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Photo Credit: Alex Cooper / Utica Observer-Dispatch

9 names to watch on the Vancouver Canucks’ new Abbotsford AHL team next season

The Comets are landing in Abbotsford this fall and the team will feature some promising prospects from the Vancouver Canucks’ organization.

Before we get into who the stars will be on the Abbotsford team, let’s talk about a name.

It’s still unsure if the team’s named location will end up being Abbotsford or Fraser Valley, although it looks as though they are leaning towards Abbotsford from all of their press releases about the relocation of the AHL squad. There are definitely some fun ideas out there for a name but my personal favourite is the Abbotsford Aces. Alliteration is always an awesome avenue to analyze and attempt to accomplish.

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Some other options out there are: Abbotsford Arrows, Airplanes, Pilots, Aviators, Millionaires, Aeros and Astros.

Let me know in the comments if you have a favourite name or a cool one that I didn’t mention.

Now let’s get to the AHL squad.

The young players will be taking over the Abbotsford team next season, as veteran AHL players like Sam Anas, Sven Baertschi and Mitch Reinke will be moving on to other organizations.

The organization will need to add some veterans to fill out the roster and ice a full squad after having a little under half of their roster being property of the St. Louis Blues’ organization this past year. Six of their seven AHL-level defencemen will see their contracts expire next year with Jett Woo being the only one under contract for next season. Jalen Chatfield, Ashton Sautner, Brogan Rafferty, Mitch Eliot, Guillaume Brisebois and Josh Teves are all restricted or unrestricted free agents next season.

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As for the forward group, Lukas Jasek, Kole Lind and Marc Michaelis are all RFA’s while Tyler Graovac is a UFA.

Now that we have the business out of the way, let’s talk about the stars of the 2021-22 Abbotsford hopefully Aces.

Mikey DiPietro

With his infectious smile and athletic style in the crease, it’s a given that Mikey DiPietro will be a fan favourite as soon as the AHL team steps on the ice.

DiPietro won the starting role during the 2019-20 season where he put together a 21-11-2 record while sporting a .908% save percentage. His playstyle in the crease is incredibly fun to watch as he makes acrobatic saves when needed and has continued to improve over the past two years at being steady in the crease.

This fall will be his third season with the Canucks’ AHL team and he has already built up quite the resume of big saves and stolen wins for the squad. After basically a full season alongside Ian Clark, his game looked even better in his final four games this season for the Comets.

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Fans will love having DiPietro with the AHL team in Abbotsford, he has always had time for fans around the arena for pictures and autographs while being fun-loving with kids.

On the ice, he is one of the Canucks’ top prospects who continues to grow his game and will be a horse for the AHL team next season. He will likely be flanked by Arturs Silovs between the pipes and as a whole, the Canucks’ goaltending situation is in good hands with Thatcher Demko at the helm and DiPietro and Silovs entertaining fans just down the road in Abby.

Lukáš Jašek

Lukáš Jašek will be 24 years old for the 2021-22 AHL season. It will be his fourth season with the Canucks’ AHL franchise and he will likely be relied upon as one of the leaders on the squad.

Jašek is a winger turned centre who can play in all situations. He is used on the power play, penalty kill, three-on-three overtime and at the end of games to take big faceoffs. It should come as no surprise when we hear Jašek announced as one of the assistant captains of the Abbotsford team. He has quickly become one of Trent Cull’s most trusted players.

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“Most nights Lukas is leading our team in ice time as a forward,” said Cull. “He’s become a checked box for me. He’s a skilled player who plays at a high pace, and he makes other guys around him better. The thing is, his game is quiet, you have to watch Lukas play. He’s not going to overwhelm you or be overly flashy but I’ve just liked his evolution. I like how his consistency has become one of his greatest assets game in and game out.”

He’s not going to blow your socks off but his game is well-rounded and he skates with good pace. Jašek’s always been a good playmaker but during the 2019-20 season, he found his scoring touch with 14 goals in 56 games.

The exciting thing for Jašek is his seamless transition to becoming a centre at the AHL level. He was a winger when he arrived in Utica but will show up to Abbotsford as a full-time centre and that transition is something that coach Cull has been impressed by.

