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Report Cards: How the Abbotsford Canucks defencemen fared in 2021-22

In our first installment, we laboriously evaluated the Abbotsford Canucks forward group. We set our sights on Abbotsford’s defence and goaltending departments for today’s report cards.

First up, the defencemen.

The Abbotsford Canucks were poised to begin the 2021-22 season with one of the AHL’s deepest bluelines. However, injuries to Brady Keeper and Guillaume Brisebois, combined with Travis Hamonic’s mysterious absence from training camp, resulted in a much shallower pool of defencemen available to Abbotsford than anyone could have expected.

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After the Canucks’ big spend on their AHL club, there were legitimate concerns that young defencemen Jett Woo and Alex Kannok Leipert would be out of a regular spot in the team’s nightly lineup!

2021-22 Abbotsford Canucks: Defencemen production (all situations)

Fortunately, the remaining Abbotsford blueliners stepped up to the plate and produced incredibly well despite the absences of several expected bodies. By season’s end, every single defenceman who finished the year with Abbotsford found ways to produce. Of the eleven defencemen to finish the season in Abbotsford, ten featured on the powerplay, with all but two producing points.

While the team’s defensive play wasn’t inspiring, the ill-experienced defensive group coming up huge offensively after being thrust up the depth charts was nonetheless impressive.

Madison Bowey — B+

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Though these grades are alphabetical, we start our defencemen grading with one of the players who saw the most dramatic shift in expected role assignment under Trent Cull. Bowey was a swiss army knife, tasked with chewing heavy minutes at 5v5 with a multitude of partners.

Bowey spent most of his 2021-22 campaign paired with Devante Stephens at 5v5. As the team’s most experienced defenceman, the coaching staff trusted Bowey to be a stabilizing force for the laundry list of rookie and sophomore defencemen debuting with Abbotsford.

Acquired by the Canucks on April 12th in anticipation of the Seattle expansion draft. Bowey was promptly forgotten about, spending the Canucks’ final nineteen games on the taxi squad. Bowey’s season with Abbotsford included a two-game cup of coffee with Vancouver. Considering where he stood on the organizational depth chart last season, it’s hard not to consider Bowey’s 2021-22 campaign a rousing success. Yes, his ability to pivot and defend off the rush isn’t great. But playing mostly in toughs, earning a positive goal-differential at 5v5, second-unit powerplay, and penalty killing time at a total cost of $750K means Bowey was full value for the organization. I don’t think he carries much upside as a future full-time NHL option, but he was pretty reliable as AHL depth.

Guillaume Brisebois — A*

Say it with me, folks, because it could be the last time.

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*deep inhale*

BREEZE-BAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

Look, Brisebois barely played this year for Abbotsford after missing most of the season on IR. After missing over a month and a half on LTIR with Vancouver, Brisebois returned to Abbotsford, where he casually pulled off the Forsberg.

That highlight alone warrants an A+ rating. However, Brisebois’ grade requires an asterisk due to his limited time spent in Abbotsford.

Brisebois is a decent enough 4/5 in the AHL, who can maybe give you one or two NHL games in a pinch. The organization thought the same after re-signing him to a one-year, two-way contract extension!

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Adam Brubacher — D

The hulking 6’4″ 205-pound left-shot defenceman from Elmira, Ontario, possesses all of the physical aesthetics that GMs cherish. Unfortunately, Adam Brubacher’s footspeed was not up to snuff, frequently looking lost while trying to track pucks or create clean breakout passes.

Through most of the season, Brubacher shared most of his ice time at 5v5 alongside fellow rookie Alex Kannok Leipert. Early into the year, Brubacher was tested out on the powerplay as the second-unit QB but failed to do much with the opportunity outside of one primary assist. As the Canucks’ season began to wind down, Brubacher found himself loaned to the ECHL’s Fort Wayne Komets, putting up seven points in thirteen games.

Brandon Hickey — D

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A late-season pick-up, Brandon Hickey, was signed to a PTO just one day after being released from a PTO with the Henderson Silver Knights. Hickey spent most of his ice time on a pair with sophomore Jett Woo where they combined for zero goals-for and four goals-against at 5v5. Hickey fared a bit better with Madison Bowey, on-ice for four goals-for and only two against at 5v5.

Regardless, Hickey’s production doesn’t leap off the page, and his career shooting percentage of 3.6% doesn’t leave much optimism that there is something more to mine.

