Gambardella: Utica 'is where I want to be'; Laberge re-signs
Joe Gambardella makes it a point to try to catch up with his teammates during the offseason.
The affable Utica Comets alternate captain and fan favorite forward is interested in how things are going with the people he spends time with during a majority of the calendar year.
With Utica’s offseason still fairly fresh – the Comets’ season ended May 5 – Gambardella and his wife, Jenna, are spending time at their home in the Saratoga area. On Monday, Gambardella was catching up with goalie Mareks Mitens at an area golf course.
“I try to reach out to all the guys during the summer,” Gambardella said in a phone interview with the Daily Sentinel. “Just to check in and see how they’re doing and keep the mood loose. It is to see how their training is going, (checking) on their golf handicap (and) checking on vacation plans … who is having a baby, who is buying a house. Stuff like that is so important.”
Gambardella sealed his own plans early this offseason after signing a two-year American Hockey League deal with Utica through the 2024-25 season. It means the Staten Island native is set to continue to play closer to home since joining the New Jersey organization in July 2021.
He said he’s “lucky enough” to return. Gambardella said he was contacted quickly after the season ended. Utica’s parent club, the New Jersey Devils, handles the hockey personnel decisions with Assistant General Manager Dan MacKinnon serving as the Comets GM.
“I wanted to come back,” said Gambardella, who noted there had been some contract talks throughout the season. “This is where I want to be. I don’t really want to go anywhere.”
After totaling 35 points in his second season with Utica, he wants to improve his shooting for next season.
Gambardella said seeing the organization’s positive direction while being part of the “culture change” is important. New Jersey had a successful season following a string of disappointing years. Utica has made the AHL playoffs in back-to-back seasons under coach Kevin Dineen.
“I love (Utica) community and I love the fan base. I love how the organization runs things from top to bottom,” said Gambardella, who has played more than 300 pro games since 2017. “It is a place my wife and I call home. We wanted to be part of it for as long as we can.”
He’s part of a veteran group that Dineen has spoken highly of over the last two seasons. The group includes captain Ryan Schmelzer and defensemen Robbie Russo and Tyler Wotherspoon. Each are signed for next season, though Wotherspoon will need to clear waivers to re-join Utica as he’s on an NHL contract.
While Utica’s last two seasons have ended in the North Division semifinals, Gambardella said the Comets have a solid foundation.
“The same group that’s been here for the last two years has kind of laid the groundwork for what the organization expects and the direction they want to go in. Now it is kind of up to us to hit the gas pedal full steam ahead,” Gambardella said. “We fell short the last two years. You want to look at it from all angles. You have to take the positives. We still have a sour taste in our mouths from this season and last season as well. We have to re-group in the summer and come back with a fool-proof plan to re-attack (the season) starting in training camp in September.”
New Jersey has decisions to make regarding more than 10 of its restricted and unrestricted free agents this offseason. Depth will also likely be added through free agency.
Players who have joined Utica have said the team is a welcoming group.
“Management is going out and getting quality players that … they feel can be asset to the locker room and want to be better,” Gambardella said. “It makes our job as leaders easier. On top of it, Dineen does a good job of making the sure the leaders and veterans have the room. It is our locker room. … He kind of lets us handle the room, which says a lot about him as coach and his character in putting a lot of trust and faith in us. We want to make sure we don’t disappoint him.”
Forward Samuel Laberge is set to return to Utica for a third season.
The team announced Tuesday that the 26-year-old forward has been signed for the 2023-24 season.
Laberge has appeared in 96 games with Utica since signing with the team for the 2021-22 season. In February 2022, Dineen said Laberge was told to find a more permanent place to live in Utica.
Since then, the Quebec native been a key part of Utica’s lineup as an energy forward known for his work ethic. He was limited to 43 games last season due to an injury.
Though, he set career-bests in goals (8) and points (16) with Utica. In the postseason, he had arguably one of the biggest goals of the season when he redirected in the game-winner and series-clincher against Laval on April 21.
Laberge has appeared in 193 AHL games totaling 51 points. This past season, he earned the Comets’ Community Service award and was the team’s Man of the Year.
“Sometimes timing confidence is the biggest thing,” Laberge said in a recent interview with the Daily Sentinel. “I’ve got a lot of help with video. ... The guys are really awesome here.”
He’s among eight players signed to an AHL deal with Utica: Gambardella, Schmelzer, Russo, Timur Imbragimov, T.J. Friedmann, Erik Middendorf and goalie Isaac Poulter.
Talvitie heads to Finland
Aarne Talvitie is headed home.
The 24-year-old center has signed with HC TPS in Liiga, which is the top pro league in Finland. TPS officially announced the move Tuesday with Talvitie appearing in a video posted on social media.
Talvitie, who is from Finland, played the last two seasons with Utica. He had been a solid two-way player, taking key faceoffs and was a member of the special teams. His 126 games are 30th on Utica’s career list.
Talvitie finished the 22-23 season with three goals and 14 points in 58 games.
“I was hoping to be a little bit more productive,” Talvitie said late in the season. “I’m getting a chance to play here ... and that’s pretty much all I can ask for.”
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