Dineen’s Comets streaking out of the gate

Photo: Scott Thomas

📝 by Patrick Williams

The American Hockey League schedule serves up an interesting wrinkle tonight.

When the 10-0-0-0 Utica Comets head west to visit the Rochester Americans, they will attempt to match a league mark set by those Amerks nearly four decades ago.

Rochester’s 1984-85 club owns the AHL record for longest winning streak to start a season (11), a standard that this season’s new-look Comets can match with a win on Blue Cross Arena ice. In their first season of a new affiliation with the New Jersey Devils, a victory at Rochester would position the Comets to set a new AHL record Friday night against the visiting Charlotte Checkers.

“Team camaraderie is very well present,” Utica forward A.J. Greer said. “Guys love playing for each other.”

In early November back in 1984, Rochester’s 11th win came on a Friday night at home against the Nova Scotia Oilers, a 5-0 win behind 16 saves from 19-year-old Tom Barrasso. A night later, head coach Jim Schoenfeld’s club headed to Hershey, where they drew with the Bears, 3-3. Their weekend wrapped up back on home ice, and the St. Catharines Saints dealt the Amerks their first loss of the season, 5-4 in overtime.

New Jersey prospects are back in Utica this season for the first time since 1993, when the Martin Brodeur-led Utica Devils occupied what is now the Adirondack Bank Center at the Utica Memorial Auditorium. These Comets arrived in town after an offseason affiliation brought New Jersey back to town as part of a new 10-year affiliation agreement. Last season, playing out of the parent Devils’ practice facility in Newark, the Binghamton Devils endured a league-worst 7-20-5-2 performance.

As part of the new affiliation with the Comets, New Jersey undertook a major offseason makeover at the AHL level. New head coach Kevin Dineen arrived from the San Diego Gulls. Former Gulls forward Chase De Leo made the move east with Dineen while New Jersey also brought in experience with defenseman Robbie Russo, a 2017 Calder Cup winner with Grand Rapids, along with forwards Brian Flynn (a 2018 finalist with Texas) and Joe Gambardella, a 29-goal scorer with Bakersfield in 2018-19.

Those new faces are tasked with bringing along the organization’s prospects — as well as winning games in Utica.

“We’re in a competitive business, we’re all passionate about it, and we also all like to win,” Dineen said shortly after being hired.

“I think when you have success, it just creates that positive atmosphere around the players, around the locker room. It makes it really enjoyable to come to work. Make no mistake, we’re all about development, but we do believe that development goes hand-in-hand with winning.”

The 58-year-old Dineen, hired by New Jersey on Aug. 5, has been one of the biggest changes. Coming in from two seasons in San Diego, Dineen brought a lengthy hockey resume with him to Utica. Along with 19 seasons playing in the NHL, Dineen has been a Florida Panthers head coach, won the Stanley Cup as a Chicago Blackhawks assistant coach in 2015, and served as a gold medal-winning coach for Canada’s women’s team at the 2014 Olympics. At the AHL level, Dineen won the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL’s top coach in 2005-06, his first season behind a bench. He also has been to the Eastern Conference Finals twice, and his 332 regular-season victories rank 15th in AHL history.

Utica general manager Dan MacKinnon, who also serves as New Jersey’s assistant general manager and senior vice president of hockey operations, took part in the hunt for the organization’s next AHL head coach. Dineen’s extensive background certainly stands out in a stack of resumes, and he soon emerged as the top candidate.

“I just think he has such a tremendous perspective on what it is to work with young professional hockey players and help them try to optimize everything they have in terms of talent,” MacKinnon said in August.

Greer, a hard-nosed forward who arrived in a trade last season from the New York Islanders organization and played 16 games for Binghamton, has noted Dineen’s presence.

“Coach Dineen really made it clear from day one what he expects us to bring to the table, as far as systems-wise and preparation, what our identity is,” Greer explained.

“He’s really dug into every player’s needs, as far as making it clear on what they need to do to perform their best for the team and individually. Now, I think, the guys who were here last year, the younger guys … had a taste of it, and they understood what the AHL was all about. They came in prepared and ready to go.”

Playing 1,188 NHL regular-season games and winning the Canada Cup in 1987 provided Dineen instant credibility in the Utica dressing room.

Greer said, “Everyone respects him, and we understand where he’s been and what he’s done in the hockey community and in his career. I think it translates on the ice when he specifically wants something done, the guys will definitely put that foot forward and make sure that it’s done as correctly as he wants it to be.”

Playing in front of some of the most intense home crowds in the AHL has been another boost, and that atmosphere particularly came through last week in an intense 3-1 win against the rival Syracuse Crunch on Nov. 11. Just 1:11 after Syracuse had scored the game’s opening goal, Greer jammed in his first goal of the season late in the second period. From there the Comets pulled away with two more third-period goals, including Greer’s second of the game to seal the win.

“It’s amazing,” Greer said of playing in Utica. “We didn’t know what to expect coming into the season, because it was our first season here, and every game the fans have been awesome.”