Noah Juulsen — B-

Noah Juulsen, the Hitz King of Abbotsford, had a solid debut for his hometown club but ended the year with one of the weirder profiles of any player on the team.

Through a 41-game sample, Juulsen carried the fourth-best on-ice shot attempt differential, with Abbotsford out-attempting opponents by a +33 margin with Juulsen on the ice at 5v5. Despite winning the volume game, Juulsen received some brutal PDO luck. The Abbotsford Canucks shooting percentage with Juulsen on-ice at 5v5 was the third-worst on the team at 3.77%! Juulsen finished with the worst goal differential at 5v5, tied only with Brandon Cutler.

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The results are genuinely odd as Juulsen dominated with 5v5 shot attempt possession but struggled to find the back of the net! Like Madison Bowey, Juulsen’s most prominent issues were his pivoting and foot speed against the rush. However, despite the unkind goal differentials, Juulsen was nonetheless a fun player to watch. Always physical, tenacious, and willing to sacrifice the body to make a play. Juulsen led Abbotsford with the most blocks on the penalty kill and could be frequently seen in scrums defending his teammates. His willingness to fight for his squad, plus the local connection, made Juulsen an easy player to root for.

Perfectly fine organizational depth, as seen by his eight-game stint with Vancouver!

Alex Kannok Leipert — C*

Much was made about Jett Woo playing as a fourth-line forward during the playoffs. Many asked, “why is Woo taking Danila Klimovich’s spot?”

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People should have been asking why Alex Kannok Leipert wasn’t playing in the fourth-line forward spot instead? He was good. Legitimately, very good as a forward. Through ten games as a forward, Kannok Leipert drove possession heavily with a heavy forechecking presence that resulted in two points on five goals-for at 5v5. His brief time as a forward was worthy of a C+, or even a B- grade, had he been able to carry his strong play into the Calder Playoffs.

However, as a defenceman, Kannok Leipert never looked as comfortable as he did as a forward. Though he never looked lost or panicky, there was a simple lack of confidence in his play around the blue line whenever his line controlled possession in the offensive zone.

The former Vancouver Giants captain spent most of his ice time at 5v5 with fellow rookie Adam Brubacher. The two controlled shot attempts quite well but struggled to keep pucks out of the net, sharing a negative-2 goal differential when on-ice together.

Because of his quiet body of work as a defenceman, we felt a C- grade was appropriate for AKL’s first season. His above-average play as a forward made it a no-brainer to average his grade up to a C; turning his season around down the stretch while playing exclusively off-role was quite the impressive feat from the first-year pro! Leipert’s low-key impressive defensive numbers while on the penalty kill are encouraging as we look forward to next year. Like Noah Juulsen, Leipert was a fearless teammate willing to go to war in scrums or after big hits. Ryan Johnson’s ability to re-up AKL to a one-year extension represents good potential value to the club as they seek to rebuild their pipeline from the ground up.

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Matt Murphy — B-

Matt Murphy represents another win for Ryan Johnson’s ECHL scouting team. Joining Abbotsford from the Fort Wayne Komets during the team’s COVID outbreak, Murphy promptly put up eight assists over sixteen games.

For perspective, in sixteen games played, Murphy found himself on ice for fifteen goals-for at 5v5. Noah Juulsen played three times as many games and finished the season having been on ice for fifteen goals-for at 5v5. That’s some mighty fine scouting by the Abbotsford organization!

Murphy split most of his tenure on a pair with Jack Rathbone, where he found instant chemistry despite playing on his off-side. Though he might not be long for the AHL at this point of his career, Murphy was an excellent depth pick-up who slid into the lineup and did not look out of place.

Jack Rathbone — A-

Jack Rathbone was good!

2021-22 AHL U24 Defencemen Scoring

Among U24 defencemen, Rathbone finished third in points-per-game, third in goals, and fifth in points. He was in good company on the above list. Of the top-ten producers, only Rathbone and Jacob Christiansen played less than ten games in the NHL. Rathbone struggled mightily in his NHL debut, averaging roughly thirteen minutes per game and finishing with the lowest on-ice shooting percentage among all Canucks defencemen.

It was rough.

Fortunately, the rough start to his 2021-22 campaign did not bleed over into his time in the AHL, as he finished with the fifth-best production rate among all AHL defensemen!

