The final month of 2021 brought great change to the Vancouver Canucks organization. GM Jim Benning and AGM John Weisbrod were let go from the front office, as were coaches Travis Green and Nolan Baumgartner. In came Jim Rutherford, Bruce Boudreau, Scott Walker, and others, and the positive results have been both immediate and obvious.
But despite all that change, there’s still at least one more organizational alteration that is now long overdue, and it has to do with how the Canucks conduct their business in Abbotsford. There, despite a recent move from Utica, the off-ice power structure has remained largely unchanged for a number of years, with both GM Ryan Johnson and head coach Trent Cull in place since 2017. And under their watch, the organization’s developmental deficiencies have become impossible to ignore.
To put it bluntly, either the organization has not made the development of prospects enough of a priority for their farm system — or they have, and have simply done a poor job of it.
Either way, the results speak for themselves.
The Canucks’ farm team is still largely bereft of genuine NHL prospects, and those that are there are not exactly doing well.
Mike DiPietro and Arturs Silovs have been struggling to get starts behind the 26-year-old Spencer Martin, after both having missed most of the past season.
Jett Woo and Will Lockwood have each taken a step backward in 2022/23, and now look further away from NHL time than ever.
Danila Klimovich has been doing just fine for a teenager playing professional hockey, but he too has had to battle through benchings and healthy scratches.
Lukas Jasek went back to Europe this offseason, and he’s not the first to do so.
Even Jack Rathbone has been having a tough year — though that, at least, is largely due to injury, and can’t be pinned on the farm team.
Everything else, however, presents enough of a troubling pattern that it’s hard to believe something hasn’t been done about it already.
This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. As this author wrote back in December, the list of players who have graduated from Utica/Abbotsford into a genuine NHL career over the past decade is a frighteningly short one.
At the head of the class, you’ve got Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko, two superstar starting goalies. Outside the crease, however, the pickings are slim.
As far as skaters go, the only ones to have spent significant time on the Canucks’ AHL team and gone on to NHL minutes are Jake Virtanen, Adam Gaudette, Zack MacEwen, and Jonah Gadjovich. None of them are still with the Canucks, and none of them are guaranteed to be long-term NHLers. Maybe you could include names like Brendan Gaunce, Alex Biega, or Darren Archibald, if you were feeling particularly generous.
By any standard, its an unimpressive collection.
For a farm system that has been in place since 2013/14 and has been largely unaltered for the past five years, it’s downright inexcusable. If player development is the primary job of an affiliate club, as it should be, this is an affiliate club that has woefully failed at its job.
This is an NHL organization, after all, that has missed the playoffs more than it has made them over the past decade. This is an organization that was, ostensibly, going through a multi-year rebuild.
And yet, what does it have to show for it?
Any youthful talent that has joined the Canucks in recent years has had to do so by skipping right over the AHL. Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, Troy Stecher, Ben Hutton, Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Nils Höglander, and Vasily Podkolzin all more-or-less jumped straight into the NHL.
It’s gotten to the point where it truly seems like a Canucks draftee either has to make the team right out of junior/college/Europe, or be condemned to developmental hell.
As a consequence, the Canucks have long been left shorthanded.
For as much blame and scorn as Benning drew for his free agent signings and trades, they were made necessary by the Canucks’ total inability to fill out their roster through internal promotion. Roster holes have to be filled somehow. The ideal way to do that is through players that the team has drafted and developed themselves; players that don’t incur an acquisition cost at all. When that becomes impossible, a team has to look outside itself for a solution, and that’s when the costs begin to rise.
It’s inefficient at best, and perhaps fatally so. For a team swimming in prospects, it would be a real problem. For a team like the Canucks with an already-thin cupboard, it’s been devastating.
The Benning Era is now over, but as far as the Abbotsford Canucks are concerned, little has changed. Cull and Johnson remain in place, and the Canucks’ prospects continue to flounder.
If the parent team were to make a callup right now, it would have to be an older veteran pro like Sheldon Rempal or Madison Bowey. None of the Canucks’ recent draftees look ready and, in fact, most of them are looking less and less ready as the months pile on. That’s certainly the case for Woo, DiPietro, and Lockwood. Backwards, not forwards, or even stagnant.
Could the need for change be any more clear-cut?
We don’t know enough about the internal workings of the Abbotsford Canucks to know exactly who is to blame for this total dearth of development, but there’s probably plenty to be shared around. The job of an AHL GM and an AHL head coach is, ultimately, to develop players for the parent club. That has not been happening at all, and it needs to start happening as soon as possible.
Which means the Canucks either need to clean house in Abbotsford, or make it apparent that there’s a new mandate moving forward, or both. That mandate should state that the development of those players actually drafted by the Canucks — those actually earmarked for future NHL work — is now the highest priority. Everything else becomes secondary. The best time for this change to take place was a while ago, but the next best time is now.
Really, this is one issue on which the Canucks can’t afford to wait and see.
New contracts are coming due for names like Boeser, Horvat, JT Miller, and more. That’s going to cost the Canucks plenty of cap space, and the only way to accommodate that — minus losing a talented player or two — will be to fill out the rest of the roster with inexpensive depth.
Ideally, that inexpensive depth should come from the farm. But that hasn’t happened in the past, and it isn’t happening now.
And that’s why change is so urgent.
It’s long past due for the Canucks to stop supporting what is happening in Abbotsford, and for then AHL Canucks to start supporting what is happening in Vancouver.
That starts with a brand-new organization mandate toward prospect development, and it carries on with a continual evaluation as to how well the Abbotsford brass is achieving that mandate.
We’ve already seen what anything less looks like, and it’s not good.