After the 15 game mark last season, the Utica Comets were a lowly 3-10-2. Fast forward 12 months, and the Comets lead the entire American Hockey League with an 11-2-2 record.
What has made the difference you ask?
Is it the fact the Comets have over a dozen returning players on the roster? An injection of youth from the likes of Brendan Gaunce, Hunter Shinkaruk and Ronalds Kenins? Unbelievable goaltending from Jacob Markstrom and Joacim Eriksson? Is the momentum carrying over from their last 40 games of the 2013-14 season where they went 24-12-4? Or maybe all of the above?
“I don’t think you can point at one thing as the reason for our turnaround this season,” said Comets head coach, Travis Green. “Our returning players are a year older and have improved their games, having upwards of 15 returning guys helps. Our players are competing hard and we have had a lot better goaltending to start this season then we did last year. We started last season with two young goaltenders and they struggled a bit to start the year, but were real good in the second half.
“Eriksson has started this season where he left off last year and is a better goalie now, while Markstrom obviously has been very strong.”
The Comets are winning, but they are winning with different players each night. They are currently carrying 26 players, plus have two up with the Canucks. They haven’t gone with the same lineup two games in a row yet this season as Green wants everyone to see action and develop. But they are not just carrying 26 bodies that take up space in the locker room; everybody can play and the talent pool on this year’s team is stronger than ever.
“The depth of our team is very deep this year,” said Green. “Last game we were missing seven guys and even though we lost, we played a real strong game. Last year if we were missing that many guys we wouldn’t have been able to withstand it.”
Although the line-up has changed nightly, one line that has played together for almost the entire season has been the Comets so-called “fourth line” featuring Canucks first-rounder Brendan Gaunce along with AHL veterans Carter Bancks and Wacey Hamilton. The trio has been as steady as they come for the Comets, night in and night out.
“Some nights they have been our first line,” said Green. “I write them on the board as the fourth line every game and I kind of laugh when I do as they have been real good for us. There is a reason why I haven’t changed up that line. They are real reliable and I think Bancks and Hamilton have been really good for Gaunce. They are veteran guys that understand how hard the league is and how hard you have to play to create chances. I like the way Gaunce’s game is progressing playing alongside those two guys. He has played well.”
Green says he wants Gaunce to play a fast and heavy game and likes the development he is seeing so far. The 207-pounder currently has seven points (1-6-7) in 15 games along with a plus-5 rating.
“He is playing with a little more pace. We are trying to force him to be a big body that can skate, hit and be strong on the puck and strong on other teams defence. He is a pretty detailed and mature guy which has benefited him. We are trying to push him to get outside of the comfort zone a little bit which I think all young players have to do to succeed.
“We are not asking him to go out there and fight and do things like that. For me, playing heavy is being aggressive on the fore check, squeezing players on the back check and really making life hard for the other team.”
The Comets are not only getting consistent play from their fourth line and goaltenders, they are also getting stellar play from their blue-liners, most notably Peter Andersson.
The Canucks fifth round, 143rd overall, pick in 2009 is now in his third AHL season and is starting to come into his own. In 15 games, the 6-foot-4, 200-pounder has a pair of goals and a plus-11 rating, which is second in the AHL.
“I like his game a lot,” said Green. “He is one of those quiet Swedish defenceman that you see every once in a while. He just plays the game, is smart, he has gotten stronger and has a higher compete level in his battles this season. He is playing heavier and as a result he is playing a lot more and a lot better. He has become a real good defenceman for us.”