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Blackfish: Reviewing the Abbotsford Canucks’ defensive prospects following their quarterfinal series win over Colorado

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Photo credit:Nick Barden
Dave Hall
1 month ago
Welcome back to another edition of the Blackfish Prospect report.
We are officially trending toward the dog days of prospect news, and if it weren’t for the Abbotsford Canucks staying alive over the weekend, this report would be a grim place.
Fortunately, the World Championships are coming up and before we know it, we will have Jonathan Lekkerimäki highlights taking over our feed once again.
This week’s edition of the Blackfish continues our review of Abby prospects’ 2023-24 seasons, with today’s focus on the backend.
Let’s dive right in.

Abbotsford Canucks

The Vancouver Canucks weren’t the only team celebrating overtime victories this week. In fact, on the very day that Brock Boeser forced overtime with a hat-trick against the Nashville Predators, the Abbotsford Canucks went to overtime against the Colorado Eagles after splitting the first two games of their opening series.
The series was sealed with a thrilling deflection goal from Captain Chase Wouters, whose clutch goal secured the club’s spot in the Western Conference semifinals against the Ontario Reign.
The win was attributed largely to the performance of third-string goaltender Zach Sawchenko, who set a personal best with 47 saves in the victory. Despite not starting his season until March 16th, after spending the bulk of the year as a healthy scratch, Sawchenko has been Abbotsford’s de facto starter, with Arturs Silovs and Nikita Tolopilo on emergency recall with the big club in Vancouver.
Arturs Silovs earned his first NHL playoff game start and made 27 saves to secure his first career victory in overtime.
With Casey DeSmith sitting as an EBUG, Nikita Tolopilo donned the Orca for the first time in his career as Silovs’ backup.
Offensively, Arshdeep Bains tossed the team on his back this past week, contributing two goals and two assists across the three-game series. His stat line includes the opening goal and the series-clinching assist in the decisive do-or-die game three match.
In the goal below, you’ll see Bains make a terrific keep at the blue line to intercept a clearance and keep the play alive inside the offensive zone. Bains then quickly turns to find Tristen Nielsen in the slot.
Tristen Nielsen also made his presence felt, tallying four assists and delivering the series-clinching pass to propel his team to the next round (above).
The bulldog plays a greasy game built for the energy-thrived environment of playoff hockey. Nielsen combined hands, tenacity, pestery, and awareness throughout the series, tying Bains with four points through three games.
Max Sasson was up to his typical tricks, registering two assists in the series, including a beautiful setup to Arshdeep Bains in the final game.
We have grown quite accustomed to Sasson’s exceptional speed and agility throughout the season. Once Sasson generates steam, it’s nearly impossible to stop him.
Additionally, Aatu Räty added a goal and an assist to the series victory, both of which came in game two.
On the backend, Akito Hirose notched his first professional goal, and it was a big one. Down by a goal midway through the third period of game two, the 25-year-old followed up on his own rebound from the slot, tossing in a somewhat weak shot from the corner that squeaked by Ivan Provsetov, evening the score at four apiece.
Unfortunately, the team would drop the game in overtime, but it was one heck of a time to pick up your first goal!
Both Cole McWard and Filip Johansson also picked up assists in the series. 
With the series victory, Abbotsford will advance to face the Ontario Reign, whom they split their regular season series with four wins apiece.
Abbotsford will see playoff hockey next week, as the series’ final three games (game five if necessary) will take place at the Abbotsford Centre. 
Here is the schedule for the second round:
Since we lack much news on the prospect front, we thought we’d share some final regular season thoughts on the Abby prospects’ respective 2023–24 seasons. We already covered the forward group last week, so we’ll shift to the backend this week.
Jett Woo
Since he will age out of our Blackfish report next season, we thought we’d start our recaps with Jett Woo.
Piggybacking off his career year last year, Woo followed up on his strides taken in production and improved defensive awareness with his most productive season as a pro to date.
He led the defence in most categories, such as goals (7), assists (24), and points (31), while leading the team with 93 penalty minutes—the second consecutive season in which he posted plus-90 PIMS.
Most importantly, Woo took solid steps toward blossoming into a sturdy, everyday pro, establishing himself as a leader on this Abby backend. With Christian Wolanin out of service for much of the season, Woo saw a significant bump in his ice time, going from a mainstay penalty killer and top-four defender to being an all-situations, big matchup minutes defenceman, playing on the club’s top power play unit to boot.
With his elevated role, the Abbotsford Canucks saw themselves generally outscored with Woo on the ice at 5-on-5. Over his 62 games, the Canucks were outscored 47 to 42 with Woo on the ice at 5-on-5. His minus-5 goal differential tied with Matt Irwin for the worst among Abbotsford blueliners. His on-ice presence for goals against was second only to the veteran Irwin. On the bright side, the Canucks 47 goals scored with Woo on the ice were the sixth most among all skaters!
He continued to step up and deliver the same truculence we’ve seen throughout his career but was also one of the club’s most consistent players on the backend.
His efforts on a depleted blue line earned him two promotions to the big club. Although he never cracked Vancouver’s lineup, this was a solid indication of his position in the organization’s pecking order.
