Calder Cup Preview: Getting to Know the Utica Comets

In only their second season as an American Hockey League franchise, the Utica Comets are in the Calder Cup Final, battling the Manchester Monarchs (the Los Angeles Kings affiliate) for the right to be named AHL champions. They are the first Vancouver Canucks farm team since the Manitoba Moose in 2009 to reach the Calder Cup final. The Comets look to make history as the first Canucks affiliate in history to win the Calder Cup, and considering that the Canucks organization is one that has a relatively poor track record when it comes to drafting and development, that would be a huge step in the right direction for the club.

The vast majority of their success, both in the regular and post-season, has been due to the spectacular play of goaltender Jacob Markstrom. Despite being unable to establish himself as a reliable NHL goaltender so far, Markstrom had carved out a niche for himself as one of the better goalies of the AHL, and has had his best campaign to date this year, posting a 1.87 GAA along with a .931 SV%, numbers that are among the best of the AHL. During the playoffs, the Swedish netminder has continued his dominance, boasting a 1.87 GAA and a .931 SV%, the best among goalies with at least ten games played by a country mile.

Up front, prospects like former Calgary Flame Sven Baertschi and the underrated Alex Grenier, who has made big strides this season, have been getting the job done offensively, with 13 and 12 points respectively in their 18 games. However, as good as they’ve been, it’s AHL veteran and former Nashville Predators draft pick Cal O’Reilly that has been leading the way with 15 points (all assists) in 18 games. O’Reilly, captain of the Comets, led the team in scoring during the regular season, and has been a role model for young players coming through the system in both of his two seasons with the club.

On defence, veteran Bobby Sanguinetti, who played in the 2015 AHL all-star game, is the go-to defender, while Adam Clendening and Frankie Corrado, who are almost sure-bets to play in the NHL next season, also do a nice job of playing against top players. Peter Andersson, Travis Ehrhardt, Kent Huskins and Alex Biega (who scored his first NHL goal this season) round out a solid Comets d-core.

The Comets rely on a system that involves a lot of secondary scoring, as guys like Brendan Gaunce (nine points in 16 games) and Alex Friesen (10 points in 18 games), as well as Canucks’ trade deadline acquisition Cory Conacher and 2013 first-round draft pick Hunter Shinkaruk  have all been strong contributors for the team, and have played vital roles in Utica. Strangely enough, their most struggling forward is 2011 first-round pick Nicklas Jensen, who is having a hard time getting into the lineup, and has been ineffective on the rare occasions he has.

While the Comets don’t boast any elite-level skaters, they are a well-balanced team that doesn’t rely too heavily on any one player to produce, while also being able to shut down other teams with a solid blue line and arguably the best goaltender in the league. There aren’t many marquee names on the Comets roster, but don’t let that fool you. This is a very good hockey club that could very easily take home the Calder Cup, and put the Canucks on the map as a team on the rise.