Comets coach Green steering Canucks prospects through challenging season

This season has been a learning process for Demko, who has gone 9-8-0 with a 2.84 goals-against average. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Utica Comets head coach Travis Green is the first person to admit that there will be no easy games for his American Hockey League team. No games where sheer skill can take over to lead his team through the grind of a long season.

A hot name mentioned extensively in published reports for NHL head-coaching work last summer, Green is attempting to steer his Vancouver Canucks prospects through a challenging season.

Green’s Comets endured a nine-game losing streak in December that could have put a berth in the Calder Cup playoffs this spring in danger. Utica’s 0-4-4-1 slide in that nine-game span tied them with the Rockford IceHogs for the AHL’s longest winless streak this season.

“We’re not an overly skilled hockey team,” Green admitted. “We struggle to score goals.”

“We’re a team that we want to be hard to play against with our tenacity and our work. Realize what our strengths are and what our limitations are. We can’t play a soft, easy game. We don’t have that high-end skill that we can move pucks around. We’ve got to play a really gritty game.”

The numbers bear out the 13-16-5-1 Comets’ battle through 35 games. Their 2.40 goals per game places them 29th in the AHL in scoring.

“We’ve had to win a lot of games 2-1, 3-2,” Green said.

Centre Curtis Valk, whose 12 goals tie him with Alexandre Grenier for the team lead, is not even on an NHL contract with the Canucks. Valk, who has overcome a serious knee injury, is playing on an AHL deal, but he has emerged as one of the few offensive weapons that Green can deploy.

On the other side of the puck, the Comets’ 3.09 goals-against per game lands them in 22nd place. Top goaltending prospect Thatcher Demko could be an eventual No. 1 in the Vancouver net, but for now he is a rookie finding his way in the pro game.

But there is hope for the Comets after a promising start to 2017. Since ending that nine-game free fall, they have won three of their past four games, including back-to-back outings last weekend against a pair of premier teams in the Albany Devils and Hershey Bears. They have managed to pick up at least a point in five of their past seven games (3-2-2-0).

“To be honest, I’m happy with the way our team has played this year,” Green said. “Sometimes you can’t just judge the way your team is playing by your record at this level.”

Their recent run has inserted the Comets into the thick of a four-team race for fourth place in the North Division. The top four teams in each of the AHL’s four divisions will qualify for Calder Cup play.

“Could we be above .500 right now?,” Green asked rhetorically.

“Yeah, we probably could if we played really good hockey. We’d probably be three, four games above .500. But you’re going to have down nights. Our team realizes the type of hockey that they have to play to win. For the most part, they bring what they can.”

Part of that formula for success is playing low-risk, low-event hockey. The Comets’ 28.7 shots allowed per game is eighth-best in the AHL.

Demko, a second-round pick taken 36th in the 2014 NHL Draft by the Canucks, is another piece of that plan after three exceptional NCAA seasons with Boston College.

The goaltender turned 21 on Dec. 8 and came to Utica with an impressive resume that included being a Hobey Baker Award finalist last season as well as winning the Mike Richter Award as college hockey’s top goaltender.

This season has been a learning process for Demko, who has gone 9-8-0 with a 2.84 goals-against average and a .901 save percentage while receiving much of the playing time in a partnership with veteran Richard Bachman.

But Demko has heated up lately. His 18-save third period last Saturday at Hershey set up a 3-2 come-from-behind win in overtime. A 6-foot-4, 192-pound goaltender who can play an aggressive, shot-challenging style, Demko frustrated one of the AHL’s best offences repeatedly. He has turned aside 66 of the past 69 shots that he has faced.

“He has been good,” Green said. “Like a lot of young guys in the league, he has had some really brilliant nights, and he has had some nights that he would like to have back. But that’s all part of [the development process].”

