UTICA — Make one thing certain: There won’t be a Calder Cup hangover looming over the Utica Comets.
The 80th American Hockey League season will begin tonight, as Utica prepares for its third year in the league. The Comets will start their third season on the road Saturday night when they take on the Rochester Americans for a 7:35 battle.
Making it all the way to Game 5 of the Calder Cup Finals against the Manchester Monarchs, the Comets fell 2-1. In order to get to the Finals, the Comets defeated the Chicago Wolves in Game 5 of a five-game series, the Oklahoma City Barons in a seven-game series and the Grand Rapid Griffins in another best-of-seven series.
“It wasn’t quite the way we wanted to end it last year,” said second-year forward Hunter Shinkaruk. “Even though the ending wasn’t what we wanted, we’re going to go off that this year.”
When it was over, many of the players spent a week or two to recoup after the 23-game extended season. Once the aches and pains went away, players were anxious to train to rid the heartache that happened in June.
“At the end of the day, our job is hockey, and it’s what we love to do,” said Shinkaruk, who spent time training with NHL superstar Sidney Crosby and Nathan McKinnon in the offseason. Shinkaruk noted that watching Crosby and McKinnon handle themselves in practices has helped him hone in on a leadership role that is expected from him.
In the club’s sophomore year, the Comets whited out Utica as they soared their way into first place of the Western Conference, finishing with a 47-20-7-2 record for 103 points, a dramatic turnaround from the team’s inaugural year where they just missed the playoffs.
“It’s going to be a different team,” said Comets third-year head coach Travis Green. “It always is every year. It seems like we have a lot more of our veteran group up front with some more youth on the back end and we’ll be solid in goal again.”
More likely than not, All-Star goalie Jacob Markstrom will spend the majority of the season up in Vancouver to back up Ryan Miller. Currently, Markstrom is shelved with a lower body injury and newly acquired Richard Bachman will fulfill the backup duties in Vancouver.
Clay Witt and Joe Cannata will battle in net for the Comets this season. Cannata joined the club in its first year, playing 28 games. Last season, Cannata suited up for five games, netting a 3-2 record. Witt spent the 2014-15 season with Northeastern University where he posted a 11-10-2 record, a 2.83 goals against average, and a .904 save percentage in 23 games.
“When I’m given the chance to play, I want to play well and win as many games as I can. You have to take care of your own business and other things fall into place,” said Cannata about his role with the Comets. “I think our successes will feed off one another, we’re all pretty familiar with each other.”
There are 15 players returning to the Comets this season from the Calder Cup finalist squad. They include: defensemen Travis Ehrhardt, Alex Biega, John Negrin and Andrey Pedan, forwards Alex Friesen, Hunter Shinkaruk, Brendan Gaunce, Mike Zalewski, Joseph LaBate, Nicklas Jensen, Alexandre Grenier, Carter Bancks, Wacey Hamilton and Curtis Valk and goalie Cannata.
“These guys know how hard our expectations are as a coaching staff,” said Green on the returning members. “They know how hard they have to push in practice, and you hope it carries over for the new players.”
Green acknowledged how important a veteran presence is needed in a developmental league like the AHL, saying that the Comets have been lucky with their veteran groups in the past.
The club lost a core of its veteran group to offseason signings, including All-Stars Cal O’Reilly and Bobby Sanguinetti, who signed deals with the Americans, and fan favorite Darren Archibald, who signed with the club’s ECHL team, the Kalamazoo Wings.
Also lost from the 2014-15 squad were Brandon DeFazio, who signed with the Boston Bruins’ organization; goalie Joacim Eriksson, who joined the Dinamo Riga with Rome native Tim Sestito; Adam Clendening, who was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a package to bring Brandon Sutter to the Canucks, and Cory Conacher, who joined the Swiss National League.
New faces joining the team include defensemen Evan McEneny, Anton Cederholm, Ashton Sautner, Jordan Subban and Taylor Fedun, forwards John Kurtz, Ronalds Kenins, Linden Vey, Blair Jones, Dane Fox, Cole Cassels and Mackenzie Stewart and goalie Witt.
Green noted that there will be some growing pains to get the newcomers acclimated with the program, not putting a time table on the process.
“Some of these guys have never played professionally, so you have to give them time,” said Green. “But, you have to evaluate as quick as you can on what’s in front of you.”
“We’ve always said from day one that we wanted to be a hard team to play against,” said Green. “That doesn’t start in the first game, it starts in the first practice.”
To start out the season, the Comets will have a week span between the club’s first two games, both on the road. The Comets’ second game will be on Saturday at Hartford, Conn. The Comets will open their home season on Wednesday, Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. against the Amerks as part of a three-game homestand, including Hershey and Syracuse on Friday and Saturday nights.
The first two home games of the season quickly sold out.
During the playoffs, the Utica Aud quickly became one of the toughest arenas to play at in the AHL, with the Comets’ “fifth line” voicing their excitements. During all 23 playoffs games, the Aud was whited out with every seat filled with fans.
“These new guys will see it first hand when they hit the ice for the first time,” Shinkaruk said about the atmosphere at the Aud. “Sometimes, it’s tough to get up for games, whether you’ve been on the road or playing back to back games. You get a little tired, but you come into this rink and it’s a whole different energy.”