Clarke, Comets looking for shot at redemption

Photo: Jeff Pexton

📝 by Patrick Williams

The Utica Comets are right there on the brink of another trip to the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Much the same could be said for Comets forward Graeme Clarke’s National Hockey League outlook with the New Jersey Devils.

With their magic number at one, the Comets could become the 19th team to join the Calder Cup Playoff field as early as tonight. A loss of any type for either Cleveland (at home to Grand Rapids) or Laval (at home to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) tonight would send the Comets on to the postseason.

This spring is about redemption for the Comets and erasing the sting of last postseason, which ended in a disappointing division semifinal loss to Rochester after finishing the 2021-22 regular season with the best record in the Eastern Conference.

“For the guys that were there last year,” Clarke said, “it was a good learning experience.”

With 24 goals and 56 points through 65 games, Clarke is running away with the team scoring lead, 18 points ahead of defenseman Reilly Walsh in second place. A 2019 third-round pick by the Devils, Clarke has yet to make his NHL debut, but he did earn a pair of brief second-half recalls to New Jersey.

After a tough second pro season in which he topped out at 10 goals and 24 points in 52 games for the Comets, the offense definitely has returned for the 21-year-old Clarke.

“We had a really good team last year, and I learned a lot of things,” Clarke said. “I was kind of disappointed how it went production-wise for me just from the sense that I could have offered more in that way. I learned some things, but I just felt like I had a lot more to offer offensively.”

Like so many young prospects, Clarke had to key in on his skating, and that became an important focus last summer in his offseason training. That ability to explode quickly, accelerate, and shift into high gear are must-haves in today’s game. Doing so meant plenty of on-ice work as well as off-ice training to build that prerequisite leg strength.

“I wanted to be able to beat guys if it was going one-on-one or in the corners and being able to escape pressure more and hold on to the puck more,” Clarke outlined. “That was a big thing for me getting explosive in the gym, for sure.”

Doing so has unlocked new areas of Clarke’s game. A heady, alert player, he has been given “a little more leash” by the Utica coaching staff as well. Those sit-downs with Comets head coach Kevin Dineen have paid off for Clarke.

“He’s really honest with you,” Clarke said of Dineen, “and he’s going to tell you straight how your game’s going. I learned a lot last year in that sense where there were times I was going through ups and downs, and he was really honest to me.

“I think that was really big for me. Obviously it’s been a better year this year, so it’s a little more positive stuff. But he’s still going to tell me where I need to improve and key areas where I can get myself to the next level, because he wants to see guys move on and make the NHL, and obviously that’s my goal, too.”

Postseason play would offer another opportunity to put those improvements to an even greater test. Clarke only has three pro playoff games to his name, but he experienced enough of the Calder Cup Playoffs to know what he and the Comets would be up against.

“I think in the playoffs, it seemed like every single night both teams are super-sharp, and you’re not getting much,” Clarke said of his takeaways from last spring. “So if you’re going to be the team to make those little mistakes, teams are going to capitalize, because, honestly, there’s not as many mistakes. So when there is a breakdown, usually it ends up in the back of your net.

“How tight the hockey was compared to the regular season was a big change for us. We were playing a lot of run-and-gun just because we had a lot of skill, so in the playoffs it didn’t really happen for us.”

Rochester’s performance last May gave the Comets a glimpse of what they will need to do if they get another chance to chase the Calder Cup this spring. The Comets are allowing 29 shots per game, seventh-fewest in the AHL, and that tight defensive play will need to extend beyond the close of the regular season this Sunday.

“Moving forward this year, that’s what we want to do,” Clarke said of the Amerks’ play in last year’s series. “We’re not the top team here in the league or even in the division, but we think we can play a well-styled playoff game.”