Of course, the glow-up couldn’t have come at a better time, as Woo is on a one-year “show me” deal he signed last season. Given his experience relative to the club’s coming influx of young talent, handedness, and ability to play in all situations, we won’t be shocked to see him earn another two-way contract within this organization.
While he may never carve out a permanent role, we certainly feel that there is a spot for him as a fringe/6-8 defenceman at the NHL level.
Filip Johansson
In my eyes, Filip Johansson began the season as a serviceable but replaceable defender. He possessed a booming slapshot, ideal for the power play, but lacked an all-around game indicative of NHL potential.
While we haven’t veered too far from our opinion on his NHL upside, Johansson showed plenty of minor improvement throughout the season. Heck, so much so that Patrik Allvin even dropped his name when asked why he remained quiet on trade deadline day.
“Guys like [Jett] Woo, [Cole] McWard, and [Filip] Johansson all improved during the year. We have good depth up here.”
While his five goals and 18 points may not stand out statistically, his ability to contribute in all situations was highly commendable for a rookie to North American rink size. Johansson spent the season attached at the hip to Matt Irwin both at 5-on-5 and on the club’s penalty kill.
The challenge with Johansson lies in his lack of standout qualities beyond the booming one-timer. He is a competent, more defensively reliable, less physical version of Jett Woo. Johansson struggled through the 2023 portion of the schedule, recording only five points before getting waylaid with injury.
Through the 2023 portion of Abbotsford’s schedule, the club was outscored 18 to 12 with Johansson on the ice at 5-on-5, the second-worst on-ice goal differential on the team and worst among all defencemen. The 2024 portion of Abbotsford’s schedule couldn’t have been more different for the Swede. Over his final 35 games of the season, the Canucks outscored their opposition 26 to 16 with Johansson on the ice at 5-on-5, the second-best on-ice goal differential among all skaters. The 26 goals scored with Johansson on the ice at 5-on-5 were sixth-most on the team, second only to his d-partner Irwin, and Nick Cicek. However, despite Irwin and Cicek’s on-ice goals for totals, both finished with negative goal differentials of minus-4 and minus-2, respectively.
Similarly to Woo, Johansson is playing on an expiring (RFA) contract. The drastic improvement in 5-on-5 control of goalscoring is encouraging for Johansson’s upside. Still, there would have to be a significant uptick in production and physicality to boost his prospects of becoming an NHLer.
Cole McWard
If you have been keeping up with your Blackfish reports, it won’t be much of a shock to hear that we hold Cole McWard in much higher regard than the two previously mentioned right-shot defenders.
McWard is younger and more versatile. While his ceiling may not extend beyond a third-pairing NHL defenceman, his quiet, steady, and reliable play with Abbotsford has been a bright spot.
McWard’s plus-7 goal differential at 5-on-5 led all defencemen. Throughout the season, McWard was a stalwart presence at 5-on-5 and on the team’s penalty kill. Though not flashy, he plays mistake-free hockey and consistently gets the job done.
In his first full-time professional season, McWard recorded four goals and 17 points, ranking within the top 15 of rookie AHL defencemen.
Looking ahead, the impending restricted free agency status of all three right-shot defenders presents a challenge. However, the low-cost nature should result in contract offers for all three into next year, especially for McWard, given his steady performance and potential for growth.
Akito Hirose
It was a challenging debut season for the now 25-year-old Akito Hirose. Due to injuries and periods spent in Vancouver, McWard only played in 33 regular-season AHL games.
From a statistical standpoint, he hasn’t made a significant impact, tallying just two assists in the regular season. As we showed above, he did manage to cap his first professional goal, which we love to see, but overall, it was a dreadful season for Hirose, production-wise.
Hirose saw some time on the club’s secondary power play unit, showcasing quick hands and good skating ability. However, his shot and puckhandling skills under pressure in the offensive zone were less remarkable than some of the Canucks ECHL depth options.
Based on his performance, it isn’t easy to project him as anything more than AHL depth, especially considering his age and size.
Fortunately, he has one more season remaining on his contract to prove himself and bounce back from this injury-plagued season. With a full offseason to recover and prepare, he’ll have the opportunity to demonstrate the extent of his abilities and potential for increased responsibilities.
To end on a positive, Hirose leads Abbotsford’s defence in shots on goal (9), all at 5-on-5. He and his d-partner McWard have a point each through the club’s three playoff games and have been on the ice together for the second-most goals scored at 5-on-5 (3). The Canucks outscored the Eagles 3 to 1 with McWard and Hirose on the ice together at 5-on-5, the second-best differential on the team.
Elias Pettersson
Elias Pettersson did join the Abby Canucks at the tail end of the season. With such a small sample size, we won’t be adding him to the list today, but we will have deeper dives on his play in the future. What we can say is that his size and skating have translated seamlessly. He finished the regular season with as many points as Akito Hirose. Given his size and ability to produce at the AHL level at his age, DElias should be an everyday fixture for the team next season.
Editor’s note: Don’t sleep on DElias getting ‘cup of coffee’ considerations next year; I was really impressed by his play—penchant for taking minor penalties notwithstanding.

