At the start of this hockey season, I had the privilege of being granted access to speak with a handful of Utica Comets players at Vancouver Canucks training camp in Whistler BC. It was a huge opportunity for me to introduce myself to a few members of our local media, while also being able to ask some questions of a few players that I was hoping to see suit up for the parent Canucks this season.
During that time in Whistler, I asked to speak with Ashton Sautner, Guillaume Brisebois, Thatcher Demko, Zack MacEwen, and Jagger Dirk. I was intrigued by Dirk and thought he might see a good deal of time with the Comets this season as a rookie. All of the first four saw games with the Canucks this season with Brisebois and MacEwen both making their NHL debuts. Dirk, for his part, only saw nine games with the Comets, picking up one helper along the way.
When I spoke with Sautner at camp, he was very articulate with his answers and helped make my one of my first experiences with interviewing a pro player an enjoyable one. I have included a link to that interview below.
When I was granted access to speak with Sautner again at the end of this season, I jumped on it. Big thanks to Alfred with the Vancouver Canucks for making that happen for me. I would also like to thank Ashton for taking the time to talk with me again and for remembering who I was from our talk at training camp.
So, what did Ashton and I talk about? Let’s dig in, shall we?
In our interview at camp, Sautner spoke about how during his exit meeting with the Comets staff last year, they had asked him to up his physical game/edge for the 2018/19 season. I reminded Ashton about that and asked what he did in the offseason in order to take that step. His improved level of physicality was pretty noticeable from the get-go this season, to my eye.
“You know, I’ve been asked that and have had people say that it looks like I’ve upped my physical game and that I’m playing with more edge. To be honest, when I was in junior as a 19/20-year-old, just the older that I got in the league, you know, you develop more and at that time I was playing against younger guys, some of them were 16-years-old. I think it was a similar thing with my transition to pro. The first two years, you know, I was pretty light. I definitely needed to put on some weight coming out of junior.
I had some really long years of junior where, you know, my body got a little worn down and I had short summers to train. So I was kind of a little bit behind the eight-ball that way. After my first two years of pro, I really dug in and got a great trainer back in Kindersley.
For me, it was a matter of really putting on weight. To be able to play that style of game, I’ve always, you know, thought that I could do that, but once I put on some weight, now that I’m up around 200-pounds, it’s a little easier.
You realize that when you’re playing against men, that having that extra 15, almost 20 pounds makes a big difference.”
My next question for Sautner was based on the fact that he was now 22 games into his NHL career and that to my eye, he hadn’t looked out of place at this level. I asked him what the coaching staff in Utica has been doing to prepare him for that jump to the NHL from the AHL.
“I don’t know…well, I do know, actually. They have a simple recipe. They have a great coaching staff down there. All the resourses are right there for us as players, whether it’s in the summer when we are training, on the ice during the season, after practice or before practice.
There’s a number of times that Glennie, (Glenn Carnegie) the skills cosach from Vancouver, comes to Utica to work with just the defencemen alone. So, as a player, when you have these things at your disposal, you try to take advantage of them as best as you can.
My first two years in Utica, obviously I had Travis, (Green) and Nolan, (Baumgartner) so I’m familiar with those two. When they moved up to Van, you know, Trent, (Cull) and Gary, (Agnew) came in and Jason, (King) was already there from the year before, so it was just a matter of getting the feel for it, you know, what those guys want in their style of play.
As far as coaches, they’ve done a great job. Gary Agnew especially, for me has been great. He’s very experienced, he’s been in hockey for a very long time. He has a lot of little pointers here and there that, you know, you might never think of yourself. A guy like him who’s been around the game for so long can point those things out to you. I think he’s been great for me.
Trent has been really good for me. Trent, you know, when he played, he was kind of a hard nosed style of player and he wants his players to compete hard and play that same way and you know, I think that I’ve just thrived under them and obviously I’m up here trying to make the most of it and continue playing that same way.”
