It’s hard to understate just how dominant the Utica Comets have been to start the AHL season. Through five games, the Comets are undefeated. They lead the league in both goal scoring and goals against, out-scoring their opponents 29-to-11. One of their most dominant wins was an 8-2 drubbing of the defending Calder Cup champion Charlotte Checkers.
It’s almost entirely at even-strength, as well. The Comets have only scored three goals on the power play, which is a bit of an oddity given the personnel at their disposal.
This dominance shouldn’t be entirely surprising, given their offensive attack is led by a couple players that arguably shouldn’t be in the AHL — Sven Baertschi and Nikolay Goldobin — as well as one of the top goalscorers in the AHL last season, Reid Boucher. Those three forwards are first, second, and third in points per game, while Boucher leads the AHL with 8 goals in 5 games.
Beyond those three, however, it’s the performance of Kole Lind that is the most encouraging. Lind is currently fourth in scoring on the Comets behind Boucher, Goldobin, and Baertschi, with 7 points in 5 games.
Of all the letdowns of the Utica Comets’ 2018-19 season, Lind’s was the most disappointing. Lind went from dominating the WHL as a 19 year old to struggling in the AHL as a 20 year old. His 27 points in 51 games was 50th among the 82 under-21 players in the AHL that played at least 20 games.
For some context, fellow second-round picks like Tyler Benson, Jordan Kyrou, and Dillon Dubé had far less trouble than Lind, all scoring near or even above a point-per-game pace in their rookie AHL seasons. That said, every prospect develops differently.
Lind’s struggles seemed to be a combination of factors. One was a lack of opportunity, as he frequently got bottom-six ice time and was also a healthy scratch at times during the season. Another was injuries: he was sidelined for several weeks early in the season with a ligament tear in his elbow and missed more time with an MCL knee sprain later in the season.
The biggest factor may have been that he simply wasn’t quite ready for professional hockey.
“It was a big change for me,” said Lind when I spoke to him prior to the season. “It was a big eye opener… I felt a little slow out there last year… I had to adjust my game this year, getting quicker mentally and just making those plays a little quicker than what I’m used to, playing from Major Junior.”
Lind’s hard work during the summer has paid early dividends: he looks quicker and stronger on the ice, which has allowed him a little more time and space to make better decisions with the puck. His passing has become a true strength of his game at the AHL level and one that should serve him well as he works his way up to the NHL.
Seven of Lind’s eight points are assists and, when you see the types of passes he’s dishing, it’s clear that he’s earning them.
For instance, there’s this spinning feed to Reid Boucher from the first game of the season. Lind took Lukas Jasek’s bouncing saucer pass and, realizing he had no room to shoot, somehow found Boucher wide open in front.
Then there’s this insane cross-ice saucer pass to Dylan Blujus that somehow threads the needle through the Rochester Americans. This isn’t a power play, but it looks like one with the way Lind patiently controls the puck and finds a passing lane where none seemed to exist. Blujus then set up Boucher in front for the goal.
There are more examples of Lind’s passing that didn’t result in goals, like the poise, patience, and vision he showed in the neutral zone to set up Carter Camper for a breakaway, as captured by Cody Severtson at the excellent Utica Comets blog Comets Harvest.
Beyond the nice passes, Lind has shown growth in other areas of his game, like his battle level along the boards. His third assist on opening night is a good illustration. Lind out-battled two different Devils players and, with one hand on his stick, was able to maintain control of the puck and feed it down low to Boucher, leading to the goal for Guillaume Brisebois.
There’s also his defensive game, which has been solid and given him more opportunities to create offence, like this shot block that he turned into a breakaway for Boucher.
One of the key elements of Lind’s game, however, is his agitating style of play, something that didn’t always come to the forefront last season when he was struggling. This season, it’s been very evident, as was very clear from his mic’d up video produced by the Comets from their home opener against the Syracuse Crunch.
“What? What? I’m driving the net!” he innocently says after provoking a scrum, then casually tells a Crunch player, “Oh f*** off” as a Crunch player skates by him.
Then there’s his dismissive line to Cory Conacher after giving him a glove to the face: “What are you gonna do? What are you gonna do?”
That’s the type of play that infuriates opponents and can get them off their game or draw a penalty, as he did with Anthony Angello of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, baiting the winger into dropping the gloves. That takes a certain amount of fearlessness: Angello is 6’5”.
Another important element of Lind’s resurgence should be evident by who his linemates are in these clips. Lind is getting an opportunity to play on the top line, primarily with Boucher and Camper, both AHL All Stars.
At some point, the Comets will slow down — Boucher won’t have a 34.8% shooting percentage all season — and Lind might hit a dry spell. What we’re seeing from him away from the puck, however, means he should still be an effective player even when he’s not racking up points and it hopefully also means that any dry spells won’t last very long.