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Utica Comets 2014-15 season preview

by Tyson Giuriato / Vancouver Canucks
What a difference a year makes.

It took 11 games for the Utica Comets to pick up their first win last season, but with some added depth and a lot of returning players, the Comets appear on track already this year as they were able to pick up two points in their very first game of the 2014.15 season as they took home three of a possible four points this past weekend in Toronto.

As nice as it was to start the season off on a high note, there are still question marks surrounding the team as they get set to head to Texas this coming weekend.

How will first round picks Brendan Gaunce and Hunter Shinkaruk do in their first pro season?

Shinkaruk posted 235 points in 211 career WHL games for the Medicine Hat Tigers. It’s no secret that he is a pure-offensive talent, but time will tell if there are growing pains as he transitions into his first season of pro hockey, playing against bigger, older players on a nightly basis.

“He is a highly skilled guy and thinks the game really well from the offensive side of the puck,” said Comets head coach, Travis Green. “Watching Hunter over the past 10 days or so, I like what I see so far. I like his offensive instincts and I like his willingness to compete; he plays with a lot of energy. For me, Hunter needs to bring that competitive nature to the ice all the time, not just to score.”

As for Gaunce, he was no stranger to putting up points in the OHL (236 in 258), but he finds himself on the wing to start his pro career, a position he played at times in Belleville and Erie. The 6-foot-2, 216-pounder has long been praised as a smart defensive player, but Green wants him to focus on other parts of his game, especially using that large frame of his.

“I like how he thinks the game,” said Green. “We put him on the wing because I want him to play a game that really forces him to use his size right now and not worry so much about defending in his own zone. This will be a big step for him, coming out of junior where he played a lot of minutes. We are going to push him to play at a high pace, use his body, get in on the forecheck and be hard to play against.”

What can we expect from Nicklas Jensen as he enters his second full season in the North American pro ranks?

He was one of the most talked about prospects on the Comets last year after he had only one goal in his first 26 games, but then went into another gear, finding the back of the net 14 times over his net 25 games, earning himself a call-up to the Canucks in March.

If Jensen can break out offensively early, we can expect a big season out of the 2011 first-round pick.

“I thought he took some big steps last year from where he was at the beginning of the year, to where he is now,” said Green. “He is now killing penalties, playing late in the game, which never happened last year. This isn’t a make-it or break-it year for him. He is still a young guy and is entering just his second full season in the AHL. You look at some other teams around the NHL and there are guys who spent a lot of time in the minors before being regular NHL players, like Gustav Nyquist in Detroit.

“I like the way his game is progressing. I like what I have seen in the two games this year. I think he is on the right path right now and is starting to figure out how he is going to make it. We don’t have to remind him anymore on what it will take for him to make it; he sees that on his own now.”

How will the goaltending situation play out?

Joacim Eriksson was the man between the pipes for the Comets last season, appearing in 52 games in what was his first season playing in North America. Now, with the addition of Jacob Markström, who has 139 AHL games under his belt, along with 47 NHL games, over the past four seasons, the Comets’ crease is a bit crowded. Time will tell who will be the go-to guy between the barber poles, something Green says will play out on its own.

“I plan on playing both of them each of the first two weekends,” he said. “The natural way of thinking about this situation is to split their games until one of them decides with his play that you shouldn’t split them. I am confident in both of them and I am really hoping they will be a big strength to our team. As far as playing time goes, that will take care of itself. I hope they both play great all year and we will figure it out as we go.”

Who is primed for a breakout season?

Alexandre Grenier, Alex Friesen, Nicklas Jensen, Peter Andersson, Darren Archibald. The list goes on. A lot of players played well at certain times of the season last year, but which guy is most destined to really break out this season? Grenier appears to be a prime candidate, posting a goal and two assists in the first two games of the season.

“Grenier has come back a lot better than he was last year,” said Green. “Peter Andersson has done a nice job with his development. I look at Alex Friesen, who took a big jump last season, but it’s too bad he got hurt (out 2-4 weeks). It’s tough to tell this early without seeing them against a few different teams, but I am hopeful for a quite a few players on the team that look like they could take that next step this season.”

With the way they finished last season, and with almost the entire team returning, can the Comets be a contender this season?

Despite their bad start last season, the Comets clawed their way back and missed the post-season by only four points. They went 24-12-3-1 over their last 40 games, and with the majority of players returning, plus the additions of Gaunce, Markström and Shinkaruk, the Comets appear poised to be a tough team to play against from start to finish.

“We can be a team that is hard to play against,” said Green. “We talk about taking steps as players and as an organization and I think we have done that. We have taken steps with the culture we are trying to build down here and the next step is to get into the playoffs. Once you get there, anything can happen.”

News and Notes

-As noted above, Green plans on giving both Eriksson and Markström a start this coming weekend as the team travels to San Antonio and Austin for a two-game set.

-Friesen suffered an injury in the Comets’ 2-1 win over Toronto on Saturday night. He is expected to be sidelined for two-to-four weeks.

-With no roster limits in the AHL, the Comets are still carrying 27 players. Expect a few more roster cuts in the coming weeks.

-The Comets’ Home Opener is set for Wednesday, October 22 when they host Adirondack.

-Canucks prospects Dane Fox and Alex Mallet were both re-assigned to the Kalamazoo Wings of the ECHL, while goaltender Joe Cannata was loaned to the Ontario Reign.

-The AHL announced last week that the Comets will host the 2014 AHL All-Star Classic, which takes place January 25-26.

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