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The Comets Pathway

...Three players discuss the adjustment from the AHL to the NHL

by Cody Severtson @CodySevertson / Freelance writer

The path to the NHL is different for every player.

Oscar Fantenberg knows all about that.

After a six-year career in the SHL, and a brief stint in the KHL, the Ljungby, Sweden native didn't make his NHL debut until two days after his 26th birthday, with the LA Kings. Two years later the Canucks had signed him to a one-year contract.

While Fantenberg was on track to be a healthy option to start the season, a concussion sustained during a Canucks preseason game against the Ottawa Senators decided otherwise.

Fantenberg's path to a regular-season debut would first require a conditioning stint on the farm.

The Utica Comets that Fantenberg joined this season was a much different group than fans had grown accustomed to. Especially in regards to its defensemen. Retiring at the end of last season was veteran, Jaime Sifers. With the Canucks also moving on from Evan McEneny, Alex Biega, and brief Utica Comet, Luke Schenn.

The Utica Comets season to date has been quite chaotic.

After an undefeated run through October, the team then lost eight of their next ten, before a recent bounce-back that saw wins come from eight out of the last thirteen.

After see-sawing around the divisional ranks, the Comets find themselves ranked seventh in the AHL for points-percentage, first in the league in goals-for, but somehow, 10th in the AHL for the most shots and goals allowed per game.

Oscar Fantenberg spoke of his experience with the Comets, and highlighted the subtle differences between the two leagues that could be causing high-volume shooters to thrive against the Comets:

"Obviously, it's harder to play in the NHL than the AHL. But in a way, it's harder to defend because there are so many guys trying to score points and make it to the NHL on their own. You never know if players are shielding the puck, or setting up guys for breakaways...There's skill to the play, but it is way harder to read as a defenseman. Which might be why there's more shots."

The Comets currently sit with the 7th fewest total shots-for, at 851 with a shots-against total of 923. That leaves the Farm facing a negative 72 shot-differential over the past 31 games played.

Even while facing such a deficit, the Comets are tops in the AHL for goals-per-game; with 112 goals scored in 31 games played, the Comets have been scoring at an incredible pace to keep themselves in the Calder race.

During Fantenberg's two-game run with the Comets, he was on-ice for 47 shot-attempts, while directly contributing 16, himself. On the defensive side, Fantenberg faced down 39 shots-attempts-against, ending his time with the Comets with a +8 shot-differential.

While he never ended up on the scoresheet, Fantenberg's calm presence was a major factor to continuing the Comets string of dominance through October. 

No stranger to the rigours of adjusting from the AHL to the NHL was Fantenberg's brief penalty-killing partner, Jalen Chatfield.

Chatfield had been called up multiple times this season due to various injuries sustained by various Canucks blueliners, including Alex Edler.

"It's definitely a step better than the AHL, the NHL's the best league for a reason, the shooting is smoother, crisper, and everybody's hitting the tape. There a lot of good players down in the AHL too, but this is the best league and the best players..."

Chatfield is in the final year of his 3-year entry-level contract that was signed just prior to his Memorial Cup-winning run with the 2016-17 Windsor Spitfires. This year is a big one for the Ypsilanti native, and he knows it:

 "Obviously, up here, you get the best out of everybody, so you have to show up rink-ready. You don't want to practice bad or look unprepared by missing passes."

Being ready hasn't been a problem through Chatfield's 20 games with the Utica Comets this season. Chatfield has been one of head coach Trent Cull's go-to defensemen. A season that has seen Chatfield chewing a ton of ice time whilst being a main staple to the Comets penalty-killing unit.

Although he doesn't have the most flattering scoreline, Chatfield's effectiveness as a penalty-killing expert has made him indispensable to the Comets. Chatfield's willingness to make crucial goal-saving blocks has been instrumental to his team. And a big part of why the Comets penalty-kill sits as the twelfth-best in the AHL.  

"To play that role on the PK, you have to have a good stick, and have to block shots, I know Juolevi, and I were pretty high on that list, but since I've been gone I might be losing my rank!" Chatfield laughed.

For clarity's sake, since getting called up to the Canucks, Chatfield has been surpassed only by Ashton Sautner in blocks and deflections while penalty-killing.

Speaking to his effectiveness on the Comets penalty kill, Chatfield offered some insight into his playstyle:

"Blocking shots is a big part of my game, even at 5-on-5, anything that keeps the puck from hitting Mikey is the best. Even though I know he can make the save, if you can stop that puck before that, and make a play that takes the chance away, then that's a good play."

Although the recent recall may have cost him his second-place spot on the "defensemen shot-blocking" ranks, Chatfield shared some fantastic perspective on what this most recent call-up has meant to him:

"It's a lot. It's long. It's a long day of flying." Chatfield chuckled,

"At the end of the day, you're playing hockey! Whether you're called up just to sit down...you make the best of it...last year, after my foot injury, I had a cast up to my knee area where I couldn't do anything for nine weeks... Even just being up here working with Glenny and Baumer on the small details makes me a better player. Not playing any games sucks, but at the same time, I'm developing for the better."

Speaking with Chatfield's fellow multi-time call-up, Michael DiPietro, about his development and his adjustment to the high-volume of shots he's faced this season as a first-year pro:

"There's obviously going to be a feeling-out process when you jump to the A; the big thing is dealing with older guys, smarter players, and harder shots."

DiPietro then added, "For me, it's learning the game at a faster pace; Seeing that no play gets wasted in the zone and that there is always a purpose to the way things are done. Some nights are busier than others, and you have to be ready for it. Sometimes you have to bail out your teammates, and sometimes they bail you out. "

DiPietro has been called-up twice this season, first to provide back-up duties for Thatcher Demko while Jacob Markstrom was on leave. The second time, was to provide back-up duty in the wake of Demko's concussion. 

When asked about the shot-blocking efforts between Chatfield, Juolevi and the rest of the Comets squad:

"It takes a special breed to lay their body on the line. Especially when the big boys come down the flanks for one-timers off the walls. Anytime a guy lays his body on the line to blocks shots, you notice it."

DiPietro then offered up a final, straightforward analysis of the difference between the volume of AHL shots he'd faced this season:

"Shots are shots; they're coming in regardless. I don't pay attention to stats or shots...at the end of the day, It's all about winning. And that's what I'm focusing on."

DiPietro has an 8-win, 4-loss, and one overtime-loss on his record in the AHL; posting the second-lowest goals-against-average and fourth-highest save-percentage amongst AHL rookie goaltending.

And while the circumstances that brought him to the NHL aren't the greatest, it's fair to say that it was more than just injury that earned DiPietro his opportunity.

His focus on winning, has certainly paid off.

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