I had noticed during his games with the Comets this season and even more so with the Canucks that Ashton’s skating looked like it had a bit more jump to it. I told him that though I had always thought his skating was one of his strong suits, that he just looked like he had a little more quickness this season. I asked if there was something that he did this offseason that helped with that.
“I think that comes with development. You know, as a player, you learn different things as you go along. Whether it’s things that you can tweak in your summer training or things that you want to improve on, you can really focus on those areas.
Like I said, with my trainer back home in Saskatchewan, we’ve been together for a few years now and that’s something that we’ve tried to focus on. At first, it was about putting on some weight and bulking up. Once you get that size, you know, it’s important to keep your speed and agility with that extra weight. So, last summer, that was more of a focus, to get back to the basics of being quicker. Whether it’s ladder drills, or track work or whatever it is.
When you are able to add the extra weight that I have and maintain it, but also still have skating as one of your strong suits, you know, it’s something that I have to use to my advantage for sure. I think that I did that.”
Something that Sautner mentioned earlier in the interview piqued my interest, so I circled back to it. He had talked about resources being available to players in the Canucks system, so I wanted to know if there were any differences between what is available to him in Vancouver vs what he has access to in Utica.
“Honestly, you know, they are in communication every day. So, if a player needs something down in Utica, or up here, they can get it.
Utica has been a great place for me. You know, it’s a hockey town in Upstate New York and I was born in Flin Flon, Manitoba, which to me is very similar. A small community like that, that has a hockey team and they rally around it. It’s incredible the support that you get when you’re a player there.
It all goes hand-in-hand, I mean, you play well and you try to win and play hard for your fans and in return, they come out and support you like that.
So, I think as a whole organization, whatever you need, like I say, whether it is during your summer training or during the season on the ice, a lot of things are there for you, so I think that it’s important as players to take advantage of that and use it to your advantage, for sure.”
My last question for Ashton was about his biggest adjustment from the AHL to the NHL.
“The speed, size, and strength of guys. It’s another step. I think that for me, the first few games this year, it was a matter of getting back to that NHL speed and style of game, (Sautner played in five games with the Canucks at the end of last season). There were some nights when I was playing close to 20 minutes, so when you’re playing that much you’re really into the game and you can kind of grow your game on the fly.
It’s been really good. I think that each game that I’ve played, I’ve been able to, you know, just kind of get more comfortable and for me, that is something that is always to my advantage, when I get more confident and comfortable as games go on.
It’s all part of the process and I get that too. So its been a great experience, I’ve played 17 games this year and I feel like I’m a better player than when I got here. I continue to work on things and continue to grow my game.”
I feel like Ashton has given us a bit of a glimpse into how his development process has gone since joining the Canucks organization as an undrafted defenceman out of the Edmonton Oil Kings organization.
Sautner has spent parts of four seasons with the Utica Comets and has shown steady improvement in his time with the club. He has shown the ability to translate his AHL game to the NHL level and still look like the same player, rather than one who is in over his head. The player has absorbed coaching and is consistently putting in the work required of him to take the next step.
I look at Sautner as a nice success story to this point and hope to see him continue to grow his game at the NHL level next season. The defender needed to clear waivers to get to Utica at the start of this season and thankfully, he cleared. I am not so sure that he will clear next time around if the Canucks try to get him to Utica next year.
I feel that Sautner will likely start with the Canucks out of camp next season as Olli Juolvei might need to spend the start of the season in Utica getting his surgically repaired knee back up to speed. If that is indeed the case, I look forward to seeing what another summer of offseason training will do for Sautner’s game now that he has another 17 games of NHL experience to use as a measuring stick.
Speaking with Ashton Sautner was an absolute treat. He was engaging and gave genuine, sincere answers to my questions. Big thanks to Ashton for taking the time to talk with me and to the Canucks organization for giving me that access. I hope to write more of these types of articles in the future and truly appreciate it when the team grants me the opportunity to do so.