The 2022-23 Utica Comets season will get underway on October 15 when they travel to Hershey to take on the Bears. With the season a few weeks away from starting, I wanted to post some quick thoughts about the team. It is shaping up to be another promising season for the team as they look to once again be amongst the best teams in the league.
Nico Daws and Akira Schmid Sharing the Crease
Nico Daws and Akira Schmid are set to share the crease for Utica this season. Last year, was an eventful year for both goaltenders as they not only were rookies in the AHL but had to step in to play for the Devils at the NHL level due to injuries and ineffective play by New Jersey’s goaltenders. While I’m sure both goaltenders were excited to get playing time at the NHL level, a full season of AHL hockey is probably the best thing for their development at this time.
Both goaltenders will be entering their age 22 seasons in 2022-23. Daws, who seems to be the more highly regarded of the prospect of the two is 8 months younger than Schmid. Last season, he played in 21 games for the Comets with a 14-4-2 record, 2.54 GAA, .916 SV%, 12 Quality Starts (57.14%), and a 7.48 Goals Saved Above Average (GSAA). He had a 0.37 GSAA per 60 minutes, 0.37 GSAA per 30 shots, and faced an average of 30.12 shots per game. At the NHL level, Daws played in 25 games with a 10-11-1 record, 3.11 GAA, .893 SV%, 7 Quality Starts (30.4%), and a -8.6 GSAA.
Last season, Schmid played in 38 games for the Comets with a 22-8-5 record, 2.60 GAA, .911 SV%, 22 Quality Starts (64.71%), and an 8.56 GSAA. He had a 0.24 GSAA per 60 minutes, 0.24 GSAA per 30 shots, and faced an average of 29.38 shots per game. At the NHL level, Schmid played in 6 games with a 0-4-0 record, 4.83 GAA, .833 SV%, and didn’t record a Quality Start.
Both goaltenders had standout rookie seasons at the AHL level but were not ready for the NHL level. In Daws’ case, it was encouraging that he at least had some success in spurts at the NHL level. This season I’m looking forward to both of these goaltenders getting a chance to develop full-time at an appropriate level. Together, they should form one of the best goaltending duos in the league and help Utica reach the playoffs once again. Hopefully, New Jersey’s goaltending situation can remain stable this season to help facilitate the development of these two prospects.
Last Season’s Defensive Unit Largely Intact
I expect one of Kevin Bahl, Nikita Okhotiuk, or Reilly Walsh to make the Devils opening roster. I would bet on it being Bahl but regardless, the Utica Comets defense will retain the same unit for the most part that they had last season. Two of the aforementioned players are set to return along with Robbie Russo, Tyler Wotherspoon, Michael Vukojevic, and Jeremy Groleau.
Russo and Vukojevic are veteran players that can play in all situations and log minutes as key members of the top 4. They’ll play a big part in stabilizing the blue line as call-ups and injuries occur. They’ll also be tasked with being steady defense partners for the two out of Bahl, Okhtoiuk, and Walsh that end up back in Utica or with highly regarded prospect Simon Nemec as he makes his debut in North America. Essentially, Utica should start the season with a blue line that features six returning defensemen, though it seems Groleau would be the odd man out to fit Nemec in that lineup. From the crease to the blue line, the Utica Comets should be in great shape to shut opposing teams down and remain a top team in the Eastern Conference for another season.
Quite a Few Forwards With Something to Prove
For this section, I’m assuming that both Alexander Holtz and Fabian Zetterlund make the Devils’ roster. Of course, anything can happen and one of the players below could find their way onto the Devils roster instead of Holtz or Zetterlund. As of right now, I expect Graeme Clarke, Nolan Foote, and Tyce Thompson to start with Utica. All three of these prospects have legitimate NHL upside but still are unproven.
