UTICA — The Utica Comets will open the season in front of a sold out crowd, the first since March 2020.
The new look Comets are now the American Hockey League affiliate of the New Jersey Devils (after eight years with the Vancouver Canucks) and will sport the red-and-black of the parent club. The team is encouraging fans to wear red at the game Sunday.
The game is at 3 p.m. at the Adirondack Bank Center against the Rochester Americans. The date is of significance for the new 10-year deal with New Jersey. Oct. 17, 1987 was the first game ever played by the Utica Devils 34 years ago, when that team was affiliated with the NHL’s Devils.
The opening day roster is 14 forwards, seven defensemen and a pair of goalies.
The player likely to draw the most attention is Alexander Holtz. He was the seventh overall draft pick in 2020. He played with the Binghamton Devils last season for 10 games after his season in Sweden was completed. For Binghamton he scored a goal and had two assists.
Nolan Foote, the 27th overall pick in 2019 by the Tampa Bay Lightning, played six games with New Jersey last season. While with Binghamton he scored seven goals and had 10 assists in 24 games.
Jesper Boqvist has scored eight NHL goals in 63 games with the Devils. Graeme Clarke scored eight goals in 31 games with Binghamton last season, his first in the AHL. Joe Gambardella has played five seasons in the AHL, all with the Bakersfield Condors. In 2018-19 he piled up 29 goals and 19 assists — 48 points in 50 games. AJ Greer has been in the AHL since 2016, with three seasons of 15 or more goals.
Chase De Leo is one of the team’s veterans, with 90 goals in six seasons in the AHL. Brian Flynn, age 33, has played in 275 NHL games between the Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens.
Ryan Schmelzer, a Buffalo native who played at Canisius College, put up 14 goals in his first full AHL season in 2018-19.
Patrick McGrath, Nathan Schnarr, Luke Stevens, Aarne Talvitie and Fabian Zetterlund make up the rest of the forward group.
On defense, the team has two AHL veterans to lean on. Tyler Wotherspoon has played eight years in the league, with 26 goals and 122 assists. Robbie Russo has six years in the AHL, with 31 goals and 145 asssits.
Also on defense are Kevin Bahl, Jeremy Groleau, Nikita Okhotiuk, Michael Vukojevic and Reilly Walsh.
Nico Daws and Akira Schmid are the team’s two netminders. The 6-foot-4 Daws and 6-foot-5 Schmid are both making their AHL debuts this season.
Head coach Kevin Dineen comes to the team after two seasons as the head coach of the AHL’s San Diego Gulls for the Anaheim Ducks organization. As an assistant coach from 2014 to 2019 with the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks he won a Stanley Cup in his first year on Joel Quenneville’s staff.
Dineen played 19 seasons in the NHL as a winger, tallying 1,188 contests with four teams (Carolina/Hartford, Philadelphia, Columbus and Ottawa). He scored 355 goals and collected 405 assists in his career. He added 41 points (23 goals, 18 assists) in 59 Stanley Cup Playoff games.
Dineen hosted the entire roster for a team-building retreat at his house in the Adirondacks this week, a getaway to learn about each other as people and teammates. “It was certainly time well spent,” Dineen said Thursday after practice.
De Leo, who also spoke after Thursday’s skate, said the trip was “awesome” — boating, hiking, a rope course, barbecuing at the coach’s house. “It really helped our group and will help us jell going forward.”
At Thursday’s practice, Dineen said, the team worked on “building in what really matters,” and Friday was planned to be “heavy on structure.” The team is using the Devils’ defensive system but will have an offense that is based around players’ skills, he noted. “The fans here in Utica” will like what this team has, he said.
The Comets are an excellent mix of youth and veteran players, Dineen said. There’s also “a level of grit to go with a really high skill level.” In preparation for Sunday, the team has been putting an “organizational emphasis on our defensive game,” but “there’s always small areas you have to keep up on.”
Dineen also noted that while he and his coaching staff have been considering options for captain and alternate captains, no decision is likely before Sunday.
“Winning,” said De Leo, “is everything,” and his job is to “lead when I can.”
He said he’s not a vocal leader but instead leads by example. He pointed to the team’s speed, skill and depth as key advantages going into the season. “That’s the perfect winning combination.”