Ryan Johnson might not be an NHL general manager, but his offseason has certainly had the workload of one.
Fresh off his promotion to assistant to Patrik Allvin, the Abbotsford Canucks GM made an appearance on Sekeres & Price on Tuesday to discuss his plans for the farm team’s second season in BC, including new coaching hires, developing players and his expanded role with the NHL team.
Since joining the Canucks front office as a consultant in 2013, Johnson has quickly risen through the ranks across multiple management regimes and is now considered one of the most vital cogs in the organization. But Johnson credits his success to the people he’s worked with over the last decade, especially since becoming the AHL general manager under Jim Benning in 2017.
“I’ve been very fortunate to work with some very good people through that time that I’ve learned a lot from and taken a lot from. There’s usually a lot of change over in hockey organizations, and I feel fortunate to be playing a big part of a group that I think has a chance to do some great things.”
Johnson’s value has led him to become Patrik Allvin’s right-hand man during the front office’s midseason transition, and the new NHL GM has noted Johnson’s importance routinely since his hiring. But the Canucks alumnus credits Allvin for working closely with him on plans to keep strengthening Vancouver’s prospect pipeline.
“He and I speak a lot. I think he and I have developed a very good relationship in a short amount of time, and a way that we want to do things and we’ve been trying to implement that through our departments and within the organization moving forward,” Johnson said.
It’s certainly different from how Johnson’s previous season began. When the Canucks relocated their AHL franchise from Utica to Abbotsford, outside forces brought a lot of growing pains for Johnson and his staff. But it’s helped him prepare for how to tackle preparations for the sequel campaign.
“We wanted to be competitive and faced a lot of adversity as everybody did with COVID and injuries and managing taxi squads. I don’t think we really got to see how that team was meant to come together because of some of those things, but that’s out of our control,” Johnson said about the AHL team’s first year in Abbotsford.
“I really wanted to make a concerted effort moving into this year of making sure we get younger there. I want to develop players, whether they’re drafted, free agents, or AHL guys that we’re taking a chance on.”
While noting that veterans offer important support, Johnson feels that those players are mostly there to provide insulation for prospects during the first half of the season. “You often find it’s a Christmas league where January 1, all of a sudden those guys that have been needing a little bit of support are the ones turning the table the other way and kind of leading the way.”
But the biggest change in Abbotsford’s second season will be the one behind the bench. Jeremy Colliton’s journey to becoming the Baby Nucks’ head coach has involved moving up from the Rockford IceHogs to running the bench for the Chicago Blackhawks across four seasons.
“Obviously his resume speaks for itself and he was thrust into an NHL position very early in his process as a coach,” Johnson said. “I think he’s very well thought, a very smart coach, empowering to people around him. He knows the American League but also understands the NHL, and it’s great for young players for him to relate on both sides of it.”
Colliton’s hiring was brought on after Trent Cull’s promotion to the big club in Vancouver. Cull coached the Canucks’ farm team for five seasons before becoming Bruce Boudreau’s new assistant coach, and Johnson feels that his value to the organization during that time is a lot higher than most realize.
“Trent, as our team was on an island in Utica, had done a fantastic job that a lot of people couldn’t understand the day to day, and developed some players that we ended up losing on waivers or to expansion that are now in the NHL,” Johnson said.
“He is extremely structured in what he does. He has a great way of communicating with players with hardness and an understanding where they want to play for him. There’s not a hard worker as far as his day-to-day and what he puts into it. I think he’s in a great spot.”
As far as the current crop of players goes, Johnson highlighted the importance this season will hold for a few players on the edge of making the NHL full-time. One of the biggest spotlights will be on Jack Rathbone, who enters the season as a potential third pairing option for Vancouver.
“We’ve got high expectations for Jack Rathbone. Last year dealing with so much adversity of injury and COVID, and obviously, he had an injury that could have been a lot worse than it was when he took the hit from behind in Bakersfield. But the struggle with him was getting more than six, seven, eight games consecutively before he was on the sidelines again, but you still look at the bulk of his work. He had a pretty impressive year,” Johnson said of the 23-year-old defenceman.
“The kid works his butt off, so we expect him to come push to be on our [NHL] team. He’s had to learn the hard way in the last couple of years but I think it’s really helped him in his process, and his development improvement since he’s turned pro in a low amount of games has been so fun to watch.”
But the player Johnson had the most to say about was the player who all future Abbotsford prospects might be measured against: Danila Klimovich. The 19-year-old second-rounder from 2021 had a decent pro debut in North America, collecting 18 points in 62 AHL games. But those strides wouldn’t have been possible if Johnson hadn’t made the choice to keep him under the Canucks’ umbrella and sent him to the Quebec Major Junior League instead.
“That was a decision I had to make and wasn’t an easy one. I’m ecstatic that we made the decision and had the support to do it,” Johnson said. “A guy with that size and power but rawness in his game, to send him to a league where he just goes and physically dominates, I can see those habits that we want to improve declining even further.”
“I worry about young prospects that are always bigger than their opponents. They get away with things that they won’t when they eventually face 6-foot-3, 220-pound guys that are smarter than them. So for me, it was getting Danila into an environment where we could coach him. We had the language barrier, we had COVID, a new culture. We had a lot of things, and I wanted to have a hands-on part in his development, not just as a player, but as a person.”
As a result, Johnson envisions much bigger responsibilities for Klimovich in his sophomore season. “We talked about responsibility in his own end, his wall play, his puck management, all these little things that are going to allow him to use the skill set of his power and his shot in a fierceness,” Johnson said.
“Even seeing him at development camp and in drills, the difference in his intensity and understanding the compete, and even in the scrimmage we did on Thursday, he must have finished seven or eight checks. He understands that to get the puck in your hands you have to go get it and find a way to be a part of the forecheck and puck battles. I’m really happy with where he is.”
Klimovich’s improvements, Rathbone’s NHL readiness, and the potential trajectory of other Canucks prospects like them are exciting to Johnson, showing why he’s the perfect person to be running the Abbotsford franchise. Relocating the Canucks’ AHL team to the Lower Mainland already seems to be paying off in spades, and Ryan Johnson’s just getting started.
- Canucks’ All Access 2022 NHL Draft video reveals they had 15th overall pick Jonathan Lekkerimäki seventh on their draft board
- 6 Canucks players who will take a step forward next season
- Could Vasily Podkolzin at centre be the answer to making the Canucks’ top-nine work?
- Brock Boeser snipes short side in summer Da Beauty League action
- 9 players still on the UFA market that could be a PTO fit for the Canucks
- Monday Mailbag: A Tyler Myers extension, skydiving for Bedard, and were the Canucks too slow with J.T. Miller?
- As the Canucks find themselves at a similar crossroads, what if the Avalanche extended Matt Duchene instead of trading him?
- Faber’s complete summary of our top 10 Vancouver Canucks prospects list