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Utica Comets: new year, new questions

by Tyson Giuriato / Vancouver Canucks
The Utica Comets will look to re-create magic again this year as the 2015-16 American Hockey League season gets going this coming weekend.

The Comets are coming off a Western Conference best 47-20-7-2 record and a trip to the Calder Cup Final. However, like any season, the roster will look a little different this time around as the team said goodbye to a few household names and hello to a good mix of youth and veterans.

The schedule will look a little different this year as well. The Comets don’t have a chance to repeat as Western Conference champions as they now find themselves in Eastern Conference, in the North Division, as the AHL underwent a massive realignment.

What this means? Less time spent traveling. More time for practices. More time for proper rest. Better development for players.

Five questions heading into the 2015-16 season:

How big of a year can Brendan Gaunce have?

Gaunce is coming off a very good training camp with the Canucks and will look to keep that momentum going as he enters his second pro season.

Obviously it’s disappointing when you’re cut from a team, especially when playing good, but Gaunce isn’t one to sulk. He knows it’s a process.

“He is a very mature kid,” said Green. “We try to prep all our young guys that this isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. The key is to keep getting better day to day and month to month and year to year. Some of them have a hard time grasping that, and Brendan is one of those guys that takes those things to heart. He understands the process better than most young guys, which is going to give him a leg up when it comes to dealing with adversity and the tougher times.”

Coming off a season in which he posted 29 points in 74 games, look for Gaunce to add to those totals this year. He may get a look on the top line to start the season with Linden Vey and Alexandre Grenier.

How will the defensive core play out?

Gone is Bobby Sanguinetti and his 40 points. Gone is also Adam Clendening, Peter Andersson, Kent Huskins and Frank Corrado.

Alex Biega and Travis Ehrhardt are the only returning defencemen that saw action during the Calder Cup playoffs, while other veterans in the mix include returnees Andrey Pedan and John Negrin, along with former San Jose Shark Taylor Fedun.

It will be a bit of a youth movement on the back-end, as first year professionals Anton Cederholm, Evan McEneny, Ashton Sautner and Jordan Subban have all joined the fold.

“It will be interesting to see how it plays out,” said Green. “We got some young guys coming in that are trying to find their way and I am anxious to see where they all fit in.”

The Comets currently have nine defenceman on their roster and will most likely carry eight (barring injuries) throughout the season, which means one of the young guys could end up in the ECHL.

“The young guys have all had times where they have shown what they can do, and have all had times where they look a bit tired. They all bring a different element to the table and I think we have seen them all bring their best attribute, but nobody has stepped up to the forefront just yet.”

Look for Fedun to step into the role Sanguinetti served in last season, as the go-to guy offensively from the blue-line.

Is this the best group of forwards the Comets have had?

Sure, they lost some offensive guys. But on paper, this looks like an exciting group.

Veterans like Linden Vey, Blair Jones and Alexandre Grenier should help pace the offence, while the likes of Brendan Gaunce, Nicklas Jensen, Hunter Shinkaruk and Alex Friesen are all one year older and knocking on the door of breakout seasons.

“I thought we had a real good forward group last year,” said Green. “We have never had a real offensive powerhouse forward group where we scored goals at will. It seems like we have struggled a bit in the past to score, but have always had real good depth. I am hoping we might have a couple guys emerge as real high-end goal scorers this season.”

The Comets will once again have depth up front. They will most likely carry 14-15 forwards, so expect changes after a few games.

Can Nicklas Jensen breakout this season?

Canucks fans have been waiting for the 2011 first-rounder to have a big season for a few years now.

Jensen teased fans a bit back in 2012 when, as a 19-year-old, he joined the Canucks AHL affiliate at the end of the season and potted four goals in six games before scoring twice in four playoff games. Since then, things have been a bit quieter.

He has just 29 goals and 49 points in his last 113 games AHL regular season games played. He turns 23 in March.

“This is that year where he needs to find his way,” said Green. “He needs to figure out how he can play his best hockey, consistently. He looks good so far and I am anxious to see how he progresses.”

How long will it take Cole Cassels to find his game?

You know the story: Do-it-all type player coming off a massive season in the OHL that saw him net 81 points (30-51-81) in 54 games followed up by 19 points (6-13-19) in 16 games to lead his team to a Memorial Cup Championship.

However, Cassels had surgery in June and missed out on most of his off-season training, instead having to focus on rehabbing. He didn’t get much of a chance to add any extra strength, which is much needed when transitioning from junior to pro.

“He didn’t have the summer training he needed and now we are going to fast track him a little bit, working on his strength and conditioning to get him up and running to where I know he can succeed,” said Green. “It’s going to be hard on him for a little bit here as we are going to be pushing him off the ice as well as on the ice.

“He is a good young player and we like him a lot. I am anxious to see where he is at six weeks ago.”

Utica Comets - The Pride of the People

Take a look at this video, which showcases the atmosphere both inside and outside of the Aud, the rink the Utica Comets call home. It’s a boisterous and deafening experience, as Comets fans passionately display their love of hockey and the love they have for their team.

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