Utica Comets’ Dineen aiming for more progress next season
UTICA — With the Utica Comets’ season ending in the second round of the American Hockey League playoffs late last week, the ice at the Adirondack Bank Center is already gone.
Standing a few feet away from the usual entrance to the ice, Comets coach Kevin Dineen said Wednesday in a season-ending media conference the team had aspirations of playing deeper into the Calder Cup playoffs.
“At the end of the day, you’d still like to be playing,” said Dineen of his second season leading the Comets as the AHL affiliate of the New Jersey Devils. “Almost to a player and a coach, we felt that was a distinct possibility.”
There was some hope there might be some redemption after last season’s record-breaking squad was also eliminated in the North Division semifinals.
It was an up-and-down season. The team had to navigate some challenges – a slow start, player movement via call-ups, trades and several injuries – that culminated with another postseason trip. A 12-game point-streak in December and January helped push Utica out of last place in the North.
There was the emergence of forward Graeme Clarke, goaltender Akira Schmid getting opportunities at the NHL and AHL level and top Devils prospect Simon Nemec gaining valuable experience.
There were struggles, notably with the Comets’ power play and penalty kill ranking near the bottom of the 32-team league. Dineen said those areas will need to be addressed.
While Dineen didn’t think the Comets necessarily overachieved when prompted Wednesday, the longtime coach described the season as a “mixed bag.”
“I think we saw some real solid steps in the right direction from some of our players. And, I think there’s a brutal reality check for other players,” Dineen said following the Game 4 loss to Toronto. “The pro game, whether you’re coming from junior or from college, there’s a level of learning that goes with it. That’s not always a smooth road. I think it was a mixed bag. I think we’ll be overall pleased. Some guys will walk out of here feeling like there’s work to be done this summer.”
Dineen said work is underway for next season. He’s under contract through 2023-24 with the plan to return to Utica.
“I think our feeling is that there is some unfinished business,” said Dineen, who had assistant coaches in Andrew Brewer and Ryan Parent this season. “We’ve already started evaluating internally how we’re going to build our roster next year and take the next step. We’ll look through our scouting staff and see some of our options and who could come in and be impact players.”
He said there’s investment with the Devils “to put a really good team” in the AHL.
“That’s not always the template that I think every NHL team follows,” Dineen said. “You take the leadership with Robert Esche and his passion for the game and the Comets and we feel like we’d like to take the folks here for a little bit of (postseason) run next year.”
He said the fanbase is vital.
“I think I have a pretty good feel for what our fanbase enjoys,” he said. “There is an identity that you are a hard, physical team to play against. I like the idea that we really believe that we are a team that doesn’t embellish, we play extremely hard whistle-to-whistle and there’s some discipline within our game. I just feel that when we have that and we are firing on all cylinders, boy, it makes a huge difference. We saw some good snapshots of that, but we need more consistency.”
He said the area is “a great place to play,” acknowledging the other ice rinks in the Mohawk Valley.
“Trust me, I’ve been around a little bit,” said Dineen, who has also coached at the NHL and international level. “I think our players enjoy not only playing here, but also being part of the community. We look at it as a real bonus for us.”
Here’s a few more topics Dineen discussed:
Dineen likes “the idea that we have a really solid leadership base.”
He noted Nolan Foote, who has taken steps with leadership with a “strong, sincere voice.”
“That would be one area that we’re excited about moving forward: The progression of our guys as far as maturity on and off ice and understand what it takes to be a real consummate pro,” he said.
He said there’s talks with the whole hockey operations staff how to improve. He said there’s “always room for evaluation and self-evaluation.”
“The only way to get better is to ask a lot of questions and get a lot of input,” Dineen said. “At the end, you have to make some hard decisions. It is just making sure you feel like you have a good body of communication that can help lead to good decision-making moving forward.”
A handful of players were added to New Jersey’s playoff roster, including Clarke, Nemec, Brian Halonen and goalie Nico Daws.
“Everybody that is going to New Jersey in Black Aces role can fill a certain role within the New Jersey lineup,” he said. “I think there’s enthusiasm when you bring somebody in.”
Who could be back?
Here’s a look at the status of contracts for players who spent time with Utica. Whether players return to Utica next season is based on decisions made by New Jersey Devils officials.
Forwards: Aarne Talvitie (NHL contract, restricted free agent), Timur Ibragimov (NHL, restricted free agent), Joseph Gambardella (NHL, unrestricted free agent), Jayce Hawryluk (NHL, UFA), Mason Geertsen (NHL, UFA), Brian Pinho (NHL, UFA), Samuel Laberge (AHL), Nolan Stevens (AHL), Xavier Parent (AHL), Nick Hutchison (AHL), Sebastian Vidmar (AHL), Nick Rivera (AHL), Filip Engaras (AHL).
Defensemen: Reilly Walsh (NHL, RFA), Zack Hayes (NHL, RFA), Robbie Russo (NHL, UFA), Jeremy Groleau (NHL, RFA), Kevin Bahl (NHL, RFA), Jarrod Gourley (AHL).
Goalies: Zach Emond, Mareks Mitens (AHL), Jake Theut (AHL).
Signed for 2023-24 season
Forwards (all NHL unless otherwise noted): Chase Stillman, Foote, Clarke, Halonen, Alex Holtz, Tyce Thompson, Josh Filmon, Ryan Schmelzer (AHL), Erik Middendorf (AHL), TJ Friedmann (AHL).
Defense: Nemec, Topias Vilen, Tyler Wotherspoon, Michael Vukojevic, Santeri Hatakka, Daniil Misyul.
Goalies: Akira Schmid, Daws, Tyler Brennan, Isaac Poulter (AHL).
Source: capfriendly.com; Utica Comets releases.
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