The Abbotsford Canucks’ regular season is coming fast and furious like a car jumping from one building to another.
The Abby Nucks kick off their season with a three-game California swing that will see them play three games in four nights beginning Saturday night in Bakersfield.
“It’s a tough league,” said Abbotsford Canucks’ head coach Trent Cull. “We haven’t seen it for a while. It’s going to be good for us to get out for a bit. I’m excited to be starting on the road, it’s been busy around our rink. There are a lot of things still getting set up. I think it’ll be nice for our group to get away together and just focus on the game.”
To say that it’s been busy around the Abbotsford Centre is a major understatement. Even in conducting some interviews with players, I could hear the buzz of a drill while the smell of a grinder to metal took me back to my days of working weekends at a mill in Ladysmith.
Last year, there wasn’t any travel for the Utica Comets. A vast majority of the games were just simple bus rides as they loaded up and drove an hour down the road to play the same two teams every weekend.
This year, the Abbotsford Canucks have a lot of travel including many of their games which will be played in the state of California.
“It’ll be fun, I was talking to some guys and we’re all excited to finally get on the road,” said Will Lockwood with a smile on his face.
”We missed that last year where it was just a bus to Syracuse and a bus to Rochester. You didn’t get really get the true experience of the road. Now, we will get to see some new and nice places. California will be nice, I’m excited to get some nice weather. It’ll be fun to travel, play cards, and just be around the guys. I’m excited, it’s going to be good.”
The Abby Nucks are projected to be one of the strongest teams in the AHL’s Pacific Division. They will need to rely on strong goaltending and that should be supported by a veteran defence corps.
The top four defence group is very strong. Ashton Sautner will be the number one defenceman on the team while newcomers Devante Stephens, Alex Kannok-Leipert and Madison Bowey are key pieces to the back end.
Trent Cull knows that his defence and goaltending are going to be the strength of this team.
“For a coach, it’s really nice to have some veteran support there because you don’t want to put a lot of pressure on the young guys who might be the guys feeling pressure to score goals. We’ll work through it and who knows, maybe we can win every game one-nothing.”
Cull has had his hands full with a short AHL training camp that has seen some strong AHL-calibre players like Justin Bailey, Phil Di Giuseppe, and Will Lockwood be thrown into the mix late after they were some of the last cuts from the Vancouver Canucks.
Even with those players with AHL experience, Cull knows how young this forward group is and doesn’t want to put added pressure on the young scorers of the team.
“I don’t think I have expectations for the young guys,” said Cull. “It’s more just learning the players, we’re learning about our veterans as well. We want to make sure that the older guys are good too. We’re trying to insulate our young group but we also want to make sure that the veterans are clicking and leading the way. It’s not about expectations, it’s more about learning where everybody is at right now, as individuals. Everybody is at a different step and everybody has a different process of finding their way. Just personally, I don’t want to fully assess a player from practice, and we didn’t have any preseason games. Saturday is going to be great, it’ll be nice to just play some games and see where guys are at.”
A few notable young players include 21-year-olds Karel Plasek and Jett Woo, as well as 18-year-old Danila Klimovich.
Woo is coming off a strong rookie campaign in the AHL and will be on the Canucks’ top pairing for the season opener. Woo is set to partner up with Sautner on what is sure to be a strong defensive pairing that can move the puck. On top of first pairing minutes at five-on-five, Woo will be a big piece on the penalty kill and was skating as the quarterback on the first power play unit at the Canucks’ final practice before leaving for California on Thursday.
As for Plasek and Klimovich, these two are going to have to adjust to the AHL game. Plasek spent last year in the top Czech league while Klimovich played in the Belarussian second division.
Both of these two wingers showed well in training camp and even caught some eyes in the NHL team’s training camp scrimmages.
Klimovich was the main shooter on the second power play unit and has a lot of Canucks fans excited that their top pick from the 2021 NHL Entry Draft is already playing pro hockey in North America.
