Comets’ Dineen finds positives after falling short of AHL postseason goal

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UTICA — It got rolling about six months ago with the Utica Comets setting an American Hockey League record and ended well short of the goal of reaching the Calder Cup finals.

There were certainly ups and downs in the Comets’ first season as the AHL affiliate of the New Jersey Devils. The team navigated a new coach in Kevin Dineen, players being in a new location and managing their struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic as well as injuries and call-ups.

The team featured one of the most talented groups to play here in Utica’s nine seasons. While Utica accumulated 43 wins and a North Division regular-season title before being ousted in a deciding Game 5 of a second-round series against Rochester last week at home, Dineen said the team “underachieved” during his season-ending availability Wednesday.

However, he said the message was simple for players last weekend as they cleaned out their lockers and departed the area.

“Don’t kid yourself: It was a hugely successful year,” said Dineen, whose 365 victories rank 10th on the AHL career wins list. “We feel like there were a lot of good things that did go on here at the end of it. The whole goal is to win the Calder Cup and the Stanley Cup organizationally. To have that success, this organization has seen that before. That’s what we strive to get to.” 

He’s referring to the New Jersey organization’s achievements between the mid-90s and the early 2000s with three Stanley Cups and an AHL Calder Cup. In recent years, the organization has struggled on the ice.

The first full AHL season since the pandemic started in March 2020 was key for many of the organization’s prospects including forwards Alexander Holtz, Fabian Zetterlund, Tyce Thompson, Nolan Foote, defensemen Reilly Walsh, Kevin Bahl and Nikita Okhotiuk and goaltenders Nico Daws and Akira Schmid. Each have put themselves in the conversation to possibly get opportunities with the Devils next season, depending on how the offseason plays out. 

Dineen said the younger players “took strides” during the season that totaled 77 games.

“You look at our prospect pool and I think it is large and it is healthy,” Dineen said. “There are some guys who are looking forward to following their career paths and see how their summer goes and to see the steps that they take going forward.”

Falling short of expectations is motivation for some of the experienced players, who had their own success. There are some who could return for the Comets’ 10th season.

“You can feel sorry for yourself and you can go through the quote-unquote mourning process of not being in the mix anymore,” Dineen said. “At the end of it, you take what you’ve learned and make strides to get back to where you were which is to have home-ice advantage in the playoffs. That’s a challenge in itself.” 

Dineen said it is a continual learning process, especially being unfamiliar with the organization and working with a different system on the ice since taking the job last summer.

“You try to impart your past experiences onto people and you look for that in return,” he said. “That might come from a 20-year-old kid that you’re learning something from. It is that continual learning process that always creates a healthy environment. If there’s one thing that we certainly feel like we had this year, it was that healthy environment. Our players came every day and worked to get better.” 

Dineen said he plans to be behind the Comets’ bench next season as he’s under a three-year contract. 

“For me, I love coming to work here every day and to be a part of this organization. I speak on behalf of all our staff working here in Utica and for the Comets. There’s a good rapport between management and hockey operations here,” Dineen said. 

New Jersey has assistant coaching openings. Could Comets associate coach Sergei Brylin and assistant coach Ryan Parent get an opportunity? 

“There’s always discussions going in all directions,” Dineen said. “That was a strength of our staff was I think we were cohesive and spoke as a unit. To me, I think they made me better every day. I don’t think I’m the easiest guy to work for. I ask a lot of questions and I want a lot of answers. At the end of it, I felt it was a healthy environment. I’m very appreciative of the staff we have here. I think there’s going to be plenty of options for those guys to further their coaching careers.” 

Who will be back?

Here’s a look at the status of contracts for players who spent time with the Comets. Whether or not players return to the Comets next season is based on decisions made by New Jersey officials.

Free agents

Forwards: Tyce Thompson (Restricted free agent), Fabian Zetterlund (RFA), Frederik Gauthier (unrestricted free agent), Brian Flynn (UFA), Chase De Leo (UFA), A.J. Greer (UFA), Ryan Schmelzer (AHL, UFA as are most AHL deals), Patrick Grasso (AHL), Tyler Irvine (AHL), Patrick McGrath (AHL), Samuel Laberge (AHL).

Defense: Tyler Wotherspoon (AHL).

Goalie: Mareks Mitens (AHL).

Signed for at least 2022-23 season

Forwards: Joe Gambardella, Alex Holtz, Chase Stillman (eligible to return to juniors), Nolan Foote, Graeme Clarke, Arnie Talvitie, Brian Halonen, Garrett Van Wyhe (AHL).

Goalies: Akira Schmid, Nico Daws.

Defense: Reilly Walsh, Shakir Mukhamadullin, Michael Vukojevic, Kevin Bahl, Nikita Okhotiuk, Robbie Russo, Jeremy Groleau.

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