Clarke is a creative player with an excellent shot who profiles as a goal-scoring right wing. Injuries in 2019-20 (his final junior season) and last year, as well as the pandemic in 2020-21, have limited him to just 105 regular season games over the past three seasons. As a result, he’s shown flashes of what he can do but hasn’t been able to contribute consistently. This will be his age 21 season and he will have a great opportunity to play in Utica’s top 6 to showcase his potential. Hopefully, he’ll be able to remain healthy enough to do so.
Foote profiles as a goal-scoring left wing but for what he lacks in creativeness and skating, he makes up for in hockey sense and shooting ability. There’s also a power-forward element to his game that can make him stand out from the other players. Foote is entering his age 22 season and is looking to prove that he can score at the professional level as he did at the junior level. Similar to Clarke, Foote should have an opportunity in the top 6 and on the PP to showcase his shot. So far at the AHL level, he’s scored a goal in more than a quarter of his games. He did score 3 times in 7 games for New Jersey last season so hopefully, he can dominate at the AHL level and take that next step.
Thompson is entering his age 23 season and seems on the cusp of breaking through to the NHL. Unfortunately, he’s had to deal with numerous injuries which have limited his chances. When healthy at the AHL level, he has posted 8 goals and 11 assists in 27 games. The bulk of those points came last season, his first full professional year, with 15 points in 16 games. I get the impression that the organization values his offensive ability, versatility (he can play center or right wing), and physical presence as he’s played in 9 NHL games so far. He seemed in line to push for a roster spot before dealing with an injury in training camp. As a result, his season will likely start in Utica where he could be a focal point of the offense. Hopefully, he can get over his current injury quickly and put together a solid run of games with the Comets to push for a spot in New Jersey.
Some other forwards that I’m looking out for include Aarne Talvitie, Brian Halonen, and Jack Dugan. Talvitie’s had to battle to get his career back on track following knee surgery after injuring it in the Gold Medal game of the 2019 U20 WJC. Last season was his rookie year in the AHL and he posted 12 goals and 12 assists in a 4th line role. He can bring a strong defensive game and physical element to the lineup and will be looking to earn an increased role to demonstrate what offensive abilities he has. In Halonen’s case, this will be the rookie season for the undrafted free agent out of Michigan Tech who had a brief cameo at the end of Utica’s season last year. He’ll turn 24 years old in January so he’ll be looking to start the season off strong and show that he has the skills to be a legitimate prospect for the Devils. Dugan, acquired as a free agent this offseason, is entering his age 24 season. He starred at Providence College with Tyce Thompson from 2018-2020 and has produced in a limited sample in the AHL. Over the past two seasons with the Henderson Silver Knights, he had 16 goals and 35 assists in 72 games for 0.71 points per game pace. The Devils will be hoping that perhaps he’s a late bloomer and that with a full season of hockey, he can show enough to be considered a legitimate option for the NHL team should they need to make a call-up. At the very least, he should be an impactful presence in Utica’s lineup.
Changes to the Coaching Staff
The coaching staff that led the team to a 1st place finish in the Eastern Conference last season with a 43-20-8-1 record is back with one exception. Sergei Brylin has been promoted from his assistant coach role with Utica to the same role with New Jersey. Replacing him on the Comets’ staff is Andrew Brewer. Brewer’s coaching career dates back to 2008 when he spent 3 seasons as the video coach with the University of New Brunswick. He then joined Hockey Canada in the same role from 2011-2014, working at the senior and U20 levels. In his international career, he helped Canada win a U20 WJC Bronze Medal and World Championship Gold Medal. From there he jumped to the NHL level as a video coach with the Detroit Red Wings in 2014-15, then spent 2015-2020 as an assistant coach (still with a focus on video) with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He most recently spent the past two seasons as the Florida Panthers video coach.
Brewer joins head coach Kevin Dineen’s staff along with the returning assistant coach Ryan Parent and goaltending coach Brian Eklund. Given Brewer’s extensive background working with young players as well as seasoned vets, I’m looking forward to seeing what he can bring to the team.
What are your expectations for the Utica Comets this season? Which prospects are you most interested in following on this team? What are your thoughts on the coaching staff? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!