It’s been a week since the Utica Comets AHL season came to an end, after falling to the Albany Devils in four games in the team’s best-of-five first round playoff series.
Despite advancing all the way to the Calder Cup Finals a season ago, the Comets finish this year wasn’t exactly surprising, as a number of key players from 2014-15 moved up or moved on. Captain Cal O’Reilly, Cory Conacher and Brandon DeFazio signed elsewhere. Prospects like Hunter Shinkaruk, Nicklas Jensen and Adam Clendening have all been traded away. And who could forget that Frank Corrado was picked up on waivers.
And some players from last year’s Comets group looked poised to earn NHL jobs in 2015-16, particularly winger Sven Baertschi and goalie Jacob Markstrom who did just that. Defenseman Alex Biega also found a spot in the Canucks lineup which was a little more unexpected.
Now, several prospects from this year’s group in Utica look like they have a chance to fly the nest and land in Vancouver, thanks in part to strong seasons in the AHL. With much uncertainty to how the Canucks depth defense and bottom-six forwards will shape up, there’s a chance for more than a handful of players to earn their way into the team’s lineup. Here’s four players from Utica who may be deserving.
In his second full season of pro hockey this year in Utica, the 22-year-old Brendan Gaunce excelled in the AHL. He totaled 17 goals, 38 points and a plus-12 rating in 46 games with the Comets, and his point-per-game average this season (0.83) was marginally better than his rookie AHL season in 2014-15 (0.39).
Offensively, his jump in production with Utica resembles the jump from his rookie year in major junior with the Belleville Bulls. Gaunce totaled 36 points in 65 games with the Bulls in his 16-year-old season, and would follow that up with three straight seasons of at least a point-per-game average in the OHL.
While his offense has taken time to catch up to the level he’s playing, Gaunce has always been known for his two-way forward abilities and defensive awareness. Vancouver’s 26th overall pick in 2012 got into 20 NHL games with the Canucks this past season; he didn’t produce much offensively (one goal in 20 games), but he didn’t look out of place either in a much faster game.
Gaunce on his exit meeting with #Canucks : “They told me to keep playing like I did in last 15 games, come to camp with same confidence.”
— NEWS 1130 Sports (@NEWS1130Sports) April 19, 2016
The 24-year-old Alex Grenier could push for a roster spot with the Canucks, based on how well he played in Utica this season.
Grenier led all Comets players with 32 assists and 48 points in 69 games, and added three points in four playoff games. He’s slowly but steadily improved in his three AHL seasons, which led to his first NHL call-up to Vancouver this year. However, the former third round pick to the Canucks in 2011 didn’t show a lot in his short stint with the big club, totaling a minus-four rating and no points in his six games. Grenier even got some time playing next to Henrik and Daniel Sedin, which was a puzzling lineup decision to say the least.
not to be cruel, but I do wonder if broken stick breakaway will be defining moment of Alex Grenier’s NHL career
— Jeff Paterson (@patersonjeff) March 23, 2016
Perhaps Grenier can use his chance to get his feet wet in the NHL as fuel to push for a spot next season. He also got a bid of confidence from Comets head coach Travis Green for his potential with Vancouver. At 6’5″ and 201-pounds, he doesn’t lack in size, and when playing to his strengths he can be a tough player to play against.
AHL-rookie Jordan Subban was likely the Comets’ most effective blueliner this season, playing a bigger role as the year went along. Ben Hutton earned a spot in the Canucks lineup based on his proficiency with the puck, could Subban do the same in 2016-17?
In his first season of pro hockey, the 21-year-old defenseman totaled 11 goals and 36 points in 67 AHL games; his 11 goals put him in the top-10 among all AHL blueliners. Subban also tied Grenier for the team-lead in playoff points with three.
Subban, a fourth round pick to Vancouver in 2013, shows excellent hockey sense and an adept ability to make plays with the puck. This alone is an attractive trait that lacks on the Canucks’ blue line, and he’s come a long way on his defensive game as well, under Green’s watch this season.
His biggest knock, however, may be his size, at 5’9″, 185-pounds. Jordan doesn’t quite have the same structure as his brothers, one being Canadiens star blueliner, P.K. (6’0″, 214-pounds), the other being Bruins goaltending prospect, Malcolm (6’2″, 201-pounds). If he shows an ability to hold his own physically in Canucks training camp, then Subban has all the tools to potentially earn a roster spot in the NHL.
A defenseman in the Canucks system completely opposite from Subban, in his style and his stature, Andrey Pedan showed in 2015-16 that he could be a valuable depth blueliner moving forward for Vancouver.
The 22-year-old put up seven goals and 21 points in 45 AHL games, and led the Comets with a plus-17 rating despite only playing in about two-thirds of the team’s games. Pedan showed obvious upside to his game, playing a shut-down role on the Comets top-pairing.
In his 13 games with the Canucks, he didn’t look out of place defensively and showed his adept toughness and ability to play a physical game as well. The 6’5″, 214-pound Russian looked like a pillar in times where he played next to 6’8″, 240-pound countryman Nikita Tryamkin.
With emergence of Hutton & Tryamkin, the raw potential of Pedan, & the additions of Larsen & Stecher, #Canucks future D looking brighter.
— Canucks Prospects (@NucksWatch) April 14, 2016
Canucks contributor for The Hockey Writers. Maple Ridge, BC native. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or @ColtonnDavies on Twitter.