For the Canucks, it’s all over but the math. The Canucks haven’t been mathematically eliminated yet, as there is still some Byzantine scenario where they could sneak into the playoffs, but the chances of it happening are so low that they may as well be nil.
HockeyViz places the Canucks’ playoff probability at just 0.03%, as they sit 13th out of 15 Western Conference teams, seven points back of the Colorado Avalanche for the final Wild Card spot. Even the most optimistic of Canucks fans have to admit it’s over.
Across the continent, the Canucks’ farm team is also in dire straits. The Utica Comets sit four points out of a playoff spot in the North Division with eight games to play. To top it off, the team in playoff position ahead of them, the Cleveland Monsters, has a game in hand.
The Comets will also have to contend with the Belleville Senators, who are tied with the Monsters with 74 points. In order to make the playoffs, the Comets will have to jump over both teams and also fend off the Laval Rocket, who are only two points behind the Comets with a game in hand.
It’s been a tumultuous season for the Comets. It was initially expected to be a chance for the Canucks’ burgeoning prospect pool to take over in Utica and help carry the Comets to a successful season. It hasn’t quite worked out.
Olli Juolevi got off to a strong start, with 13 points in 18 games while playing in every situation, but suffered a season-ending knee injury that was initially described as a “minor knock,” but eventually required surgery. That was a tough blow, but the hits kept coming.
Petrus Palmu left the Comets to go back to Finland with some parting comments that weren’t particularly flattering to the Comets’ organization. Similar comments were made by Jonathan Dahlen after he was traded to the San Jose Sharks.
Meanwhile, prospects that were expected to play a major role in Utica, Kole Lind and Jonah Gadjovich, have struggled to adapt to the AHL game. Lind has just 14 points in 48 games, while Gadjovich has seven points in 37 games and has been a frequent healthy scratch.
Exacerbating the issue, two fan favourites in Utica, Michael Carcone and Darren Archibald, were traded by the Canucks. The Comets have struggled to replace their production.
Goaltending has also been an issue, as Thatcher Demko hasn’t been around for most of the season to bail out his teammates. He was injured to start the year when a Brendan Leipsic shot in a pre--season practice hit him in the mask and caused a concussion. Then, after 16 games in Utica, he was called up to the Canucks.
Veteran goaltender Richard Bachman had his season ended in December by an achilles tear. When the Canucks traded Anders Nilsson in order to call up Demko from Utica, that left the organization perilously bereft of goaltending depth, particularly when Mike McKenna, the goaltender that came back from the Senators in the Nilsson trade, got claimed on waivers by the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Canucks felt that lack of goaltending depth in Vancouver when Michael DiPietro was forced into action, but it was felt in Utica as well. The Comets were forced to run with Ivan Kulbakov in net and his .892 save percentage didn’t help them win many games.
The Comets signed Michael Leighton to a PTO and the Canucks eventually signed him to an NHL contract. Leighton’s provided a little more stability, but his .900 save percentage isn’t much better than Kulbakov’s. It is better than that of Marek Mazanec, for whom the Canucks traded a 7th round pick: he has an .856 save percentage in five games for the Comets.
Clearly, there are a lot of reasons for the Comets’ struggles. Things haven’t gotten any easier in recent weeks, as Evan McEneny, who was leading all Comets defencemen in scoring, suffered a season-ending injury in early March.
The Canucks could send down some players to help with the playoff push when their regular season ends, as the Comets will still have four games left in their schedule. Guillaume Brisebois, Adam Gaudette, and Thatcher Demko are the obvious candidates. The newly-signed Quinn Hughes and Josh Teves are not eligible after signing their NHL contracts post-deadline and it’s unlikely that the other two waiver-exempt players on the roster, Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser, would get sent down.
Unfortunately, neither Gaudette nor Demko would be eligible to play in the AHL playoffs if the Comets do make it, as the Canucks chose not to paper them down at the trade deadline. The Canucks did paper down Ashton Sautner, but he has since played enough games that he would need to clear waivers to be sent down to Utica. There might not be much help coming for the Comets.
That’s not to say there haven’t been positive stories for the Comets this season, because there have been. Reid Boucher is having a career year in the AHL, putting up 28 goals and 57 points in 49 games. Zack MacEwen has developed into a legitimate NHL prospect and hit 20 goals earlier this month. Sautner and Brisebois have shown some positive signs of development, playing regular shifts in the NHL.
It’s just that the negatives this season have far outweighed the positives. Failing to make the playoffs would be the sour cherry on top of a melting sundae.
It also seems like a bad sign for the Canucks. When you are a rebuilding team that has been focussing on rebuilding a lackluster prospect pool, you hope that your farm team shows improvement even while the parent club struggles in the NHL.
Instead, the opposite has occurred: the Comets’ .515 points percentage threatens to be the lowest in the Comets’ six-year existence. Barring a strong push to end the year, this could be the Comets’ worst season in its brief history. Coupled with the Comets’ spotty record with Canucks prospects this season, it’s a serious cause for concern.
The Canucks’ top prospects have skipped over the AHL: Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser jumped straight to the NHL and it looks like Quinn Hughes will do the same, while Adam Gaudette played just 14 games in Utica this season. But those top prospects need depth around them to become a contender in the future. Utica’s struggles this season raise the question of where that depth will come from.
Perhaps those concerns are overblown. After all, the Comets had a lot of struggles with injuries and their issues might have been less exposed with some better goaltending. Perhaps prospects like Lind, Gadjovich, and Lukas Jasek will take another big step forward next season. Maybe they'll be joined by the likes of Will Lockwood, Josh Teves, and Michael DiPietro and the Comets will be a much better team next season.
Or maybe we'll be asking the same questions about the Canucks' prospect development next year as well.