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2021-22 Utica Comets Season Preview

This post will take a look at how the Utica Comets are shaping up for the 2021-22 AHL season. It will focus on what personnel changes have occurred for both the coaching staff and players as well as take a look at how the roster is shaping up for various prospects.

New York Islanders v New Jersey Devils
Will Fabian Zetterlund once again be a top player for the Devils AHL affiliate?
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The 2021-22 American Hockey League (AHL) season is just a few weeks away. This is a season of big change for the Devils as they ended their affiliation with Binghamton and signed a 10 year affiliation with the Utica Comets. This is a return to Utica for the Devils organization as they previously had the Utica Devils affiliation from 1987 to 1993. The Comets are in the North Division of the Eastern Conference and will also play against the other Eastern Conference teams from the Atlantic Division during their 72 game regular season. Utica will start their season at home when they host the Rochester Americans on October 17.

In today’s post, we’ll take a look at how the coaching staff and roster is shaping up for the season. For our purposes, we’re going to consider any player that could see time with Utica in this post. Obviously, New Jersey’s camp is still going on so it’s possible that a few of these players make the NHL team to start the season. It’s also possible that quite a few of these players end up being called up to New Jersey at some point during the season. Any players in the “In” section that played for Binghamton last season after their primary season ended will be designated with a “^”. Any players in Utica’s camp on a try-out will be designated a “*”. Players are listed alphabetically by last name and labeled by position, name, current age, 2020-21 team for incoming players, and 2021-22 team for outgoing players. Now let’s check in on the coaching staff.

Coaching Staff

The Devils AHL affiliate moving cities wasn’t the only big change at this level. Mark Dennehy, who coached the Binghamton Devils for the past three seasons, has now moved into the Chief Scout, Amateur Scouting according to the Devils site. This means the team will have a new coach and they found one with a lot of experience.

Kevin Dineen will be the head coach of the Utica Comets. The veteran of 1,247 NHL regular season and playoff games has plenty of coaching experience since retiring from playing in 2002. From 2005 to 2011 he was head coach of the Portland Pirates in the AHL. He won AHL Coach of the Year honors in 2005-06. He was the head coach of the Florida Panthers from the beginning of the 2011-12 season until being fired in November of 2013. That did allow him to coach with Hockey Canada at the international level. He served as the head coach of the Canadian Women’s team as they won Gold in the 2014 Olympics. He was also the head coach of the Canadian Men’s U18 team at the 2014 World U18 Championships where they won the Bronze. Dineen would quickly return to the NHL as an assistant coach for the Chicago Blackhawks from the start of the 2014-15 season until November of 2018. Dineen’s final stop before Utica would be a two season stint as head coach of the San Diego Gulls in the AHL from 2019-21. It will be interesting to see how Dineen coaches from a tactical perspective, but one thing for certain is that he has plenty of experience as both a player and a coach at the highest levels.

According to the Devils site, Sergei Brylin and Ryan Parent return as assistant coaches. Brylin, of course, has been back with the Devils organization since the 2012-13 season when he was a team consultant for the Albany Devils. He has served as an assistant coach for the Devils AHL affiliate since the 2013-14 season, following them from Albany to Binghamton to Utica. Ryan Parent is also staying on as an assistant and will be entering his 4th season in that role for the Devils organization. Parent is just 34 years old so he’s still really early in his coaching career.

Other staff, all also returning, include goaltending coach Brian Eklund, video coach Adam Purner, athletic trainer Jon Williams, and assistant equipment manager Chris Murphy.

