For the Utica Comets and their fans, the 2021-22 season was a very pleasant surprise. They weren’t picked by many to finish the regular season in first place in the North Division, let alone the Eastern Conference. Against the odds, they did both – helped in part by a scorching hot first half of the season that included an AHL record-setting thirteen straight wins to start the season. They finished the regular season with a record of 43-20-0-8 for a 0.660 winning percentage (that season, the standings were determined by winning percentage. Despite the outstanding regular season, the Comets were upset in five games in the first round of the playoffs by the Rochester Americans.
The 2021-22 season was also a time of change for the Utica Comets franchise itself. After eight seasons as the AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, last season they became affiliated with the New Jersey Devils with a ten-year agreement between the two franchises. This marked a return to the City of Utica for the Devils, as their AHL affiliate for the years 1987-1993 was the Utica Devils. The team that was the Binghamton Devils was moved to Utica to become the new Utica Comets.
With a new team came a whole new set of players and coaches. The Devils relieved Mark Dennehy of his coaching duties after the 2020-21 season and replaced him with Kevin Dineen – who brought a proven track record as a coach and player. Joining Dineen behind the bench were Binghamton holdover assistant coaches Sergei Brylin and Ryan Parent.
On the ice, former Binghamton Devils who would play significant roles in Utica were: Fabian Zetterlund, Graeme Clarke, Nolan Foote, Reilly Walsh, AJ Greer, Ryan Schmelzer, Michael Vukojevic, Nikita Okhotiuk, Kevin Bahl, Tyce Thompson, Aarne Talvitie, Jeremy Groleau, and Alexander Holtz. To complement the talent that came from Binghamton, veterans Tyler Wotherspoon, Robbie Russo, Chase DeLeo, Joe Gambardella, and Frederik Gauthier were assigned to Utica. Samuel Laberge, as well as goaltender Mareks Mitens, made noticeable contributions after recalls from the Adirondack Thunder of the ECHL at various points in the season.
One of the biggest keys to the Comet’s success last season was the elite goaltending they got from rookies Nico Daws and Akira Schmid. Daws, a third-round pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft by the Devils, posted a record of 14-4-2, with a 2.54 GAA, 0.916 save percentage, and one shutout in twenty-one games played. Schmid, a fifth-round pick by New Jersey in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, had a record of 22-8-5, with a 2.60 GAA, 0.911 save percentage and two shutouts. Both Daws and Schmid spent time in New Jersey last season as well due to injuries decimating the Devil’s goaltending corps.
Like the Monkees once said, that was then and this is now, as their 2022-23 season will kick off on Saturday, October 15th. The new season has also brought a whole new set of changes for the Comets. Most noticeable is the top four scorers from last season’s team are gone, with Alexander Holtz and Fabian Zetterlund now in New Jersey, Chase DeLeo is in the Anaheim organization, and AJ Greer is a Boston Bruin. These four combined to score 93 of the 246 total goals the Comets scored in 2021-22 and their offensive contributions will be missed. Frederik Gauthier is also no longer with the team, as he left to play overseas in the Swiss League this season. Gauthier was excellent in the faceoff dot and was also a big part of the Comet’s penalty-killing unit last season. Veteran Brian Flynn is also missing from Utica’s opening night roster.
Newcomers in the Comets forward group on opening night will include Jack Dugan, Xavier Parent, Zach Senyshyn, Brian Pinho, Nick Hutchinson, and Nolan Stevens. Senyshyn signed with the team after playing last season with Providence and Belleville, Stevens is a former Comet who played with the team in 2020-21 and spent last season with Springfield and Iowa. Dugan is now in Utica after spending the last two seasons with the Henderson Silver Knights, and Pinho joined the club after playing the last four seasons in Hershey. Hutchinson joins the Comets after playing the 2021-22 season with the Wheeling Nailers of the ECHL as well as the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins and Manitoba Moose.
Expected to play expanded roles in the Utica forward group are returnees Nolan Foote, Graeme Clarke, Brian Halonen, Aarne Talvitie, Joe Gambardella, and if he returned to Utica from New Jersey, Tyce Thompson. Captain Ryan Schmelzer and Samuel Laberge also return to provide secondary scoring and grit.
One of the big strengths of the 2022-23 Utica Comets team will be its defense corps, as with the exception of Kevin Bahl (who is with the Devils), returns intact from last season. Offensive defensemen Reilly Walsh (nine goals and thirty-four assists for forty-three points in 2021-22) and Robbie Russo (three goals, thirty-two assists for thirty-five points in 2021-22). Veteran Tyler Wotherspoon also returns joining Nikita Okhotiuk, Michael Vukojevic, and Jeremy Groleau, from last season’s team.
The Comets have added additional veteran help to what is for the time being a very crowded defense group as well. Versatile and physical defenseman/forward Mason Geersten was reassigned to Utica by New Jersey after training camp. Dylan Blujus was brought back on an AHL contract as well after he spent most of last season with the Milwaukee Admirals. Blujus previously played for the Comets from 2017-2020.
Rounding out the defense corps is the number two overall pick from the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, Simon Nemec. The eighteen-year-old has played in Slovakia’s top professional league for the past three seasons and will make his North American debut with the Comets. More about Nemec can be found here: NJ Devils First Round Pick Could Play in Utica This Season.
The Utica Comets open their 2022-23 regular season on Saturday, October 15th in Hershey when they take on the Bears at 7:00 pm EDT. They return to the Adirondack Bank Center on Monday, October 17th for their home opener against the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for a game that will also start at 7:00 pm EDT. For more information about the Comets, including tickets and schedules, visit https://uticacomets.com.
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