Around the world

With the exception of the Abby crew, only two prospects are competing in playoffs, and only one is enjoying game time.
Josh Bloom’s Saginaw Spirit defeated Kirill Kudryavtsev’s Soo Greyhounds in Game 7 earlier this week, propelling them to the third round against the London Knights.
After coming into the playoffs scorching hot, Bloom hasn’t been very productive lately, with just one assist in the new round and three points over his last ten matches.
His team trails the Knights 2-1 in the series.
Ty Youngs’ Prince George Cougars are currently in the WHL’s third round, but it’s not due to his strong play. The Canuck product has had two starts over the Cougars’ playoff run, where they lost both. Young lost the starting job around Christmas, and that hasn’t changed for the playoffs.
While there hasn’t been any official news, we don’t anticipate Kudrayatsev joining Abbotsford’s lineup anytime soon. The Canucks have preferred to let their upcoming crop of prospects soak in the professional environment, helping their club in practice. Following the Greyhounds’ elimination, Kudrayatsev joined other prospects like Vilmer Alriksson, Sawyer Mynio, Christian Felton, and Ty Mueller (who is injured) on the club’s practice squad.
Jonathan Lekkerimäki made it through Team Sweden’s training camp and will participate in the Betano Cup, a mini-tournament involving Sweden, Finland, Czechia, and Switzerland that runs from May 2nd to the 5th.
Although we couldn’t watch any of his four exhibition games during the training camp, we should have you covered for this tournament and will provide clips and updates as the tournament goes on.
Team Sweden has begun adding NHL stars’ eliminated from playoffs—Detroit’s Lucas Raymond was recently added to the roster—and more contributions can be expected as the Stanley Cup playoffs progress. Things are still looking positive for Lekkerimäki to be on the opening night lineup on May 10th.
Until next week, folks.
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