Rathbone was relied upon as the offensive driver on every pair. He spent most of his 5v5 ice time on a pairing with Noah Juulsen, but they finished the year outscored six to five at 5v5. In an effort to improve his reads in the d-zone, Rathbone began featuring heavily on the team’s penalty-kill as the third-out d-pair.

2021-22 Abbotsford Canucks: On-ice save percentage while shorthanded

Though the sample size was limited, the Farm held an on-ice save percentage that was 3.25% better with Rathbone on the ice while shorthanded. Second only to Jett Woo, and above the previously mentioned Alex Kannok Leipert, who also featured on the penalty kill to a higher degree of frequency.

In his year-end media availability, Jim Rutherford emphasized how the Vancouver Canucks exits from the defensive zone were not good, “probably one of the worst in the league.”

Jack Rathbone is a one-man exit machine owing to his plus-skating and vision. Whether Vancouver can find the right d-partner for him at the NHL level to allow him to succeed in that area remains to be seen.

Ashton Sautner — C

The problem with getting a part-time writer to do report cards is that procrastination results in situations like Sautner’s. Before we can finish evaluating his 2021-22 campaign, he’s ruled out of a return for next season by CHEKTV’s Rick Dhaliwal.

Sautner had been a reliable AHL soldier for the organization since signing as an undrafted free agent back in 2015.

Sautner’s role in the organization had been exclusive as organizational depth. During 2020-21, Sautner’s only games played came while on loan to the Manitoba Moose. For 2021-22, Sautner re-upped with the Canucks on a one-year AHL deal. His AHL contract was upgraded in December to an NHL deal after a spate of injuries forced him into emergency call-up duty as the only available defenceman from Abbotsford.

Despite putting up a career-best for production, thirteen points in forty-one games played, Sautner’s underlying metrics were uninspiring. The organization has repositioned itself to draft, develop, and acquire younger bodies for its AHL team. Sautner was serviceable, but he had clearly aged out.

Devante Stephens — C

Devante Stephens spent the last four seasons struggling to crack the AHL rosters of the Rochester Americans and the Syracuse Crunch. Expectations were relatively low on what Stephens could bring to Abbotsford in his fifth year as a pro.

Through the first twenty games of the season, Stephens spent a good portion of games rotating into the lineup as a fourth-line forward. Stephens didn’t secure a full-time spot in the defencemen rotation until an injury to Jack Rathbone, and NHL call-ups of Noah Juulsen and Travis Hamonic created that space. Given his general lack of experience as a full-time AHLer, and how little time he’d spent as a defenceman to start the year, it’s safe to say that Stephens did quite well!

Stephens spent most of his time as a d-man on a pairing with Madison Bowey. Together, they were on-ice for 22 goals-for and 20 goals-against at 5v5. Like Bowey, Stephens struggled with his neutral-zone defence. They especially struggled with defending off the rush. Because of their lack of mobility and flatfootedness around the d-zone, the Bowey/Stephens pairing was frequently out-attempted at 5v5. Through a 41-game sample size, the Bowey/Stephens pairing finished with a negative-23 shot attempt differential at 5v5.

He was fine. But, at 25 years old, he’s a long shot to be anything more than AHL depth.

Jett Woo — D

Jett Woo had a rough sophomore season. As previously mentioned, Woo finished the year being deployed mainly as a forward to get him playing time. He ended the season with one point in his final twenty games. During Abbotsford’s season-ending playoff loss to the Bakersfield Condors, Woo was caught on the ice for all three goals against, all at 5v5.

While his underlying metrics on the PK inspired confidence, his underlying metrics everywhere else did not. Five of Woo’s eight points all came in a two-game span.

Production isn’t everything, but defencemen need to move the needle at the AHL level if they anticipate moving towards the NHL. Woo finished his sophomore campaign 97th among U24 defencemen scoring rates with a minimum of 10 games played. 46th among U22 defencemen.

Woo plays physically, throws hits, and skates well enough, but his shot is not AHL quality. When it comes to defence, his reaction time on developing plays through the neutral zone feels late. Woo is strongest when carrying the puck up the ice or engaging in physical wars of attrition around the net. However, it doesn’t look good when these individual-controlled zone exits result in minimal individual production.

At 21 years old, Woo is still young in his pro career. However, the optics of failing to earn the coaching staff’s trust down the stretch, and sliding into a forward spot simply as a make-work project, is not a good sign.

Be sure to check back tomorrow when we break down the goalie report cards!

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