Graeme Clarke is back from the extended/unexpected holiday break and ready to pick up where he left off with the Utica Comets.
"You have to expect the unexpected," he said.
After two seasons of pandemic and injury uncertainty, the 20-year-old right winger continues to improve and get more comfortable playing in the American Hockey League. Clarke has scored five times and added nine assists in 19 games for the relocated and re-energized Devils affiliate.
"Well, we are winning most nights, so everyone is pretty happy," said Clarke, in reference to the great fan support the Comets have enjoyed in Utica. "We have the best fans to play in front of here as well, sold out every night.
"I think I've left (a few goals) on the table and I'm working on my defensive game and bearing down a bit more in front of the net … I'm learning a lot here from the coaches and we've added some older players, veteran guys who are almost like coaches themselves."
The Comets are the AHL's best team, firing out of the gate with a record winning streak and are now 18-1-2 before the pandemic flare-up halted their schedule. The Comets are set to resume play with a New Year's Eve tilt at home against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
The club had three games that straddled Christmas cancelled due to pandemic issues. Like the big club, the Comets have had multiple players test positive and/or placed in protocol and made unavailable. The original plan was for the Comets to play across the border in Belleville and then break for the holiday. That game and two others since have been postponed.
"Most of our Canadian guys (had made plans) to go home after that game," explained Clarke. Instead, Clarke took his own car on the three-hour trip back home to Ottawa. He's back and waiting for the Comets schedule to take some form of normalcy.
Normal has scarcely described Clarke's past two years.
He was drafted by the Devils in the third round (80th overall) at the 2019 NHL Draft in Vancouver but suffered a shoulder injury upon returning to the Ottawa 67's for his third season of junior hockey. He was back for a handful of games - including a first-star performance against his younger brother Brandt - and then COVID struck. The season was wiped out soon after while the 67's - who also had Devils prospects Kevin Bahl and Nikita Okhotyiuk - were ranked the top team in Canada.
"We don't like to talk about that," said 67's GM James Boyd, for whom Clarke played three seasons in Ottawa, "…but there was something special about that group."
COVID problems lingered for Ontario Hockey League players like Clarke because that league delayed and eventually cancelled its season without playing a single game. He was able to report to Binghamton (who were playing home games at the Devils practice facility in Newark) to start the AHL season a year ago.
Factoring in the injury while still in junior, Clarke's past three seasons in so-called regular times, would include at least 200 games and probably one long playoff run with the 67's. Instead, he's played 72 games, 50 at the AHL level, plus a short stint in Slovakia with Brandt, who was selected eighth overall by the Los Angeles Kings in July. In between Slovakia and reporting to Binghamton, he had an honorable showing at Canada's World Junior camp but was among the final cuts on a team whose forwards were entirely first-round NHL draft picks.
That circuitous journey, without playing an awful lot, was not ideal.
Still, Clarke has made the most of it. He signed his NHL contract and the visual tweeted out by the big club provided a classic visual that was perfect for social media in the COVID era: both Clarke and Devils GM Tom Fitzgerald were masked up, the frame showed that a song more than a decade older than Clarke was playing in the background.
Safe to say like so much from the past two years, Clarke didn't get to pick the details surrounding the milestone occasion.
But his abbreviated rookie pro season struck many good notes; still a teenager, Clarke scored eight goals in 31 games, tops on the team, and had 10 assists. Those 18 points were second-best on the squad behind Fabian Zetterlund, who played three more games.
"It wasn't normal but I think I played well," Clarke said of last season.
He attended training camp with the Devils this season and played in one exhibition game on the road against Washington.
"I got to start…the opening face-off was against Ovie (Alex Ovechkin)," he points out.
Those types of memories never go away but the key to making more is to keep learning and then executing on what he can glean. It's a process.
"I think that you have to try and get better each game," he said. "I like to watch video…our coaches here send us email (links) and I always make sure to watch and see what I may have done wrong or could do better the next time.
"That's (the objective), getting better the next time."