TRYING TO GET BYE
Before Sunday’s game, the Utica Comets sat third in the North Division, one point behind second place Syracuse and a whopping seventeen points behind the runaway Toronto Marlies with Rochester and Laval nipping on the door only a few points behind. The top three teams of the North Division will get a bye in the first round of the playoffs with teams four and five playing a three game set for a chance to get trounced in a five game series against the Marlies in the Division semi-finals. For more on how the Calder Cup playoffs work, check out this excellent primer. [TheAhl.com]
The North Division is tight on the bottom as the Belleville Senators (52 points) and Cleveland Monsters (52 points) are only a couple wins out of a playoff spot. Cleveland has two games on fifth place Laval — enough to tie them in points if they win both games. Utica is in a pretty comfortable spot to earn a bye with eighteen games remaining on their schedule, but it is far from a certainty and if they want home ice advantage against Syracuse they will have to play strong down the stretch. Utica has some challenges.
THE TIMO MEIER DEAL HURT UTICA — AND SO DOES BLACKWOOD’S INJURY
This shouldn’t need to be said, but I don’t want readers to take this section the wrong way. The Devils should make trades to improve the big club. If Utica suffers as a result, that’s the cost of doing business to acquire a big name like Timo Meier. That said, the ripples in the system flow downstream and the first hit is the AHL affiliate, so it’s worth mentioning — just don’t confuse a mention as a complaint. It’s certainly not. Let’s delve into those ripples a bit more.
Devils fans were likely relieved when Andreas Johnsson and his cap hit were included in the package to San Jose as part of the Timo Meier trade, but the Comets lost their second leading scorer in Johnsson (behind only Graeme Clarke), who tallied 30 points in 36 games. Timur Ibragimov, who came over from the Sharks in the deal, is hardly a replacement, although he has made the most of his new opportunity with two points in three games since joining the team. Nikita Okhotiuk also went over to San Jose in the trade. Okhotiuk has been a steady defender this season for the Comets and another piece of the deal, Shakir Mukhamadullin, was planned to come in and help Utica down the stretch. While Santeri Hatakka, who came back to New Jersey to help even out the contracts, should lessen the sting of losing Okhotiuk, the left-handed defender is currently injured. That leaves a hole on Utica’s blueline. On Sunday against Syracuse that hole was filled by
— no one. Per the AHL.com , Utica dressed only five defensemen for the game.
EDIT: Stick tap to CO DEVIL for pointing out Utica dressed Mason Geertsen as the 6th D. TheAHL.com had Geertsen listed as a forward. Still, not an ideal situation for the Comets.
The Mackenzie Blackwood injury has also hurt the Comets as they lost their top netminder, Akira Schmid, to the Devils for the time being. Daws has been good, but Schmid has been the better of the two netminders this season and the Comets don’t have a dependable backup in case Daws needs a rest. None of this is meant to lament the situation. Devils should be considered first, second and always in all moves, but these are the realities that the Comets face as the AHL affiliate.
HOLTZ SHOULD HELP - A LOT
One player the Comets are grateful to have back is Alexander Holtz, who probably should have been getting regular reps in Utica much sooner as he found himself on the bench for long stretches for the Devils. Holtz is back playing after a minor injury, scoring his third goal of the season in the first period against Syracuse on Sunday. However, having Holtz back in the lineup should bolster Utica’s top line as they make the final push for the playoffs.
Another player that should be joining Utica before the end of the season is left-handed defenseman Topias Vilen, whose regular season is winding down with Ilves in the Liiga. Of course, it is unknown how deep Ilves will go in the playoffs, but Vilen should be a welcomed addition when he arrives.
A CONCLUSION OF SORTS
On Sunday afternoon, Utica with backup Isaac Poulter in net, came back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat Syracuse in a 6-4 goalfest, thus putting the Comets into second place in the North. The Crunch still have a game in hand on the Comets.
Utica is in a good position to get a bye in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs and in a better position to at least make the playoffs, but they may have to hobble down the stretch to get there. Although the AHL affiliate is often overlooked, especially with the Devils playing as well as they are this season, these games are still important for the development of these young players.
UTICA COMETS PROSPECT UPDATE
Graeme Clarke became the first Utica Comet to score 20 goals this season. It has been a breakout year for the right-winger, who has been an emergency callup for the Devils, but has yet to see any game action. Nolan Foote has stagnated a bit, but is creeping behind Clarke with 16 goals. The biggest dropper from last update is Tyce Thompson, who can’t seem to find any consistency this season.
A couple of stick taps are in order. First to Timur Ibragimov, who earned a secondary assist in his first game as a Comet. Aarne Talvitie, who scored the goal Ibragimov assisted on, scored in back to back games after being scoreless much of the year. Ibragimov also scored his first goal as a Comet on Sunday against Syracuse after I updated this chart. Stick taps to both.
Simon Nemec has struggled offensively as of late with only one point in his last ten games. Although some Devils fans who sometimes act like a certain Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory character when it comes to prospects always “wanting it now” may fret about Nemec’s point totals as of late, prudent fans will show patience with the 19 year-old blueliner. Nemec will be a special talent, but if fans want to pencil him into the Devils lineup at the start of next season, they should use a pencil with an eraser, as it is possible that it may take a little longer for Nemec to get there.
Nico Daws continues to hold down the fort in Utica with Akira Schmid up with the big club. He has a respectable 2.81 GAA and .901 SV% so far this season.
UTICA COMET PLAYER OF THE MONTH
Graeme Clarke continues to impress. Stick tap.
AROUND THE POOL
- It has been confirmed again that Luke Hughes will join the Devils after his season ends. [TheAthletic $]
- Devils fans will have to wait a little longer for Hughes as the Michigan Wolverines swept the Wisconsin Badgers in their three game series to advance in the Big 10 tournament. [Sbnation]
- Seamus Casey and Luke Hughes were a big reason why Michigan advanced.
Seamus Casey. Time and Room. pic.twitter.com/X4Q20zN1PV— Michigan Hockey (@umichhockey) March 4, 2023
- Josh Filmon continues his monster season by hitting the 40 goal mark.
Filmon up to 40 goals in 54 games. That’s *really* good production in a D+1 season; especially for a 6th round pick. #NJDevils https://t.co/iUmHogEIve— Todd Cordell (@ToddCordell) March 1, 2023
- Lastly, a stick tap for Arseni Gritsyuk and his new bride. I hope she likes New Jersey.
Congrats Arseni! #NJDevils https://t.co/PkXdHfBl6t— Devils Prospects (@DevilsProspects) February 28, 2023
Now it is time to tell us what you think. Will Holtz salvage Utica’s season? How deep will Michigan go in the tournament? Let us know in the comments below.
Next week the prospect update will cycle back to the NCAA for some final season analysis and tournament updates.