It is early in the 2021-22 season, but the Utica Comets goaltending looks very solid.
The Utica Comets have a new NHL parent club in the New Jersey Devils, but one thing that has not changed is excellence in their goaltenders crease. It started with Jacob Markstrom, who passed the torch to Thatcher Demko when he graduated to the full time job in Vancouver. When Demko became a permanent fixture in the NHL, Mikey DiPietro showed signs that he could be on his way to having a future in the league as well.
With the Canucks gone, fans in Utica were going to see an entirely new group of goaltenders. The original goaltending plan in Utica called for Scott Wedgewood with one of Nico Daws or Akira Schmid to be the Comets tandem. Whomever was not part of this tandem would most likely be optioned to the Adirondack Thunder of the ECHL to get playing time. Given the lack of professional experience for both Schmid and Daws, this would have seemed to be the ideal way forward.
In sports, things can change in the blink of an eye. Injuries to New Jersey goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood, and then Jonathan Bernier forced the Devils to keep Wedgewood in New Jersey longer than anticipated. Suddenly, Daws and Schmid found themselves in a “trial by fire” type of situation as the tandem that would guard Utica’s net. The response the pair has had thus far has been better than anyone could have ever expected.
Nico Daws opened the season as the Utica Comets starting goaltender, having seen the bulk of the duties in goal during the preseason. Selected by the Devils in the third round of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, Daws won his first professional start in North America by defeating the Rochester Americans on opening night. The twenty-year-old turned aside twenty-five of the twenty-seven shots he faced, and showed that he could indeed be an American Hockey League goaltender.
Daws would not get the chance to prepare the Comets next game, as he would be called up to the NHL soon after the Rochester game when Bernier went down to injury (he would win his NHL debut). This opened the door for Schmid, who had also yet to make a professional start in his career. The twenty-one-year-old netminder would prove to be up to the task.
His professional debut would come against the Providence Bruins, and Schmid played with the poise of a veteran. He made twenty-five saves to backstop the Comets to a 2-1 victory in overtime. The very next night, Schmid found himself in hostile territory as made his second straight start – this time on the road against the Comets most bitter rival in Syracuse. The young goaltender was even better than on the night before, this time turning aside thirty-two shots while allowing only one goal, securing another 2-1 win for Utica.
Due to a scheduling quirk, the Utica Comets would have nearly a week off after the Syracuse game. During that week, The New Jersey Devils reassigned Daws back to Utica, and suddenly the Comets had a goaltender competition on their hands. Coach Kevin Dineen would go back to Daws for the Comets next game against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, and he did not miss a beat. The team had a slow start, but Daws held his team in the game until the offense got going – sparking the Comets to a 5-2 win. Utica is still undefeated this season thanks in large part to the efforts of Nico Daws and Akira Schmid – either of whom have yet to give up more than two goals in a game this season.
The Utica Comets goaltending may be getting reinforcements soon as well. In New Jersey, Jonathan Bernier is back and Mackenzie Blackwood is very close to returning, meaning Scott Wedgewood will most likely be sent to Utica soon. The AHL has no maximum roster limits, so the Comets could very well end up carrying three goaltenders (barring of course any trades or injuries). It will not hurt the team to have a seasoned veteran on board to mentor the youngsters should they choose to keep all three on the roster. The Comets could option Schmid to Adirondack to get him playing time, but he has also shown himself capable of being a solid AHL goaltender. Regardless, if the early going has shown anything, it is that the Utica Comets could prove to be very difficult to score goals against this season.