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Utica Comets make trades ‘to be stronger’ with playoff push in full force

Ben Birnell
Sports writer
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Posted 3/10/23

The Utica Comets roster has changed again this season.

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Utica Comets make trades ‘to be stronger’ with playoff push in full force


UTICA — The Utica Comets roster has changed again this season. 

Ahead of the American Hockey League’s trade/loan deadline at 3 p.m. Eastern on Friday, the Comets made a few moves to help bolster a team making a push for the playoffs with five weeks left in the regular season. 

The AHL deadline typically isn’t as busy as its NHL counterpoint. However, Friday was one of the more active periods involving Utica over the team’s 10 AHL seasons. Utica is in its second season as the AHL affiliate of the New Jersey Devils. 

Most notably, forward Jack Dugan – on an NHL deal with New Jersey – was sent to the Carolina Hurricanes/AHL Chicago for defenseman Zack Hayes, who is also on an NHL contract. 

In another move, the Comets traded veteran defenseman Dylan Blujus – on an AHL deal with Utica – to the Belleville Senators. To complete a “future considerations” aspect of the transaction, Utica obtained forward Jayce Hawryluk from Belleville/Ottawa Senators.

The moves effectively bring in a forward and defenseman who add some grit while parting with a forward and defenseman.

Comets General Manager and New Jersey Assistant General Manager Dan MacKinnon told the Daily Sentinel in late February that “if there’s an opportunity to try and improve” the team, he would do it. 

“It was nice to be able to do a couple things that I think help the team,” MacKinnon said Friday afternoon. “It is about roles when you’re trying to put a team and group together in the stretch drive part of the season. I just think our team is going to be stronger with the way we’re allocating potential roles with these players.” 

Hayes and Hawryluk will report to the Comets, though neither were expected to suit up Friday against Belleville when the Comets try to solidify a spot near the top of the North Division. 

Utica has games at 6 p.m. Saturday at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and 4:05 p.m. Sunday at Lehigh Valley and Hayes could make his debut in one of the contests. Hawryluk is expected to join the Comets next week after working through logistics with a work visa.

While Hayes and Hawryluk are on NHL contracts neither will be eligible to be recalled by New Jersey as the deadline elapsed last week for the NHL. That means they will remain with Utica with about five weeks remaining in the regular-season.

Dugan had seemingly been finding more of a rhythm with the Comets recently after playing throughout the lineup this season, though he had missed a few games. In 51 games with Utica, the 24-year-old Dugan had 11 goals and 27 points. That ranked tied for fifth on the team in scoring. 

The 27-year-old Hawryluk has been in and out of Belleville’s lineup this season, most recently dealing with an injury. In 19 games with Belleville, he had three goals for eight points. He also has played 98 NHL games with Florida, Ottawa and Vancouver.

“We’ve always liked Hawryluk. He’s a hard-nosed, two-way player … and still in his prime,” MacKinnon said. “He’s got great character. We wanted to potentially send a veteran back the other way. That’s when Blujus became a reality. We’re happy with what Dylan did for us this year. That was the right fit to make the trade work.”

Blujus, a reliable stay-at-home defenseman, has appeared in more than 350 AHL games. The Buffalo native, who was in his third season overall with Utica, had a goal and five points in 19 games this season. 

MacKinnon said looking at the forwards from a depth chart prospective, Hawryluk could fall in on the right side below skilled forward Alex Holtz and leading scorer Graeme Clarke. Hawyrluk could vie for spot along with Tyce Thompson. MacKinnon noted Brian Halonen has shown he can shift to the left side.

“We’ll be strong down the right side,” MacKinnon said. “No matter how (coach) Kevin (Dineen) orders the lines, I think we’re stronger in the top-nine overall.”

The opportunity with Chicago means Dugan could “get a better opportunity to stay in his offensive role,” MacKinnon noted. MacKinnon felt the team could afford to move him for “frankly a better 200-foot player.” 

And, the Comets lacked some defensive depth, MacKinnon said, following injuries to Michael Vukjoevic (“longer term,” MacKinnon said) and Jeremy Groleau (lower-body) and Nikita Okhotiuk being involved in New Jersey’s massive blockbuster deal for Timo Meier ahead of the NHL trade deadline.

Hayes, who had been traded to Carolina in November, provides a physical element. The 6-foot-3, 224-pound defenseman has 21 points in 117 career AHL games. He played in three NHL games with Vegas.

“There are a lot of variables on the back end. Moving Blujus out and bringing in Hayes, who is a strong, sturdy, meat-and-potatoes defender, I thought he’d be perfect in that role,” MacKinnon said.


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