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Top 5 Utica Comets

by Dan Marrazza / Vancouver Canucks
When the Utica Comets opened the 2015-16 season, they were seen by many as a championship favourite after making an unexpected run to the Calder Cup Final last spring.

After a poor 5-8-1-1 start, the Comets have found their footing. With 11 wins in their last 15 games, they currently sit in fifth place in the Eastern Conference with a 16-10-2-2 record.

As the calendar shifts to 2016 – the unofficial halfway mark of the AHL season – here’s the top five Comets knocking on the door to establish themselves as full-time members of the Canucks, in order of performance.

1. Hunter Shinkaruk

Position: Left wing
Date of birth: October 13, 1994
Height: 5’11” Weight: 180
Hometown: Calgary, Alta

Acquired: Canucks first-round pick (23rd overall) in 2013

The consensus No. 1 player on the Comets right now is Hunter Shinkaruk, who leads the team in goals (12) and points (24), and is tied for the team lead in assists (12).

He went through a brief dry spell in early December when he was held without a point four times in five games. Other than that, he’s consistently been the team’s top scoring threat since last March, when he shrugged off a difficult beginning to his rookie season by scoring nine goals in the final 16 games of the 2014-15 season.

Continuing to improve and score, Shinkaruk now looks like a player who’s figured the AHL out, on the verge of breaking through and staying with the Canucks for good.

“You see it in every sport,” Comets coach Travis Green said. “There’s an adjustment period when they move up to the next level. They’re used to being stars, playing a lot more minutes and getting a lot more scoring chances.

“I thought over the course of last season he developed the way we wanted him to. He got used to playing a 200-foot game and having to win puck battles in tough areas.

“He’s at a stage now where he just has to keep progressing.”

2. Brendan Gaunce

Position: Center
Date of birth: March 25, 1994
Height: 6’2”
Weight: 210
Hometown: Sudbury, Ont.

Acquired: Canucks first-round pick (26rd overall) in 2012

Gaunce and Shinkaruk have clearly been the best two Comets this season, when their successes have often gone hand-in-hand with them playing together on the team’s top line.

The reason that Gaunce is a hair behind Shinkaruk is because his offence has been slightly less explosive and dynamic; Shinkaruk is more likely to make a flashy play, while Gaunce has been more of a methodical, gritty, driving forward.

That’s not to say that Gaunce hasn’t been really good. A year after debuting in the AHL with a respectable 11 goals, Gaunce currently has nine in 19 games and could score 30 in a full season with Utica this year (if he doesn’t get called up first).

“In junior, he was so much stronger and bigger than a lot of guys,” Green said. We had to push him to use his body, get his feet moving and get into the battle, because he never really had to in junior.

“He’s had a lot of little areas in his game that he had to work on. That just goes with the territory – nothing glaring. He had a really good summer and has come back this season playing a lot better.”

3. Taylor Fedun

Position: Defence
Date of birth: June 4, 1988
Height: 6’0”
Weight: 200
Hometown: Edmonton, Alta

Acquired: Signed as a free agent on July 1, 2015

If the saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” wasn’t written about Taylor Fedun, it darn well could have been.

The recipient of a series of ghastly injuries – mostly notably a seriously broken leg he sustained in a race for an icing in 2011 – Fedun, somewhat appropriately, is currently sidelined for another 2-4 weeks with an upper-body injury he sustained in Rochester on Dec. 9.

Despite this, Fedun has been an efficient force on the Comets’ blue line and definitely the team’s most consistent defenceman this season.

“I didn’t know a lot about him when he came in this year,” Green said. “He’s been a big part of our team. He’s a good player, offensive defenceman. Good puck mover out of his zone. Competes hard. He’s a guy that’s probably just waiting for an opportunity to get a chance in the NHL to see if he can do it on a consistent level.”

4. Mike Zalewski

Position: Left wing
Date of birth: August 18, 1992
Height: 6’2”
Weight: 205
Hometown: New Hartford, NY

Acquired: Signed as an undrafted free agent on March 14, 2014

It’s a little known fact that Katy Perry’s song ‘Dark Horse’ was inspired by Mike Zalewski.

Okay, that’s a lie. That doesn’t mean he didn’t enter this season as a major dark horse to establish himself on the upper echelon of the Comets’ roster.

As recently as last spring, it seemed like Zalewski was a long shot to even remain in the Canucks organization. At the time, he was finishing a disappointing first professional season with the Utica Comets, a year after Vancouver signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Rensselaer Polytechnic University.

Zalewski’s first season with Utica – the next town over from his native New Hartford, NY – finished with him scoring only three goals in 55 games and not being kept on an NHL contract by the Canucks.

Returning to the Comets on an AHL-only deal, Zalewski’s been one of the team’s steadiest all-around performers, already more than doubling his goal total from last season with seven in fewer than half the games.

“After talking with Z, he told me that (wherever he plays) his second year is a lot better than his first,” Green said. “We’re seeing that now.

“When Z’s getting better, he knows the things he’s doing. It’s never one thing. He’s protecting the puck, he’s strong on the puck, he’s skating, hitting.

“He seems to get better every month.”

5. Alexandre Grenier

Position: Right wing
Date of birth: September 5, 1991
Height: 6’5”
Weight: 200
Hometown: Laval, PQ

Acquired: Canucks third-round pick (90th overall) in 2011

When you ask Comets coach Travis Green about Grenier, his face makes a sudden movement. It could even be categorized as a grimace, although the way his eyes light up in contrast to his facial movements reflect the strong emotion he feels about a player he’s poured his blood, sweat and tears into developing over the past three seasons.

In his fourth season in the Canucks’ minor-league system, Grenier has been one of the organization’s largest projects over the past few years. It started when he played a majority of his first pro season (2012-13) in the ECHL, continued when he was often a healthy scratch in Utica two years ago and has resulted in him now mostly playing on the Comets’ top scoring line with Brendan Gaunce and Hunter Shinkaruk.

“He’s really come a long way from day one,” Green said. “I give him a lot of credit. He’s gone through some tough times our first year here.

“Grens was a long ways behind when we first got here and I think he would be the first to admit it. His conditioning wasn’t very good. His mindset of what kind of player he was wasn’t very good. He wanted to play a perimeter game. He wanted to stickhandle around guys and beat guys one-on-one almost like a summer-league player. I think the first thing for him was mentally grasping that he needed to change how he played the game.

“He understands what he is and how he has to play to have success. I think he’s knocking on the door to play in the NHL. I think his skating just has to get a little better.”

Although the Comets’ second leading scorer with 18 points to Shinkaruk’s 24, Grenier projects more as a bottom-6 forward at the NHL level.

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