On the Topic Of Utica, Vancouver, and Affiliation Distance

When the westward move of the AHL began and many of the Western Conference teams started to move their affiliations, people thought it was a matter of time before the Vancouver Canucks moved their affiliation out of Utica, New York for a closer destination.

Saturday’s announcement put a damper on that idea, at least until the 2020-21 season. That’s because the Canucks and Comets agreed to a new six-year affiliation extension; though it has an option for the Canucks after two seasons to depart upstate New York for somewhere else.

Business wise, Utica is great with president Robert Esche having built a great entertainment outlet. They’re in the midst of a 133-game sellout streak that started in April 2015, while they have been producing plenty of talent of the retooling Canucks– including head coach Travis Green. On the ice, it’s been solid as well with a 193-136-35-16, though the team only has two playoff appearances in the five full seasons the two teams have been affiliated. The Comets haven’t had a season under 35 wins, either.

Obviously, the distance between Utica and Vancouver is something that should be a worry when it comes to call-ups. However, does moving a team closer to the Canucks, namely the Fraser Valley region of British Columbia, make sense when the AHL has tried and failed once before?? Of course, you can say the shortcomings of the Abbotsford Heat was the Calgary Flames being in Canucks territory– but would people actually be enthused to have AHL hockey when the NHL team is maybe an hour away??

Hockey fans can be fickle, so maybe seeing the future of the team may not be as good as seeing the team itself. Plus, when you’re the Canucks and own the Comets (leasing it to Esche and Utica), the fact that money and loyalty keeps rolling in up in Utica, you don’t want to kill that golden goose when it’s making profit. Plus, maybe keeping the young players away from the cutthroat media and possible extreme expectations that would come with being closer to the Canucks may be best for development of some players to be able to learn the system first before having it dissected by everyone in the Vancouver area.

It’s always a struggle when it comes to situations like this. You don’t want to move an affiliation when it’s working so well on the business and hockey side of things, but you also don’t want to have your prospects so far away in a place that’s not a major airline hub that it cuts into the roster of the NHL team. The Canucks have a delicate balancing act they’re doing, but as of right now– they seem to be winning out thus far with the marriage they have in Utica.

Minor League Weekly: Puempel Powering Griffins, LaValle-Smotherman on Fire, SPHL MVP Contenders

AHL

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Photo by Icon Sportswire

-It’s taken the Grand Rapids Griffins a while to get going, but with points in eight of their last ten games– they’ve regained their championship form. A lot of that success is due in part to the play of Matt Puempel, who’s in the midst of a nine-game point-streak (6g 7a), while having 40 points in 35 games with the Griffins and putting Puempel fourth in the AHL in scoring. This season is looking to be Puempel’s best in the AHL. With 43 points (19g, 24a) already this season, Puempel is only five points away from tying his AHL high, which he set in his rookie season of 2013-14 with the Binghamton Senators.

-When it comes to Thatcher Demko, it’s a matter of when he’ll get the full-time call-up to the Vancouver Canucks. His play this season has been stellar (17-7-5, 2.27 GAA, .929 Sv%) and will give the Canucks an interesting move late in their season– whether to call him up to get some NHL playing time, as he’ll luckily move into that role next season– or will they allow him to stay with Utica for the rest of the season and get a taste of a playoff run??

ECHL

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-Since the turning of the calendar, Jordan LaVallee-Smotherman has turned on his game big time with 11g, 12a in 14 games in 2018. The Monarchs forward has been on quite the roll with multi-point games in six of his last season, which has quietly put him in second spot for league leaders in points (52) and second in the league in goals (26). Not bad for a guy getting back into the North American game full-time after traveling around Europe from 2011 until towards the end of the 2016-17 season.

-There might be a chip in Joe Cannata’s shoulder because his play right now is really telling the Colorado Avalanche he wants to be promoted. The minor-league vet is 16-2-1 with a 2.13 GAA and .934 Sv%, which puts him 2nd and 1st respectively in the league. After years of being in the AHL– whether it being the veteran back-up or the stop-gap veteran– he’s in the ECHL full-time for the first time since 2014-15. With a championship team in front of him, he could be marking his way for when the Eagles move up to the AHL next season.

SPHL

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-While Jake Hauswirth has had a great season– it’s going to be hard-pressed for him to go ahead and win the MVP on a non-playoff team. For me, Berkley Scott could be the front-runner, especially with the month he just had in January (9g, 7a)–which earned him Player of the Month honors. Tomas Shall should also get some kind of recognition for the year he’s had with Evansville thus far with a 14-2-2 record, while ranking top-five in GAA and save percentage.

Minor League Weekly: Utica Heating Up, Joe Cox Making His Mark, Final SPHL Spot Shuffling

AHL

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Photo by Lindsay A. Mogle / Utica Comets Facebook

-Heading into hosting the All-Star Game, the Utica Comets are amongst one of the hottest teams in the league with points in nine of their last 10 games (7-1-1-1) and four-straight wins. Even with leading scorer Reid Boucher (20g, 17a) on the shuttle from Utica to Vancouver, the Comets are still fighting in the playoff hunt. Thatcher Demko has continued to improve in the system with the Comets (16-7-5, 2.28 GAA, .929Sv%), but will need a lot of goal support to help. Despite Boucher’s 20, no other comment is in double-digits for goals. To keep their hot streak alive and hope to get a playoff berth, something will need to be done offensively to help Utica out.

-While things aren’t going great in Glendale, the Tucson Roadrunners are giving Coyotes’ fans some hope of what’s to come, mostly due to rookies Dylan Strome and Nick Merkley, who have commanded the offense for the Roadrunners in the first half of the season. While veterans Michael Bunting and Mike Sislo have helped out, the youth is being quite served– especially with Hunter Miska leading the team in wins (12-3-0), but his GAA (2.98) and save percentage (.898) leave much to be desired.

ECHL

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Photo by Florida Everblades Facebook

-One player that could be lost in the Florida Everblades season could be the second-half play, thus far, of rookie Joe Cox. The Michigan State product is on a seven-game point streak (3g, 10a) and has provided a much needed punch for the secondary scoring for the Everblades already dynamic offense. It just goes to show the time it takes players to develop, as Cox’s best season before this was in the USHL when he had 20 goals and 20 assists for the Muskegon Lumberjacks, while his junior year at MSU was his most productive with 11 goals and 23 points in 35 games. Around an All-Star line-up as he is, the protection could allow Cox to flourish throughout the rest of the season and into the playoffs.

-At the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference, the Wheeling Nailers have gotten a lot of their offensive from their first-year players. While Cody Wydo continues to be a constant, the emergence of Reid Gardner has been a welcome for the Nailers. Gardner leads the teams in goals with 21 and power-play goals with six. Couple that with another rookie in Cam Brown leading the team with 39 points (12g, 27a), the Nailers continue to churn out talent for the Penguins organization. The offensive will need to be strong, as the by-committee goaltending has a combined 3.14 GAA on the year.

SPHL

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-The race for the eighth-seed is still hot and heavy between a second-year Roanoke team who changed coaches to change fortune, the rebranded Fayetteville Marksman with one of the top players in the league in Jake Hauswirth on the team, while the expansion Birmingham Bulls are only three points out and have Mavric Parks being second in the league in minutes played and 7th in the league in save percentage (.911) despite a 3.32 GAA. When it comes to this playoff format, too, it should be interesting to see if the traditional 1st vs. 8th seed get picked because who knows how the top seed will look at these teams, who are already in playoff mode as it is.