Most of the time, it’s hard for me to really get invested in the Devils’ minor league team considering games are not easily accessible on or offline without paying an additional streaming package. And seeing as I don’t even watch all eighty-two Devils games as it is, it’s hardly worth it to get a streaming package for the minor league team as well (especially one that had largely struggled for the better part of the last decade). Still, it’s hard to totally ignore what’s going on in Utica right now with the Devils’ AHL affiliate upping its record to a perfect 10-0-0 in their first ten games of the season.
I did think that kind of start – now just one game off the AHL record of eleven straight wins to begin a season – merited a blog here, even if I’m still tripping over the fact that the team name is Utica Comets instead of Utica Devils…both because we’d been just tagging our AHL affiliate with the Devils name for the most part since the days of the Albany River Rats, and also because franchise legend Martin Brodeur got his start in the AHL with what was then known as the Utica Devils. It could be coincidence that we’ve returned to Utica once Marty got back in the organization at the management level, or perhaps not.
It’s hard to even find highlights of Utica, the one posted above was from almost three weeks ago. I’m the first to admit the extent of my familiarity to what’s going on with the minor league team is the research I’m doing for this blog, plus hearing about the players who’ve been called up to this point, such as goalie Nico Daws who had two starts here in just his second post-draft season, and including the latest callup today, 22-year old winger Fabian Zetterlund (3G-6A-9 points in 10 AHL games). Not to mention Alexander Holtz, whose hot start in the AHL (five goals in four games) prompted his initial call-up here.
Part of the Comets’ success can be attributed to having an experienced coach, as Devils assistant GM Dan MacKinnon made a wise hire of longtime NHL and AHL coach Kevin Dineen to be behind the bench for Utica. Dineen coached in the NHL for the Panthers from 2011-13 (and was on the other end of our back-and-forth seven game first-round series in 2012) after a long NHL playing career, and since then has been both an NHL assistant and AHL head coach, so he clearly brought experience from all points of view to the organization.
When it comes to the players, Utica has obviously gotten contributions from a lot of sources but so far the goalies stand out. Daws has won his six starts in Utica with a GAA of 2.17 and a save percentage of .936, and the 20-year old has come a long way since he wasn’t even picked in the draft two and a half years ago. After also getting his first NHL win against the Sabres in October, it’s been a heady month plus for the 2020 3rd round pick. Yet so far it’s been #2 goalie Akira Schmid who’s had the better splits in his four starts (1.23 GAA and .957 save percentage). Schmid was a 2018 5th round pick, and had been in the USHL since being drafted until this year when he – like Daws – got his first AHL action. Not sure I’d consider Schmid a legit prospect yet, but he’s still only 21 himself. A lot of unheralded goalies pop late, so who knows. Clearly the success of Daws and Schmid were a big reason the Devils felt they could move on from vet Scott Wedgewood.
In front of any good goalie is generally a good defense, among the Comets’ defensive leaders are 2019 2nd rounder Nikita Okhotyuk, and Coyotes 2018 2nd rounder Kevin Bahl – dealt to us in the Taylor Hall trade – who made his NHL debut with seven games last year. Both players fit a renewed emphasis within the organization on developing big players who can contribute to complement our young, skill players already in the organization at the AHL and NHL levels. Reilly Walsh, a 2017 3rd rounder from Harvard, is in his second season in the AHL and so far has 6 goals and 21 points in 43 AHL games. If there’s an offensive threat from the blueline for Utica, it’s Walsh who put up 58 points in 63 games during his last two years of college. So far our only AHL defenseman to see action at the NHL level is Colton White, who’s bounced back and forth between the AHL and NHL the last few years and looks to be settling in as organizational depth on D.
Generally when you have a successful AHL team you have at least a couple of career ‘lifers’ there, guys who are among the best players in the league but for one reason or another can never crack the NHL. Chase De Leo would qualify as such a player, joining Utica this year after playing under Dineen in San Diego the past few seasons. After a decent NHL camp he was optioned down again, and has twelve points in seven games so far. Having just turned 26 with all of five NHL games to his credit, his prospect days are long past but sometimes it’s good to have guys who are around because of a love of the game. You really have to love the game to be riding the AHL buses with next to no chance of cracking the NHL.
Another guy in that vein is A.J. Greer (3G-4A in ten games), an organizational role player who was dealt to us in the Kyle Palmieri/Travis Zajac trade with the Islanders last year. Greer leads the team in PIM’s with twenty-six so you know he plays with an edge and every team – NHL or AHL – needs that. Also adding goalscoring is 27-year old Joseph Gambardella (six goals in nine games). Of course the nucleus of your team should be younger players, and the Comets clearly have/had that with no fewer than four forwards meriting NHL callups so far…Zetterlund, Holtz, Jesper Boqvist (eight points in seven games at the AHL level) and Tyce Thompson (four goals and seven points in seven games before his callup). That’s not even counting a guy like Marian Studenic who looked fine in his time here, then got puzzlingly sent down and has put up four points in his first three games since clearing waivers.
It is fair to wonder long-term how Utica will be affected by so many callups, particularly at the forward position, but such is life as an AHL fan and another reason why it’s hard to get into watching their games. Perhaps players like 2019 3rd rounder Graeme Clarke (25 points in 40 AHL games) or another Coyotes import Nate Schnarr (eight points in eight games so far this year) can continue to step up to fill those voids. It would be nice to see more from one-time Lightning first-rounder Nolan Foote (two points in ten games so far) after he was one of the two main pieces in the Blake Coleman trade. It does help that the other one was Dawson Mercer, who’s likely never going to see the AHL except maybe on a rehab stint someday. Perhaps some late season PTO’s among drafted players whose own seasons ended – whether from college or in a foreign league – will help down the stretch, albeit almost anyone can say that.
Ironically, Utica can tie the AHL record for wins to start the season tonight at Rochester, who set the record themselves with eleven straight victories at the start of 1984-85. Wherever the win streak ends, hopefully this year there’ll be an extended Calder Cup playoff run for the kids to benefit from and continue to develop.