“With Lukas, we had him on the wall [playing wing]. He could skate well and we always knew he can make some plays, then we ended up making a move to centre. He said he had played centre in the past, back home and so that’s where I felt like it was a better spot for him and our group because we didn’t have many natural centremen. So, he’s done a good job.”

If he can get back into double digits for goals and continue to be a sturdy playmaker, Jašek will be a big piece for Abbotsford and could end up getting a call to Vancouver if he takes another step in his development.

Jašek is currently without a contract and will be an RFA this offseason. The Canucks should be able to get a deal done soon with the 23-year-old who will continue to progress towards getting a shot in the NHL.

Jett WOOOOOO!

When a Jett Woo goal is scored, we all know that the Abbotsford Centre is going to make Ric Flair jealous with the fans cheering for the young defenceman.

As the only AHL defenceman under contract for the 2021-22 season, Woo is likely to be relied upon even more than he was this past year when he played in his rookie season in the AHL. Woo played in all 28 Comets games this season while putting up three goals and two assists along the way.

By now, I think most engaged Canucks fans know what type of player Woo is. He isn’t going to be a flashy scoring defenceman like Quinn Hughes or Jack Rathbone. Instead, he is going to be the right type of defenceman to play alongside an offensive left-shot defenceman. Earlier in the year, Woo told me that he likes to be the support guy on a pairing and thought that some of his best hockey came from when he paired up with Rathbone for a handful of games in early April.

It’s going to be a year or two before we start talking about Woo potentially playing in the NHL and Abbotsford fans will get to see a lot of the young physical defenceman next season. One of the big question marks going into his rookie year was if he would be able to play his physical style against men in the AHL as it’s a much different level of physicality than anything he’s seen before.

Early on, Woo never shied away from post-whistle scrums or standing up for his teammates.

As the year went on, he began to throw more big hits and once fans are back in the stands, he is going to have them Woo-ing up a storm when he throws his big open-ice hits.

If he can take another step in development next season, the dreams of him playing alongside Hughes or Rathbone in the NHL become more possible. Woo plays a strong defensive game and was frequently the most used defenceman while shorthanded.

His offence is sneaky. He’s not going to drive play but when he is the secondary option, he can make good passes out of the defensive zone and loves to shoot the puck when the defence is leaning towards his more offensive partner. Woo saw some time on the power play unit this past season and might sneak into the second unit next year as well. Cull saw improvements throughout the season from Woo.

“You’ve got to be able to move pucks and you got to be able to defend,” said Cull. “That will get you ice time here and hopefully some ice time in the NHL. Jett is learning to move the puck well, he’s learning to play with an edge.”

Woo could end up playing with Sautner, Teves, Brisebois or potentially a newcomer left-shot defenceman on Abbotsford top pairing next season. This will also depend on if Rafferty is back or not, if so, Woo would round out a top-four on a strong AHL defence core next season.

Carson Focht / Will Lockwood

Each of Carson Focht and Will Lockwood made their AHL debuts this season. Each player played in every game possible (Lockwood missed final four due to an NHL call-up).

Both players are very exciting to watch. Focht had been able to step in and immediately be strong in the faceoff dot while firing shots at will. He needs to work on his accuracy a bit but he does a good job as an offensive centre who funnels pucks towards the net on every shift. At the start of the AHL season, Focht was only 20-years-old. He needs to add some size as his smaller frame resulted in him being pushed off pucks on the boards but when he found open-ice, he did a great job of attacking the opposition.

Focht will be a top-six centre for Abbotsford next season and the combination of Jašek and Focht down the middle gives coach Cull a chance to put together some fun-to-watch top-six scoring lines.

Lockwood is a workhorse. He gives off some real Alex Burrows vibes but will likely never reach the level that Burrows got to. Fans will love watching the 5’11” demon skate around the ice and hit anything with a heartbeat.

As Canucks fans who toughed out the final few games of the season saw, he is quite the burner on the ice. His best skill is his skating and another year of development should have him scoring more regularly in the AHL this coming season. He found his scoring touch in the second half of the season and it came from added confidence from his coaching staff. Cull told me about Lockwood’s “explosive speed” early in the season and he was right.

