Utica Comets’ GM: If possible, will try and ‘improve’ team; Schmid recalled
There have been some ups and downs for the Utica Comets during the team’s second season as the American Hockey League affiliate of the New Jersey Devils.
After a slow start and a push for consistency – especially on the offensive side – a 12-game point-streak between December and January helped Utica move from the bottom to near the top of the seven-team North Division.
Recently, the Comets led by coach Kevin Dineen have gone cold with a 1-6-0-1 record with two pivotal contests remaining in February.
Comets General Manager Dan MacKinnon said in a recent interview with the Daily Sentinel that the “buy-in” from the players has been good. He agreed consistency remains a work in progress.
“When there is not a lot of room for error and you’re not going to score your way out of trouble like we did last year on occasion because we were a pretty talented group up front, you do have to be more consistent,” MacKinnon said in a recent phone interview with the Daily Sentinel. “Attention to detail in all three zones: That’s the focus. … Overall, I think the commitment level is there.”
Entering 7 p.m. games Wednesday and Friday at the Cleveland Monsters, the Comets have lost four consecutive contests. Utica is coming off a 3-1 setback to Toronto on Monday.
The recent slump has dropped Utica (23-20-5-2 overall) into a tie with rival Syracuse with 53 points to occupy the second and third spots in the North with about a third of the 72-game schedule remaining. All but three of the Comets’ 22 remaining games are against North teams making it a critical stretch.
The four other North teams have made up ground with eight points separating squads in second through seventh place in the North. The top five North teams qualify for postseason.
“Certainly – and the season is not over – we want to be a playoff team,” MacKinnon said. “We knew we weren’t going to be as potent a group offensively, but felt like our identity – Kevin (Dineen) and I have talked about it – would be one-goal hockey and good goaltending. That’s pretty much what our identity has been. … We do have trouble scoring at times. We knew that was going to be a challenge. But, we’re in every game. It sets up well for the playoffs, assuming we’re successful in getting in there. It is just improving incrementally on the offensive side and the power play while not losing what makes us a hard team to play against.”
There have been recent roster changes, with the addition of forward Alex Holtz — considered day-to-day following a lower-body injury Monday — and the trade of Zach Senyshyn.
MacKinnon said “if there’s an opportunity to try and improve,” he’ll do it.
That depends on what the resurgent Devils – pushing to make the NHL playoffs for the first time since 2018 – do at the NHL deadline, which is Friday, March 3. Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald has said he’s been looking to add a top forward, according to reports.
The AHL trade deadline is Friday, March 10.
“It is no secret that (Utica has) been a little thin down the middle with injuries (Brian Pinho and Nolan Stevens have been out), and now we have (Tyce) Thompson and (Nolan) Foote playing in the middle. It is great for them to have versatility but they’re more projected as wingers,” MacKinnon said. “It is hard to do, but I’ll probably have to wait until after the NHL trade deadline because you don’t know what the contract situation is going to be if we do something (at the NHL level), either with contracts going in or out.”
On Tuesday, the Devils recalled goaltender Akira Schmid from the Comets.
Earlier Tuesday, coach Lindy Ruff said goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood “tweaked something.” That warranted the call-up for New Jersey, which was playing Montreal on Tuesday.
It is Schmid’s second stint with New Jersey this season after Blackwood was out. Schmid has been solid in 20 appearances with Utica this season with a 2.53 goals-against average, a .908 save percentage and a 10-6-3 record.
To fill his spot, Utica recalled rookie Isaac Poulter from ECHL Adirondack to serve as a tandem with Nico Daws.
In four games with Utica, Poulter has a 4.35 GAA, a .865 save percentage and 1-1-2 record.
Regardless of what happens at the respective trade deadlines, some New Jersey prospects are expected to join Utica, MacKinnon said.
MacKinnon said defenseman Shakir Mukhamadullin, the Devils’ 20th overall pick in 2020, is expected “to make his way to Utica,” when his team’s KHL season ends. Mukhamadullin joined Utica last season during the playoffs.
Fellow defenseman Topias Vilén, a Devils’ fifth-round draft pick in 2021, is also expected to join Utica once his season with Finland’s Lahden Pelicans ends. And, forward Chase Stillman, New Jersey’s 29th overall pick in 2021, is expected to join Utica following his junior season with OHL Peterborough. Stillman joined Utica toward the end of last season, but didn’t play.
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