Between the pipes, Mikey DiPietro is primed to be an absolute horse. All indications from the organization lead to the fact that DiPietro is going to play a massive amount of games this season.
The team is going to rely on good goaltending and strong defence to win a lot of games and there’s nobody better than DiPietro to be the leading man in the crease. He will be backed up by veteran Spencer Martin and fellow youngster Arturs Silovs.
Another name to keep an eye on this year is Noah Juulsen. The former first-round pick is returning to Abbotsford to play hockey for the first time since he was 14 years old and playing minor hockey.
“Growing up, I was a big Canucks fan,” said Juulsen. “On Tuesday, I met Hank and Dank. My favourite player as a kid was Kevin Bieksa. Then, going to Florida, I got to meet Roberto Luongo when I was there so I’ve been able to meet a lot of Canucks guys — a bunch of the greats.”
Juulsen took a puck to the face and had vision issues as he looked to make his return to hockey. He is all healed up now and simply wants to get back to his normal self.
It was a tough rehab process with a lot of hoops to jump through that Juulsen never thought he would have to deal with. His only focus is getting on the ice and staying there.
“It’s been tough, I’ve been injured the last two and a half years,” said Juulsen. “I haven’t played a whole lot of hockey, so the goal for me is to just start playing and find my game again. If I’m here all year, I’m here all year but in the end, my goal is to find my game and get back to where I was. I just want to play hockey, it’s been two and a half years now that I haven’t played a whole lot. It’s simple, I just need to get out and play.”
Juulsen is playing his off-side as a right-shot defenceman playing the left side on a pairing with Madison Bowey. Both players can move the puck well and have the size to defend in their own zone.
The final player I wanted to mention is Will Lockwood. After a hell of an NHL training camp, Lockwood finds himself back in the AHL with much more confidence compared to his first pro season last year.
“I won’t really have a learning curve this year,” said Lockwood. “I’m coming to Abbotsford knowing the systems, I know what Cull wants from me and after these past few weeks, I know what the Canucks organization wants from me. It’ll be nice to have that mindset going into our first game of the year.”
One of the main things that Lockwood wants to work on this season is his penalty killing. Lockwood told me that the organization was “extremely transparent” about what they want him to work on in the AHL. It’s clear that becoming a better penalty killer is massively important for him to stick in the NHL but the organization really liked what they saw from Lockwood in his two weeks with the big club.
“I’m not going to change my game. I liked the way I played during NHL preseason,” said Lockwood. “I think the role that I play will be a little bit bigger down here with the Abbotsford Canucks. I want to show well on the penalty kill here. I am really looking to build and build confidence there. I’m going to work very hard on the PK.”
We will surely follow along closely as Lockwood develops his penalty-killing ability. His combination of aggressiveness and strong skating has his shorthanded potential looking like a slam dunk.
The Abbotsford Canucks get going on Saturday at 7 pm PST. It’s been a tough ask for Cull and his coaching staff to get this team organized and game-ready but there’s no stopping the fast-approaching season opener.
“It’s a first for me, as I have had quite a few firsts here lately,” said Cull. “When you have this many guys come in this late, you’re just trying to get everyone’s wheels running for Saturday night in Bakersfield.”
Though it’s been a pressure-filled two weeks for Cull, he and his players are just excited to get on the ice.
“Now it matters,” said Lockwood. “On Saturday night, we will be out there playing regular-season games. I can’t wait to go out there and play my game. I’m very excited.”
We will continue to follow along with the AHL team this season and plan to bring consistent updates after weekend sets. The Abbotsford Canucks play Bakersfield on Saturday night before games against the Ontario Reign on Sunday and Tuesday.
Bonus: AHLtv is making opening weekend (Oct.15-17) free to all those who wish to create an account and watch the games. Here is the link.
The Abbotsford Canucks play Saturday at 7 pm and Sunday at 5 pm.