Clarke gets NHL call-up as roster carousel continues for Utica Comets
The month of March could be make or break for the Utica Comets and their Calder Cup playoff hopes.
As the team opens one of its busiest months – 13 games as part of the final full month of the regular-season — the Comets will have to do it without their leading scorer.
It only felt like a matter of time before Graeme Clarke’s breakout season with Utica earned him a call-up to the parent New Jersey Devils.
The first NHL call-up officially was announced Tuesday for the 21-year-old winger, who had a four-game point-streak with four goals and four assists. As of Tuesday, he was the lone Comets player to go over the 40-point mark this season and his 20 goals lead the team.
“I think it has been a great year for (Graeme),” Comets General Manager Dan MacKinnon said in a recent interview with the Daily Sentinel. “Because (the Comets) were going to be missing some scoring, we challenged him to take a step. And he has. ...”
Clarke began to elevate his game earlier this season while playing with Joe Gambardella and Nolan Stevens. Clarke has had other linemates recently as the roster has shuffled.
“Obviously, it is nice when the puck goes in the net. Because I felt like I had a bit of a slow start to the season,” Clarke said in December. “So, to see it going in now is nice.”
There was no media availability this week with Comets coach Kevin Dineen or players in part because of the team’s travel schedule.
While Clarke closes in on his regular-season NHL debut — the Devils play Wednesday at Colorado — it is another tough break for the Comets (25-20-5-2 overall, 55 points), who are trying to gain traction following a 3-6-0-1 mark in February. Utica won its final two games of the month at Cleveland.
With 20 regular-season games remaining — most against North Division foes including New York state rivals Syracuse and Rochester — the Comets are trying to separate from the other teams. Toronto (75 points) has a firm hold on first place, though teams in spots second through seven are separated by eight points.
Clarke’s recall comes at a tough time when Utica’s roster has had an in-season roster makeover. With Andreas Johnsson dealt as part of New Jersey’s blockbuster trade to acquire Timo Meier on Sunday, the Comets are now without their top two scorers.
Clarke and Johnsson accounted for 29 goals and 74 total points on a team that has struggled to find offense this season. The team is averaging 2.98 goals.
There was another development Tuesday after veteran defenseman Scott Harrington was claimed on waivers by Anaheim, which announced the move. He likely would have been sent to Utica if he had not been claimed.
So, it is next man up.
Alex Holtz remains day-to-day with a lower-body injury he suffered Feb. 20 at Toronto. It is possible he’s ready for the Comets’ home games Friday and Sunday, MacKinnon said.
Nolan Stevens (missed last nine games with upper-body injury) is day-to-day and Brian Pinho (missed last six with upper-body injury) remains out, MacKinnon said.
The Comets did recall Xavier Parent from ECHL Adirondack, where he has 45 points in 44 games. He’s pointless in three games with Utica.
Defenseman Michael Vukojevic is out for a few weeks with a broken finger, MacKinnon said.
The team should be able to have 12 forwards and six defensemen for Wednesday’s games.
Utica Comets at Belleville Senators
WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday.
WHERE: CAA Arena, Belleville, Ontario.
BROADCAST: KROCK 94.9FM or krock.com (free); watchtheahl.com (subscription video).
SEASON SERIES: Utica leads the six-game series 3-0-0-0 after a 4-3 overtime win Dec. 31 in Utica.
RECORDS: Utica (25-20-5-2, 57 points, tied for 2nd with Syracuse in points; Belleville (22-26-4-1 overall, 7th in the North).
WHAT TO KNOW: Belleville, Ottawa’s AHL affiliate, has won back-to-back games and five of the last seven following road wins at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Hersey last weekend. Belleville enters Wednesday just two points out of fifth place in the North Division. ... Belleville is 4-4-1-1 in its last 10 home games, which included three consecutive meetings against Laval when the Senators won two of the games. The team is 13-12-1-1 overall at home this season. ... Utica is 5-5-0-0 in the last 10 road games and 13-11-3-0 overall on the road this season. ... Ryan Schmelzer leads the Comets with four assists against Belleville this season. His 20 assists are fourth-most on the team among active players. ... Reilly Walsh has a goal and four assists during a three-game point-streak. His 25 points are most among Comets defensemen. His points are tied for 29th among all AHL defensemen.
UPCOMING: 7 p.m. Friday vs. Charlotte; 3 p.m. Sunday vs. Syracuse.
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