Forwards

Out: C Cameron Darcy (27, Free Agent), C/LW Brandon Gignac (23, Laval - AHL), C/LW Mason Jobst (27, Rochester - AHL), C/RW Miles Koules (27, Free Agent), LW/C Mikhail Maltsev (23, Colorado - NHL), LW Danick Martel (26, Laval - AHL), RW Nick Merkley (24, San Jose - AHL), LW Brett Seney (25, Toronto - AHL), C/RW Travis St. Denis (29, Straubing - DEL), C/LW Ben Street (34, EHC München - DEL), LW Ben Thomson (28, Henderson - AHL)

Returning: C/LW Jesper Boqvist (22), RW Graeme Clarke (20), LW Nolan Foote (20), LW A.J. Greer (24), RW Tyler Irvine (25), C Ryan Schmelzer (28), C Nate Schnarr (22), RW Marian Studenic (22), RW Fabian Zetterlund (22)

In: C Alex Brink (27, Did Not Play)*, C/LW Chase De Leo (25, San Diego - AHL), F Brian Flynn (33, HC Ambri-Piotta - NL), C/LW Joe Gambardella (27, Bakersfield - AHL), C Patrick Grasso (25, New Hampshire - NCAA), RW Alexander Holtz (19, Djurgårdens IF - SHL)^, C Nick Hutchison (26, Indy - ECHL), F Jordan Kaplan (24, Vermont - NCAA), LW Samuel Laberge (24, Allen - ECHL), C Colin Long (32, Did Not Play), RW Patrick McGrath (28, Rochester - AHL), F Dawson Mercer (19, Chicoutimi - QMJHL), C/RW Nick Rivera (25, Wheeling - ECHL), LW Luke Stevens (24, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton - AHL)*, C/LW Aarne Talvitie (22, Penn State - NCAA)^, C Tyce Thompson (22, Providence - NCAA)^

Here’s how the outgoing forwards ranked among the B-Devils forwards last season: Danick Martel (t-5th), Ben Street (t-5th), Brett Seney (8th), Travis St. Denis (9th), Mason Jobst (10th), Ben Thomson (11th), Miles Koules (t-20th), and Cameron Darcy (t-20th). Brandon Gignac, Mikhail Maltsev, and Nick Merkley hardly played in the AHL last season.

Of course quite a few of these players figure to open the season with New Jersey or figure into their plans during the season. I’m talking about prospects such as Jesper Boqvist, Graeme Clarke, Nolan Foote, Alexander Holtz, Dawson Mercer, Marian Studenic, Tyce Thompson, and Fabian Zetterlund. These players are waiver exempt with the exception of Boqvist who is likely to exhaust his eligibility by playing in 10 more NHL games. These players along with other prospects such as Nate Schnarr and Aarne Talvitie will look to play a big role in Utica to show they deserve a call up to New Jersey. Zetterlund (19 points in 34 games), Clarke (18 points in 31 games), and Foote (17 points in 24 games) will look to build upon a season where they finished top 3 on the team in scoring.

In terms of veteran additions, Chase De Leo immediately stands out. Last season he was tied-6th in the AHL in scoring with 35 points in 37 games as an alternate captain for the San Diego Gulls. He’s also played in a handful of NHL games for the Anaheim Ducks over the past few seasons. Brian Flynn also stands out as a veteran of 275 NHL regular season games where he’s produced 61 points. At the AHL level, he’s produced 89 points in 137 regular season games (0.65 Pts/GP). He’s spent the past 2 and a half years playing in Switzerland, first for EV Zug and then HC Ambri-Piotta. In 2019-20 he had 13 goals and 20 assists in 49 games and then last season he had 9 goals and 25 assists in 50 games.

Joe Gambardella has turned in a solid AHL career thus far with 111 points in 183 regular season games (0.61 Pts/GP). Patrick Grasso is coming off of 5 seasons with the University of New Hampshire where he had 97 points in 138 games (0.70 Pts/GP). Jordan Kaplan, a player from Bridgewater, NJ joins after wrapping up his college career that started at Sacred Heart University and ended at the University of Vermont. Samuel Laberge has found his way back to the AHL after stops in the LNAH in 2019-20 and ECHL in 2020-21. Patrick McGrath is a veteran of 106 AHL games and 162 ECHL games. It will be interesting to see how the coaching staff lines these players up considering the mix of prospects, veteran players, and other players trying to make it in the pro game.

