The Utica Comets had a lot of roster turnover this off-season and with news of camp invites looking to earn professional AHL contracts, they likely aren’t done yet. This posts looks at who’s new, who’s gone and what still needs to be done. Let’s delve in.
Editorial Note: After this article was written, the Utica Comets signed three forwards: Ryan Fitzgerald, Yushiroh Hirano and Eric Cooley and, as reported by our very own John Fischer, the Devils have invited many others free agents to prospect camp. Fitzgerald, the son of Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald, is a former AHL All-star and should help with Utica’s top six so long as he has recovered from injuries that derailed his last two seasons. Both Cooley and Hirano have split time between the ECHL and AHL in previous seasons and will add much needed depth in Utica. More signings/trades are still very likely.
Gone: Aarne Talvitie (non-qualified), Jack Dugan (trade), Josh Filmon (will have to return to Juniors if not in NHL until his season ends), Mason Geertsen (signed with Vegas), Nolan Stevens (signed by Detroit), Brian Pinho (signed with Islanders), Jayce Hawryluk (unsigned), Nick Hutchinson (signed with Vasteras IK)
Added: Shane Bowers (C) (trade), Chase Stillman (W) (graduated from Juniors), Kyle Criscuolo (C) (signed), Justin Dowling (C/W) (signed)
Possible Graduations: Nolan Foote (W), Graeme Clarke (W), Alexander Holtz (W)
The Comets will have a large overhaul in their starting lineup next season. How big will depend on who, if any, graduate to the Devils out of the big three offensive producers for the Comets: Foote, Clarke and Holtz.
As our very own John Fischer wrote about last week, GM Tom Fitzgerald hyping Nolan Foote makes it seem that he is likely to join the Devils this season. Foote, who would require waivers to return to Utica, is coming off his best season, where he scored 20 goals and 37 points in only 55 games. Foote also seemed to have gained a step in his short stint with the big club, winning board battles and chipping in a goal in 6 games.
Graeme Clarke broke out in a big way last season, leading the Comets in most offensive categories including goals (25) and points (58) in 68 games. Clarke’s development has been slow due to a rash of injuries, but the winger seems to have turned a corner, more than doubling his production from a season ago. Clarke will not not require waivers to return to Utica to start the season.
Lastly, Alexander Holtz was widely-seen as being mishandled by the Devils this past season in what GM Tom Fitzgerald called a “victim of the Devils success.” Holtz has found offensive success in the AHL, but has struggled with the small things, which was his focus after he requested to be returned to the AHL to further his development. It remains to be seen how far Holtz has come along in correcting those “small things,” which add up to “big bad things” like goals against at the highest level.
On a positive note for Utica, veterans Joe Gambardella, Ryan Schmelzer and Brian Halonen appear to be coming back. However, even with those trio returning, the Comets may be in for tough times especially if two or all three of Clarke, Holtz and Foote graduate to the big club. Without them, the Comets Top 6 is extremely weak and there are not enough forwards currently on the roster to field a competitive team without borrowing from the ECHL.
I would expect more invites to camp in the near future as players looking for a spot have a good chance of earning a AHL contract.
Gone: Reilly Walsh (trade), Nikita Okhotiuk (trade), Zachary Hayes (non-qualified), Jeremy Groleau (non-qualified)
Added: Daniil Misyul (signed), Topias Vilen (brought over from loan), Santeri Hatakka (trade), Colin Felix (signed)
Possible Graduations: Simon Nemec
On defense, the Comets are stronger, even if Simon Nemec graduates. With Hatakka coming off of injury and Topias Vilen and Daniil Misyul entering the mix, the Comets blueline has a healthy mix of veterans and prospects. Veterans Tyler Wotherspoon, Robbie Russo and Michael Vukojevic should help round out the roster along with recent signing Colin Felix, a local kid from Camden, NJ, who is looking to make the jump into a permanent AHL spot after playing with the Reading Royals of the ECHL in his first post-collegiate season last year.
The one thing that may suffer: the power play, especially if Nemec graduates. Reilly Walsh was a mainstay on the top power play unit for the Comets during much of his tenure with the club. Nemec is the clear heir apparent but if he graduates to the big club that leaves the hole to be filled by Topias Vilen and Santeri Hatakka or veterans such as Robbie Russo or Tyler Wotherspoon. While moving on from Reilly Walsh made sense from his lack of opportunity for growth in New Jersey, losing him did open up a big hole on the Comets power play that will need to be filled.
Gone: Zachary Emond (non-qualified)
Added: Erik Kallgren (signed), Tyler Brennan (signed/graduated from Juniors), Jeremy Brodeur (signed)
Possible Graduations: Akira Schmid
The goalie carousel in Utica is evolving and complicated by losing Nico Daws to hip labrum surgery for the first half of the season. [Rome Sentinel] It is unknown if Daws, who went 16-14-3 last season for the Comets with a 2.70 GAA and .904 SV%, will be the same player when he returns.
Further complicating matters for Utica is the uncertainty as to whether Akira Schmid will start the season with the Devils or if GM Tom Fitzgerald will trade for another goaltender to platoon with Vitek Vanecek. Schmid, who was lights out with the Devils last season, was also Utica’s best goalie edging out Daws with a 2.65 GAA and .905 SV%
What is fairly certain is that Erik Kallgren will likely be in the mix for the Comets. Signed by the Devils this offseason, Kallgren has played 25 games for the Toronto Maple Leafs as a call-up in two season, sporting his best North American numbers last year with a 2.67 GAA and .898 SV% with the big club. His numbers for the Marlies of the AHL have been less impressive other than a 26 game stint the previous year, when Kallgren posted a 3.02 GAA and .904 SV% — the only time his SV% edged above .900 since coming over to North America from the Liiga.
Tyler Brennan may also be in the mix. Brennan will not turn 20 until September and while he improved his numbers in the WHL last season for Prince George, he still could not crack the .900 SV% threshold. With Nico Daws set to return at some point this season, one wonders if it would not be best for Brennan’s development to start the season with the Andirondack Thunder of the ECHL rather than ping pong between the two leagues.
Jeremy Brodeur will also get an opportunity to earn a spot while Daws recovers from surger. Brodeur had a strong season for the Manchester Storm of the EIHL finishing the year with a .917 SV%. Lastly Isaac Poulter, who split time between the Comets and the Andirondack Thunder last year, is still under contract. Although his tenure with the Comets was less than stellar. he has familiarity on his side.
There is still work to be done in rounding out the Utica Comets roster for next season. Now is the time to tell us what you think about this or any other prospect-related topic in the comments below.