Gambardella, Russo return to Utica Comets on AHL deals
Two key veteran leaders are returning to the Utica Comets.
The American Hockey League team announced Friday that forward Joe Gambardella and defenseman Robbie Russo have been signed to AHL deals.
The 29-year-old Gambardella has signed a two-year deal while the 30-year-old Russo's contract is for the 2023-24 season. No other details of the contracts were released, which is a standard practice for AHL teams and contracts.
Both players were set to be unrestricted free agents with their NHL contracts with the parent New Jersey Devils due to expire this summer. Both players were making $320,000 in the AHL during the 2022-23 season, according to capfriendly.com.
New Jersey handles the hockey operations-related moves, including signing players to contracts for an upcoming season. The AHL deals allow New Jersey to sign others to their 50 allotted NHL contracts. The Devils have about 20 players who are set to be restricted or unrestricted agents that they have to make decisions on. The organization will also likely add during free agency in July.
Gambardella and Russo have been part of the Comets' leadership group as alternate captains during the team's first two seasons as the Devils' AHL affiliate along with Tyler Wotherspoon and captain Ryan Schmelzer.
Comets coach Kevin Dineen spoke highly of the group and their needed guidance with the younger players on the roster.
Dineen specifically mentioned during his end-of-season availability earlier in the month about meeting with Gambardella during the offseason — both have homes in the Capital Region — which made it seem like the forward might be returning to the Comets.
Over the last two seasons, Gambardella has earned the team awards for Most Heart and Class Guy. The Staten Island native has been named as a favorite in the Comets' room because of his easygoing demeanor. The bearded Gambardella has also become a fan favorite for his hardworking style of play.
He finished last season with 35 points —second-most in his seven pro seasons — which was fourth-most on the team. He reached 10 goals for the second time in as many seasons. His 25 assists were a career-best. His four penalty minutes in 59 games were a career-fewest.
His 124 games with the Comets rank 31st on the team's all-time list. His 66 points rank 22nd on the Comets' list. He has 177 points in 307 total AHL games with Utica and Bakersfield.
Russo provides leadership and experience on the blue line for a Comets' squad that could have some younger players depending on decisions made by Devils over the offseason and in the fall at training camp.
Russo has played in nearly 80 consecutive games as he played in all 72 regular-season games during the 2022-23 season. He finished with 28 points, ranking third among Utica defensemen. He also totaled up four points in both playoff appearances for Utica, finishing with four assists this postseason.
His 142 games with Utica are fifth-most among defensemen on the career list. In seven seasons with Utica, Grand Rapids, Tucson and San Jose, Russo has 239 points – 40 goals and 199 assists — in 500 AHL regular-season games.
Because of the number of pro games both have played (more than 320), they both fall under veteran status in the AHL. Teams can have a total of six veteran or veteran exempt players in the lineup each game. The 30-year-old Schmelzer (265) will be veteran exempt.
Gambardella and Russo join Schmelzer as signed to AHL contracts for next season. Also signed to AHL deals are Timur Ibragimov, T.J. Friedmann, Erik Middendorf and goalie Issac Poulter. More players will likely be added on AHL contracts before the 23-24 season.
Gambardella is set to host a hockey camp at the Utica University Nexus Center in July with Schmelzer. He had a similar camp in Utica last summer.
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