Finally, the trio of Nick Hutchison, Colin Long, and Nick Rivera figure to mainly play with Adirondack this season in the ECHL. Though they will be available should the Comets need reinforcements. Camp invites such as Alex Brink and Luke Stevens are there to mainly help make up numbers until more players get cut from New Jersey and can join Utica. Brink has yet to play his pro debut and is another skater from upstate New York. Stevens made his pro debut with 12 games for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last year in the AHL.

Defensemen

Out: RD Connor Carrick (27, Charlotte - AHL), LD Matt Hellickson (23, Toronto - AHL), RD Josh Jacobs (25, Chicago - AHL), RD David Quenneville (23, IK Oskarshamn - SHL), RD Matt Tennyson (31, Nashville - NHL)

Returning: LD Kevin Bahl (21), LD Jeremy Groleau (21), LD Nikita Okhotiuk (20), LD Michael Vukojevic (20), RD Reilly Walsh (22), LD Colton White (24)

In: RD Greg DiTomaso (25, Did Not Play)*, LD Mason Geertsen (26, Hartford - AHL), RD Christian Jaros (25, San Jose - AHL), LD Joe Masonius (24, Macon - SPHL), RD Robbie Russo (28, San Jose - AHL)

While there are changes on within the defensive unit, the majority of the Comets blue line returns from the 2020-21 season with Binghamton. Veterans such as Josh Jacobs (19 games), Connor Carrick (13 games), Matt Tennyson (5 games), and David Quenneville (3 games) have moved on. Matt Hellickson went unsigned by the Devils after appearing in 5 games on a try-out at the end of last season.

However, the team has retained a prospect heavy group which is highlighted by Kevin Bahl, Reilly Walsh, Nikita Okhotiuk, and Michael Vukojevic. All four of those defensemen have legitimate chances to develop into NHL players for the Devils. Bahl with his 6’6”, 229 lbs. frame and defensive ability makes him an intriguing prospect. Walsh has shown a lot of offensive ability from the right side in his career. With Harvard from 2017 to 2020, Walsh had 27 goals and 51 assists for 78 points in 96 NCAA games (0.81 Pts/GP). Last season, he led B-Devils defensemen in scoring with 15 points in 33 games (0.45 Pts/GP). Okhotiuk and Vukojevic are also known for the steadying presence in their own zone. Vukojevic also produced well last season with 11 points in 26 games (2nd among B-Devils defenders). It will be interesting to see if he’s discovered some untapped offensive potential or if that was a fortunate season.

Jeremy Groleau and Colton White don’t carry as much hype as those four but could improve their stock this season. Groleau will turn 22 years old in a few weeks and has played in 58 AHL games in his career. Colton White figures to be a depth defenseman at this point in his career as the 24 year old has played in 190 AHL games across 4 seasons in the organization. White has also managed to get into 11 NHL games across the past 3 seasons for New Jersey. These six defensemen also played the most for the B-Devils last season which is important as it means they are gaining experience together as they continue their development.

Noteworthy additions to the defense for Utica will include Joe Masonius and Robbie Russo. Masonius is from Spring Lake, NJ and played junior hockey with the New Jersey Hitmen from 2012 to 2014. He turned pro after three seasons with UConn from 2015 to 2018. Since the 2018-19 season, Masonius has put up 13 points in 50 ECHL games and a goal in 9 SPHL games. It seems he’ll provide depth and probably see some time in Adirondack. Russo turned pro after four years at Notre Dame from 2011 to 2015. Since 2015-16 he has played in 358 AHL regular season games with 31 goals and 145 assists for 176 points (0.49 Pts/GP). He has played in 37 AHL games with 14 points. Russo made the AHL Second All-Star Team in 2015-16 and was an All-Star and Calder Cup Champion in 2016-17. Russo also played in 19 games with the Detroit Red Wings in 2016-17. He’ll provide veteran experience and depth on the right side for the organization.

