New-look Comets taking shape during training camp

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UTICA — On the Utica Comets’ third day of training camp, a dangerous line was already taking shape that could produce plenty of scoring.

The Comets look quite different in the lead up to the abbreviated 32-game season set to start Feb. 5. This year the Vancouver Canucks are sharing their AHL affiliate with the St. Louis Blues, whose affiliate, the Springfield Thunderbirds, opted out this season. So the Comets’ coaching staff has two one-season additions in the forms of associate head coach Drew Bannister and assistant coach Daniel Tkaczuk. And half the roster is made up of players from the St. Louis organization.

After practice Thursday, Bannister held a video press conference to talk about the experience so far.

“The group of guys we have right now have jelled fairly quick together,” he said of the players from the two organizations. That goes for the coaches too, he added. “We have some pretty good symmetry among the coaching staffs.”

Bannister said he and Comets head coach Trent Cull had numerous talks by phone once the two NHL teams had made their temporary partnership, but they only got to meet in person and watch video of the players this week. He said adjusting his coaching style to fit with what Utica is trying to do is not a big challenge, since he made the adjustment from how he coached in juniors to the AHL. The key is that both he and Cull are trying to get players prepared for hockey at the next level, the NHL.

Bannister said plenty of players on the ice at the Utica Aud this week have good prospects. And he has some familiarity with several players from the Vancouver side of the roster. He coached Jonah Gadjovich for a season in juniors. He’s coached in the same league Mitch Eliot has played in. He also coached Jett Woo at the U18 level. “It’s an exciting group.”

Three players have caught Bannister’s eye with their play together in only a few days are Sven Baertschi (Canucks), Kole Lind (Canucks) and Sam Anas (Blues). With Lind centering for the pair of wingers, the three have already shown they’re capable of big things, Bannister said. The Blues signed Anas after he’d led the AHL in assists and points for the Iowa Wild last season. “He and Sven are going to complement each other very well. That’s going to be a very dangerous hockey line,” he said.

“It’s been good so far. He’s a fast skater and moves the puck well,” said Anas of Lind in a video conference after Thursday’s practice.

Anas said he’s getting used to Utica so far, having already reached out to fellow Quinnipiac University alum Brogan Rafferty for some insight about the team and city. Rafferty played his first pro season in Utica last year and is now on the Canucks’ six-man taxi squad, where he’s tallied one assist in one NHL game so far.

The thing that’s impressed Anas in the first week in Utica? “Everything is positivity and energy.” The coaches want to generate offense, he said, but the real key is that players are all working hard. “The mojo is really good,” he said. “I’m looking forward to playing meaningful games.” And he’ll get that chance Saturday, when the team hosts the Syracuse Crunch for an afternoon scrimmage.

Bannister said defenseman Steven Santini (Blues) has impressed him with his professionalism, bringing a commanding presence to the team both on and off the ice.

The season this year is shortened because of a late start due to COVID-19. There’s plenty players and coaches have already had to adjust to in this new hockey world. Normally coaches want the structure of practices and meetings and opportunities for players to bond, but Bannister noted that COVID has made that look different this season. It hasn’t affected the on-ice part of things but meetings off the ice have to be split into smaller groups, which means days stretch out into longer events than in years past.

“The guys have to be more open to change and embrace the change,” Bannister said. They have to adjust with the knowledge that players or even coaches could be out of action or that practices could be shut down by the pandemic. But, he added, the players have adapted to the situation quickly.

Anas said the players are becoming familiar with each other despite the impact COVID has had on how they’d normally bond. One important part has been to eschew the idea that there are some players from Vancouver and some from St. Louis. “We’re trying not to even talk about being two organizations,” he noted. Everyone is in Comets’ gear, and they can show it “by playing as a team.”

But they’ve been limited off the ice by the need to wear masks and be socially distant. The players know that there’s no reason to risk their health, Anas said. “It’s not worth it for the sake of the season.” So their bonding has been on the ice and in the lockerroom. There will be some things that they’ll miss out on this year, such as the annual get together to watch the Super Bowl, one thing Anas noted he’d miss in 2021.

It will all be worth it if the team can perform as it hopes. It’s only been three days of practices, but Anas said he liked what he’s seen so far. “We are very deep. We have a good mix of skill and grit.” He concluded: “I think we’re going to be a good team.”

Bannister said the team is already showing more energy than he’s used to seeing so early in the season, perhaps a sign of how much the players have missed since their last games about 10 months ago.

The team is also a little healthier Thursday than it was Wednesday, Bannister noted. The lone player held out Wednesday was Vincent Arseneau, who was back on the ice Thursday.

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