It took a dozen games or so but he found a scoring touch and if he is able to build off of that, he will quickly become a fan favourite in Abby.

Kole Lind

If Kole Lind is back in the AHL, he will be the best pure scorer on the team.

He only played in eight AHL games this season and scored five goals in those eight games. Lind is the best power play option for the Abbotsford team as he can play both walls, the bumper position, or slide down to be the net-front presence. His confidence has grown every season in the AHL and that has resulted in him being a mouthy player willing to do anything to win.

When Lind gets emotionally involved in a game, he shines bright. He got a run in the NHL and that is a good step for him but he didn’t look ready for the big time just yet. To play his game, he needs to be as strong as the other players in his league. His skating is fine but another offseason of developing his body for the NHL will have him on the shortlist to be called up to the Canucks next season.

While he’s in Abbotsford, he will be a dangerous scoring threat, I’m just not sure how much time he will spend in Abbotsford or if his name is potentially one that Seattle explores in the expansion draft.

Jonah Gadjovich

If you are in the Abbotsford arena for an AHL game, you are going to instantly notice Jonah Gadjovich.

He is a very large human. He uses that size to dominate in front of the net, throw big hits on the boards, and stick up for his teammates when the situation presents itself.

Gadjovich scored goals at a higher rate than any other AHL player this past season. His goals per game rate was off the charts with a 0.79 goals per game pace set through 19 games. He could not be outmuscled around the crease and had a quick stick to be the first on pucks.

His run in the NHL didn’t look great. The pace was too quick for him and that is something he still needs to work on if an NHL career is to be a real possibility for him. For now, he will likely be back in the AHL to start the season but if he continues to improve his skating, he could be a bottom-six option for a quick call-up next year.

Trent Cull

Much has been made about Cull’s inability to develop prospects in his first couple of seasons as the Comets head coach, but he has definitely gone with the “play the kids” route over his past two seasons.

Cull is a fun guy to chat with and this past season, he made some great decisions with his lineup, such as playing five forwards on a power play, linking up Rathbone and Woo on a pairing, and attempting to move Lind to centre.

In Utica, Cull was consistently on local radio stations and has jokes for days. He is only 47 years old and has now been a coach for over 15 years. He was a tough defenceman to play against in his playing days, as indicated from his penalty minutes.

With much more local media expected to be involved now with the AHL team so close to Vancouver, I’d expect some fun postgame moments with Cull and he will definitely continue to be his fiery self when the players are in action. He is never shy to voice his opinion to the referees, so this season was a bit tough with mandatory masks on the bench.

He’s going muzzle-off next season.

Loui Eriksson

If you’re from Abbotsford and on Reddit, you’ve got your wish. It makes a lot of sense to bury Loui Eriksson and his contract in the AHL for just over a million dollars of cap savings.

Who knows where he will play in the lineup — he might be with Jašek and Lind on a first line or maybe he’s with Vinny Arseneau on a fourth line. Eriksson should be in Abbotsford for the final season of his six-year contract. The real question is, will he have to fight Gadjovich for number 21 or will a quick $10,000 watch handle him getting his desired number?

There’s a lot to be excited about with the Abbotsford AHL team. Having them so close to Vancouver means that the Canucks can call any player up quickly and though the travel will be tougher than it was for the team when they were in Utica, having them just down the road is a great thing for the fanbase.

The Canucks have a lot to do now without the support staff in Utica. There are questions about the coaching staff returning for the 2021-22 season but when I spoke with Cull earlier this week, he was saying how excited he was about the move and that he was looking forward to training camp in Vancouver this fall. Goaltending coach Curtis Sanford and assistant coach Gary Agnew’s contract situations are unknown but I would imagine that both will returm and Sanford may even be promoted to the Canucks’ main goaltending coach if Ian Clark decides to leave the organization.

The Comets have exciting forwards, excellent goaltending and the potential to have a strong top-four defence group if they can get some of their RFA’s signed.

Get pumped Abby, you are going to be in for a hell of an experience watching this team all season long. Let’s hope that BC’s reopening plan to get us back to normal life goes as planned and we can have the Abbotsford Centre stuffed for opening night.

I’ll see you there!