As we continue our sit-down with Comets’ head coach Trent Cull, we dive into the replacement of leadership, the expectations for Olli Juolevi, and the goaltending situation, which will lend itself to some tough decision making.
UC: Who do you look to step up or replace one of your biggest leaders in Jaime Sifers from last season?
TC: Those things are tough. The one thing is—in my couple of years here—we have had such a good leadership group with Carter Bancks, and of course with Wacey Hamilton, too. We’re going to miss Jaime in that department, but, this is our motto: “with a subtraction, someone else gets an opportunity.” I’m not saying whether we have a guy like Ashton Sautner or Guillaume Brisebois or Jalen Chatfield this year, but those guys are all ready to take more steps and I think that’s in their game, both as players and leaders. It’s nice to see some of these young guys and they’re growing the right way and they’re good people too, which will hopefully allow them to take over that role.
UC: You mentioned Olli Juolevi. He’s obviously someone that the Vancouver market wants to be a successful player. In his limited role last year, he didn’t get a chance to show off in front of the Utica fans as much as you would have thought. Why is he somebody that’s so special and one that Utica fans need to keep an eye on?
TC: First of all, he comes in with a status because he is such a high draft pick, which is good and bad. It’s not his fault he was drafted high, but the poor guy has had some injury issues. He’s gonna take some time. Just because he’s gonna be ready for camp this year doesn’t mean he’s gonna be game ready right away. I can compare that to Evan McEneny last year. He played eight games the year before and had knee surgery. It took Evan almost ‘til Christmas to get his game back to where he wanted it to be. For Olli, he’s a guy who I know has expectations and people talk about, but he’s only played 18 games in the American Hockey League. He’s coming back from injury and hasn’t had that much experience in this league. But, when he was here, he had some pretty good numbers during that span. We know he can play here. We know he can be a real effective player for us. I’m excited to coach him, but I think we have to be patient with Olli and try not to get ahead of ourselves because he’s a guy who’s recovering from some stuff and it’s gonna take some time.
UC: We talked about a glut of forwards, but let’s talk about the goalie glut. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
TC: Always a good thing! We just went through it last year. I felt the same way about our team at the start of last year. I thought we had a good team. We had good players. You go back to the NHL trade deadline, we were six points out of first place in our division. We were a good hockey team. This was with almost no goalies. I’m really excited at the idea of us having depth at this position. We have some young guys who are going to be vying for positions and playing time and we have so many goalies now that it doesn’t matter where they are. I don’t know who’s gonna be playing in the ECHL, but that is going to be a big part of their learning curve and development. For me, I’m excited that the organization is dealing from a position of strength as opposed to going through what we did last year. Losing Thatcher Demko and then losing Richard Bachman to injury, then you have Ivan Kulbakov who ends up being your leading starter. You bring a guy out of retirement (Michael Leighton) and then we got some help at the end in Marek Mazanec, who’s a guy who wasn’t really playing much in Hartford. And by the time he got his game warmed up… season’s over. I don’t want to be back in that situation again. That’s a long-winded answer, but… it is a good thing!
UC: One of your toughest jobs as a head hockey coach is making those day-to-day lineup decisions. It’s gonna hurt feelings and it’s gonna be difficult. But those are the decisions that you want to have to make because it means you have a wealth.
TC: Absolutely! It’s not like Trent Cull’s sitting in his office saying “this is what we’re gonna do today.” These are organizational decisions. We are here to win and develop and develop and win. We think that’s a great environment for our guys to be in. We’ve done a pretty good job of that over the past year-and-a-half. That starts with Jim Benning, Ryan Johnson, and John Weisbrod. Everybody is part of these decisions. It’s gonna change. We can’t just lay it out on a calendar and say “this is how it’s gonna be.” It’s gonna be different for guys and how they’re reacting to their situations as they move along.
In part three of our conversation with Cull, we discuss the importance of winning as a development tool and a few players who are poised to break out in the coming season.