Utica Comets set for new campaign
The Utica Comets begin the season at 7 tonight at Hershey, and are trying to improve on a hot start last season that ended with an early playoff upset loss in their opening series.
The Comets started the 2021-22 season with an American Hockey League-record 13 consecutive wins.
But, after winning the North Division regular season title, the team lost a five-game divisional semifinal series to the Rochester Americans despite having home ice advantage in the deciding game.
There have been some notable departures and additions for the team’s second season as the AHL affiliate of the New Jersey Devils. There is potential for the Comets, which also has many returners from last season.
Here are a few topics to know about as the Comets’ 10th AHL season begins:
Gone are the top four scorers from last season: Alexander Holtz (26 goals, now with the Devils), Fabian Zetterlund (24 goals, now with the Devils), A.J. Greer (22 goals, now in the Boston Bruins organization) and Chase De Leo (21 goals, now in the Anaheim Ducks organization).
That’s 93 combined goals among them, which was 37.8% of the team’s 246, an overall total that was a team record.
That, said Dineen, means there are “a lot of goals missing.”
Dineen said Thursday that it could be “a lot of offensive production by committee. We have four lines that can all score.”
The top goal scorers among Comets who are back this season are captain Ryan Schmelzer (18 last season), Nolan Foote (14), Aarne Talvitie (12), Joe Gambardella (10) and Graeme Clarke (10). Expect to see Devils prospects such as Clarke, Foote and Talvitie continue to take steps in their offensive games.
Three players joining the Comets could help pick up the slack: Zach Senyshyn, Brian Pinho and Jack Dugan. All three were added by New Jersey through free agency.
Senyshyn scored 19 last season with Providence and totaled 12 (2017-18) and 14 (2018-19) in the previous two full seasons.
Pinho joins Utica after four seasons with Hershey. He was limited by injuries last season, but finished with 20 goals in the shortened 2019-20 season.
Dugan, who went to high school in Rochester, is back in New York after two pro seasons in the Vegas system. He’ll be looked to add offense after 16 goals in 72 AHL games.
The coach also said more scoring could come from the blue line. Last season, defensemen accounted for 12% of the team’s goals, with 30 among them.
“Our (defensemen) are going to be more engaged in the offensive side of our game,” Dineen said.
He said this defensive unit is a dynamic one. There’s Reilly Walsh, who led the team’s defensemen in scoring last season with nine goals and 43 points, as well as the offensive-minded Simon Nemec, the number two overall pick in the 2022 NHL draft.
“Our goaltending and our defense is the strength of the team,” Dineen said.
Newly-minted alternate captains Tyler Wotherspoon and Robbie Russo will provide “veteran leadership” and can “help guide some of our young guys,” especially with the steep learning curve for defensemen.
Russo was named the team’s defenseman of the year in 2021-22 and plays a steady game.
That’s the same for Tyler Wotherspoon, who turned an AHL deal last season into a two-year NHL deal with New Jersey.
Russo and Wotherspoon are considered veterans under AHL rules as is Dylan Blujus, who can also help the younger prospects such as Nemec, Walsh, Michael Vukojevic and Jeremy Groleau.
Wotherspoon had a team-best plus-26 rating, sixth-best in the AHL last season.
The team spread the workload out among three goalies last season due in part to injuries at the NHL level that saw both Akira Schmid and Nico Daws get time with New Jersey.
Schmid played 38 games in Utica and was 22-8-5 with a 2.60 goals-against-average and a .911 save percentage. Daws played 21 games for Utica, going 14-4-2 with a 2.54 GAA and a .916 save percentage.
Dineen said there is “organizational stability in net.” “That’s an important piece for us.” Good goaltending is, he said, “The staple of any successful team.”
Both Schmid and Daws are back with the Comets, and, the coach said, “We’re extremely comfortable with picking either Akira or (Daws)” as options.
Mareks Mitens and Isaac Poulter, who were assigned to ECHL Adirondack, are depth options.
The power play unit will look much different than last season, with the departed top four scorers all having put up the best numbers with the man advantage.
No one on the team this season had more than three power-play goals last season besides Schmelzer, who had four.
Walsh took a large step last season, Dineen said. “We feel he’s going to advance his game.” Nemec, a touted right-handed offensive defenseman, has a skill set that comes with a lot of confidence, he added.
“Those are two guys who we really feel can quarterback our power play,” Dineen said.
The team seems quite healthy as the season begins.
The major question mark is the return of Schmelzer, who had off-season shoulder surgery and has been the lone player practicing in a yellow “no contact” jersey.
The team does have some options —a total of 15 players are signed to AHL deals — if and when needs arise between possible injuries and inevitable call-ups by New Jersey.
Seven players on AHL deals are set to begin the season with Utica.
Construction on the Nexus Center — expected to be completed by early November — has created congestion in the area near the Adirondack Bank Center.
There have been noticeable piles of dirt in parking lot areas on Whitesboro Street. The team said Friday that it does “anticipate the majority of the soil to be relocated by Monday” but does understand the parking challenges.
The team said that with the exception of “reserved areas,” parking for all Comets games will be free for this season.
Another parking area was created adjacent to the Nexus Center and fans did find spots during the team’s lone home preseason game.
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