One of Green’s biggest tasks this season involves right-winger Jake Virtanen, the sixth-overall pick in the 2014 Draft. In 24 games as a second-year pro, he has tallied four goals and three assists. Last season with the Canucks he went scored seven goals with six helpers in 55 NHL games. Now that he is eligible for AHL play as a 20-year-old, the Canucks have opted to let him learn the pro game under Green.

“It has been an adjustment coming from the NHL to here,” Green said of Virtanen. “He’s a still a young guy, and he has lots of things to learn. He is working hard to become a better player.”

“Like a lot of young guys, [he needs to improve] his total game, continue to be direct in his game. There is not one thing that you can put a finger on with Jake. It’s just an all-around game that he needs to develop to be a power forward that Vancouver wants him to be.”

Bakersfield Condors (Edmonton) – The 13-12-4-1 Condors have won their past two games, but they find themselves in a battle in the wide-open Pacific Division. After hosting the Stockton Heat on Friday, the seventh-place Condors undertake a seven-game road trip that could define their season. They are 2-6-3-1 away from home ice this season. Right wing Jesse Puljujarvi, the third-overall selection in this past summer’s NHL Draft, was assigned to the Condors this week by the Oilers. Forwards Jujhar Khaira and Anton Slepyshev headed to Edmonton this week, as did goaltender Laurent Brossoit. NHL veteran Jonas Gustavsson has been assigned to Bakersfield.

Binghamton Senators (Ottawa) – Much like Utica, the 14-18-2-1 Senators are struggling to remain in contention in the North Division. Goaltender Matt O’Connor remains on recall with Ottawa; the uncertainty surrounding Ottawa netminder Craig Anderson’s availability this season means that Binghamton must deal with a shortage in net. A difficult weekend awaits the Senators, who host Albany and the Bridgeport Sound Tigers before a tough trip to Hershey completes a three-in-three set.

Manitoba Moose (Winnipeg) – Tough times have arrived in the Manitoba capital, where the parent Jets are enduring struggles, bitter cold has arrived, and the AHL team is struggling. Since a three-game winning streak at the end of November, the Moose have four wins in their past 16 games. They have lost four in a row going into a two-game series this weekend against one of the top teams in the Central Division, the Chicago Wolves. After hosting Chicago, the 14-16-3-2 Moose, who sit sixth in the Central Division, have to tackle a six-game road trip.

St. John’s IceCaps (Montreal) – At long last the IceCaps are back in Newfoundland, where they will welcome the Hartford Wolf Pack for a two-game set that starts Friday. The IceCaps have not skated on Mile One Centre ice since Dec. 10 thanks to a 10-game road trip. Their 5-2-2-1 performance on the month-long journey has them third in the North Division, three points out of first place. This weekend’s series starts an eight-game homestand for the 18-14-3-1 IceCaps, who will play 24 of their final 40 games at home.

Stockton Heat (Calgary) – After competing for Sweden at the world junior hockey championship, defenceman Oliver Kylington is back with the 18-10-3-1 Heat. Stockton is third in the Pacific Division as they chase the Ontario Reign and San Jose Barracuda while trying to build a gap between themselves and the fourth-place Tucson Roadrunners. Three of their next four games come against Bakersfield. NHL veteran blue-liner Keith Aulie has moved from a tryout deal to an AHL contract.

Toronto Marlies (Toronto) – Count the 15-17-2-1 Marlies as another team in the North Division’s four-team traffic jam for fourth place. They are 3-6-1-0 in their past 10 games. With the parent Toronto Maple Leafs adding goaltender Curtis McElhinney from the Columbus Blue Jackets and shipping Jhonas Enroth to the Anaheim Ducks, perhaps the Marlies can finally find some stability in net with a tandem of Antoine Bibeau and Garret Sparks. Since a skid of six losses in seven games, the Marlies have managed to assemble a 2-1-1-0 mark to set up Friday night’s date with the Syracuse Crunch. After hosting the Rochester Americans in a key North Division game Saturday, the Marlies face a six-game road trip that will keep them away from Ricoh Coliseum for three weeks.

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