“Play the kids” has been the plea from Canucks fans concerning the NHL team for years. Now, as the Vancouver Canucks finally appear to be embracing life as a rebuilding franchise, their farm team might remind you of the Willie Desjardins years.
For the first time since they began their affiliation with the Canucks five years ago, the Utica Comets are stocked with promising prospects.
Real prospects, with actual talent.
Adam Gaudette, who was recently called up to the Canucks, along with Olli Juolevi, Jonathan Dahlen, Kole Lind, Jonah Gadjovich, Petrus Palmu, and Lukas Jasek are all 22-years-old or younger and in their first full season of pro hockey in North America.
It’s a far cry from 2013-14, when the Comets boasted the likes of Nicklas Jensen, Frank Corrado, Alex Grenier, and Kellan Lain.
“It’s exciting,” said Comets head coach Trent Cull earlier this month. “With the young guys coming in, I think it feels like the first time that a few draft picks are actually getting stockpiled down here. It might be the first time that fans get to see and grow with players. That’s exciting.”
But fans in Vancouver that were excited to follow the Comets from afar have been largely disappointed so far.
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The AHL is supposed to be a place for young players to play, learn, and develop. Instead, for some of the Canucks’ most promising prospects, it’s been a place where they’ve sat, watched, and waited.
Through six games, four prospects with some repute have been healthy scratches multiple times.
Jonah Gadjovich, a 2017 second-round pick who played for Canada’s gold-medal winning World Junior team, has sat out four of the team’s first six games. So has Petrus Palmu, an undersized winger that won the Rookie of the Year award in the top pro league in Finland last season.
Twenty-one-year-old winger Lukas Jasek, who had seven points in six regular season games upon joining the Comets at the tail-end of last season, has sat out three times.
Kole Lind, who narrowly missed out on being a first-round pick in 2017, has been scratched twice.
Even Jonathan Dahlen, who the Canucks hope will develop into a top-six winger in the not-too-distant future, has been a healthy scratch this season.
“We have to see about that transition,” Cull cautioned before the season began. “We saw a little bit of that window last year at the end of [April], but coming in this league – and it is a really good league – it doesn’t matter where you’ve had success before. Everybody is different, some guys will mature and be able to adjust easier. Some guys it is going to take some time.”
“[The Comets] have a lot of guys right now. They’re trying to mix them into the lineup,” Ben Birnell, who covers the Comets for the Observer-Dispatch newspaper in Utica, told Daily Hive. “They’ve said they don’t want put a lineup of all young guys because they feel it wouldn’t help their development because other teams don’t play all young players.”
Perhaps there’s pressure to win in front of their fans – who will set a new league record for consecutive sellouts on Friday.
— Utica Comets (@UticaComets) October 19, 2018
Certainly there’s pressure on any coach to get wins, at any cost. But if you’re the Canucks, the cost shouldn’t be at the expense of the development of their young players.
While NHL teams are permitted up to 23 players on their active roster, there’s no such limit in the AHL. The Comets have already used 26 players. Utica’s in the middle of a stretch that will see them play six times in nine days, so having extra bodies around is helpful.
Still, it’s hard to imagine how sitting in the press box is good for any player’s development.
“The way I learn best is being thrown right into the fire and figuring it out for myself,” Gaudette said before the season began. “I think that’s what I’ve done at every level. I think I’ll be able to figure it out pretty quickly at this level.”
Clearly, the Comets are not going to take a player like leading scorer Reid Boucher (he has eight goals in six games so far) out of the lineup. But six other veteran forwards have not sat out a game yet.
In fairness to Cull, it hasn’t been all doom and gloom for the young players. Gaudette played the first four games, scoring four points, before being called up to the Canucks. Defenceman Olli Juolevi has appeared in all six games, scoring three points, including his first career AHL goal on Wednesday.
— Utica Comets (@UticaComets) October 18, 2018
Not all of the Canucks’ prospects will develop into meaningful NHL players, and even the ones that do might take some time to find their form.
But to stall their development right away by not giving them every opportunity to prove themselves seems shortsighted.