It also wouldn’t be surprising to see Mason Geertsen and Christian Jaros see some time in Utica. Geertsen is known for his physical style and enforcer role (519 PIM in 297 AHL games). He’s even seen some time at the wing just to get some extra toughness into the line up. Jaros appears to have the inside track to be New Jersey’s 7th defenseman so it will be interesting to see if he spends time with Utica. Jaros will also provide depth and veteran experience on the right side for the organization. With the busy AHL schedule, it will be important for the team to have a lot of defensemen to call on. I think the Devils have done a good job of providing enough depth as well as opportunity for their prospects. One thing to keep in mind is that Geertsen, White, Jaros, and Russo would all require waivers to move from the NHL to AHL.

Finally, Greg DiTomaso is on the training camp roster but is there to help fill in until more cuts come from New Jersey. He last played in 2019-20 with Ryerson University in USports (Canadaian College).

Goaltenders

Out: Jeremy Brodeur (24, Providence - AHL), Evan Cormier (23, Free Agent), Aaron Dell (32, Buffalo - NHL), Gilles Senn (25, HC Davos - NL)

Returning: None

In: Nico Daws (20, ERC Ingolstadt - DEL), Brandon Kasel (25, Knoxville - SPHL)*, Mareks Mitens (23, Lake Superior State - NCAA)^, Akira Schmid (21, Sioux City - USHL), Scott Wedgewood (29, New Jersey - NHL)

The goaltending position will see a lot of turnover which isn’t too surprising considering last year’s results. Gilles Senn departs after playing a team high 17 games but only putting up a .895 SV%. In his two seasons in North America, Senn appeared in 44 AHL games with a .899 SV%. Senn did manage a two game cameo with New Jersey during the 2019-20 season. Evan Cormier also departs after he posted a .888 SV% in 11 games. The former Devils draft pick that went unsigned but was brought into the organization during an injury crisis ended up spending parts of three seasons across the AHL and ECHL levels without much success. Jeremy Brodeur was a depth goaltender for the team, only appearing in 3 games with a .922 SV%, and will look to advance his professional career in the Bruins organization. Aaron Dell is another that has moved on from the Devils organization and is only on this list since he did play a game for Binghamton last year.

While technically there are no returning goaltenders, Scott Wedgewood sort of falls into that category. He didn’t play at all in the AHL last season but will likely see time there when he’s not called up as the 3rd goaltender for New Jersey. He’ll bring a veteran prescence and push the prospects for playing time.

These prospects include Nico Daws and Akira Schmid who are making their AHL debuts. Daws, a 3rd round pick in 2020, is the former OHL Goaltender of the Year from the 2019-20 season and played in 10 professional games in Germany last season with ERC Ingolstadt of the DEL. In that pro debut he played in 10 games going 4-6, with a 2.90 GAA, .898 SV%, and was worth -2.52 Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA) as one of the youngest goaltenders in the league. Schmid, a 5th round pick from 2018, is a two-time USHL Goaltender of the Year and last season played in 36 games for Sioux City in the USHL. He went 22-13-1 with a 2.01 GAA, .921 SV%, and 35.81 GSAA. It will be interesting to see which of these prospects performas the best to earn playing time. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them sees some time with Adirondack in the ECHL to gain some experience. It will also be interesting to see if one or both of them can outperform Wedgewood at this level.

Speaking of Adirondack, Mareks Mitens is 4th on the Comets depth chart, so he figures to see playing time there to start the season. Last season, Mitens had a 4 game stint with Binghamton after his college career ended. He had a strong senior season for Lake Superior State, playing in 25 games with a 14-6-3 record and a 1.96 GAA and .930 SV%. He could provide good cover for Utica when call-ups/injuries occur.

Finally, Brandon Kasel is listed as a try-out on the Utica camp roster. Given that there are already 4 goaltenders vying for playing time ahead of him, it’s unlikely he makes the team. He’s a local goaltender from Ithaca that played NCAA D3 hockey at nearby Skidmore College from 2016 to 2020. Last season he was with the Knoxville Ice Bears of the SPHL but did not appear in a game. He’s there to help fill the camp roster until the other goaltenders join.

Your Take

What are your expectations for the Utica Comets this season? Which prospects are you most interested in following on this team? How do you feel about Kevin Dineen as head coach? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!