and prospects who will most likely be heading to Utica from both sides!
St. Louis Blues AHL-Probables
Using Capfriendly, I put together this roster of all the likely AHL designees from the Blues camp. Listed are all signed players, so I’ve indicated X’s on those who were not invited to training-camp despite their contract status. Polei, Neighbours, and Fitzpatrick are ECHL players and might yet be invited to Utica. There are also a few players assigned to the KHL, in Kostin, Torpchenko and Alexandrov. The latter two being assigned to the K for the remainder of the season, and Kostin being a potential add-on to either the Blues NHL or AHL roster should he be able to sort his visa issues.
CHL players have also been granted the ability to practice/play with the farm-club of their NHL team – so I wonder if, on top of Mathias Laferriere, could we see players like Ethan Keppen and Carson Focht join Utica as well? However, it is unclear if that exception is granted to players with signing rights to their draft-team, or if the exception is only for CHL players with contracts.
Kostin would represent the most significant addition to the Comets roster if he were able to venture stateside. He has the draft pedigree and the skill, but most in Blues-nation believe he’s better off playing games in the AHL than sitting in the press-box or on the taxi squad.
AHL-Probables for the Canucks
Let’s start with the most obvious players: Teves, Eliot, Woo, Gadjovich, Lockwood, and Kielly are all assuredly playing in the AHL this season. Barring monumental improvements to their games and blowing the lids off of everyone in Vancouver. I can’t picture any of these guys making the taxi-squad or the starting roster. Some guys still need time to cook, and some guys have pretty much capped out on how far they can go.
Exempt from this exercise is Petrus Palmu, who was not invited to camp and is currently playing in the DEL, where he’s put up zero points in five games played. He had some very fun seasons in the Liiga, with some spectacular highlight-reel goals, but it doesn’t look like he’ll ever get over the hump.
Moving on to the # “almost-there-fellas.” We have players like Lind, Sautner, Brisebois, Bailey, Jasek, Michaelis, and Graovac. Graovac probably has the best shot of cracking the taxi squad lineup due to his experience, but I can’t see his footspeed making him an effective NHL’er anymore.
On the other end of the footspeed spectrum is Justin Bailey, who, for whatever reason, has been unable to translate his speed-first game to the NHL. His lack of two-way game won’t fly with Travis Green, and his brief stint with the Canucks last season didn’t exactly leave a lot to be desired.
Not his fault, but Lukas Jasek is definitely playing in the AHL this season. Unfortunately, he was a late arrival to camp and, should he complete his quarantine, will be hard-pressed to make a big-enough statement in the final days of camp to earn a roster-spot. It’s possible, but it’s a big ask from a young player who isn’t quite on the Canucks coaches’ radar.
Then there are the rest, Lind, Michaelis, Sautner, and Brisebois. All guys who would be on the cusp of earning cups-of-coffee in a regular, non-truncated season. But a lame-duck coach like Travis Green will be leaning heavily on rotating the defensemen and bottom-six forwards from his taxi-squad and press box, who can penalty-kill, to maintain a somewhat healthy and competitive roster.
Constructing A Starting Lineup
With all of these factors in mind; How do the Utica Comets field a competitive roster that doesn’t break-up existing chemistry, develops two NHL teams prospects and creates a winning environment?
As you can see we have five forwards debuting, seven forwards entering their second or third season, and five entering their fourth or higher. A decent spread of AHL experience, with several players coming off of their best year for AHL production. The players highlighted blue are those with the most AHL/NHL experience. Players highlighted green are those who need AHL ice-time the most for their development. Purple are for the guys who mostly spent time in the ECHL, unlikely to play significant minutes. The two layers highlighted red are possible options from the CHL.
This lineup keeps a relatively balanced distribution of established AHL producers with young forwards and debuting rookies. There is an attempt at maintaining one of the more dynamic bonds of last season in Lind/Bailey. Combining the latter with the AHL’s leading scorer from last season, Sam Anas could be fireworks as a top-line.
I’ve heard only positive things about Michaelis’s game in the NCAA. His placement above Graovac/Jasek isn’t a condemnation of the latter but based entirely on the praise I’ve read of his game. Slotting him alongside another established AHL producer in Curtis McKenzie and Blues prospect Austin Pogasnki should help him transition his game to the AHL.
Lukas Jasek on a good AHL team should be a third-line center who can kill penalties and eat tough all of the tough minutes at 5v5. Slotted alongside him are tenacious forwards Will Lockwood and giant Blues center/left-wing prospect Nolan Stevens. For all of Jasek’s two-way positives, he still has a lack of size. The additions of Nolan Stevens and Will Lockwood to his wings will make up for that in spades. A third-line with aggression and relentless fore-checking could be precisely what Jasek needs to build his confidence as a center. If not, perhaps he can flip back to the left wing, and Stevens can supplant him.
Barring some miraculous training-cam improvements, I can’t picture Gadjovich slotting above some of the previously mentioned forwards. Tyler Graovac is a fine center for him to play with as he’s basically what Gadjovich needs to be at the AHL/NHL level, a big body who can skate and play hard along the boards to produce. Graovac may not have NHL wheels anymore, but he can teach Gadj a thing or two o a tough line with debuting undersized center prospect Hugh McGing.
Suppose the Comets truly embrace the “development” aspect of this truncated season. In that case, we might see full rotations of ECHL-calibre forwards into and out of the lineup regularly.
edit: This list is completely off, as I apparently listed off each player’s GP from their 2019-20 campaign, not their AHL GP. in totality.
Speicifically, Walman – 189 GP, Brisebois – 165 GP, Tucker 2 GP, Reinke -122 GP, and Sautner – 242 GP.
The D-Pairings for an amalgamated farm team will be tough to figure out. Not a lot of significant AHL experience, but several players have NHL experience sprinkled throughout.
Who the Canucks stick on the taxi squad is a mystery. And the addition of Travis Hamonic throws massive question-marks on where Rafferty and Chatfield end up.
Because I don’t believe Rafferty’s offence has a place in Green’s lineup, I have to think he’ll get another full-season of AHL duty.
But again, who knows!
The only thing I can guaran-cheese for certain is Ashton Sautner will 100% be put on his off-side to elevate the game of a debuting rookie. In this case, likely Blues prospect Scott Perunovich! Teves likely wont see much ice time this year. Mitch Eliot had fun underlying numbers and a great shot in spurts last season, but didn’t quite earn the trust of the coaching staff, he has a tough list of players to earn ice-time over with the addition of Reinke to the Comets right-side.
It’s pretty clear that Di Pietro is the Canucks third-best goalie, but I find it hard to believe that it’s in his best interest to sit practicing with the taxi squad for an entire season.
The Blues don’t have a goalie option for the AHL outside of Hofer. As a debuting goalie from the WHL, he’ll likely rotate games with Kielly while Di Pietro starts most games.
If Di Pietro does get taxi squad duty, and we see Silovs in the AHL with Kielly and Hofer — we might just see a flat rotation between three rookie goalies for an entire season.
*exhales* man, this is going to be crazy
After writing this, Thomas Drance posited on TSN1040 that the Canucks could loan a player like Justin Bailey to the Toronto Marlies to keep him available for call-ups. Something I hadn’t even considered, and something that could completely tank everything I’ve speculated! There are so many avenues that GMs have for managing their roster this season.
This might be the one season where GM of the year will actually feel deserved.