Where do the Abbotsford Canucks go from here?
By Faber10 months ago
The Abbotsford Canucks were swept in the first round of the AHL playoffs after going on an impressive 29-11-2 run over their final 42 games of the regular season.
When you looked at the Canucks and Bakersfield Condors’ lineups, the Canucks were favoured in the series and they were simply outworked and outplayed by Bakersfield. Now, general manager Ryan Johnson and his crew need to pick up the pieces in Abbotsford and move forward to build on their inaugural season.
“I’ve got an evaluation process to go through but I’m still a bit bitter and disappointed,” said Johnson. “There were some guys that I felt we had prepared and didn’t perform the way the way I felt they would. I’ve got to make some decisions and ultimately, it’s not good enough. We’re here not playing at this moment. So that’s on me. I’ve got to get back to the to the drawing board here and find the players that give us a chance to have a quality group here but sustain us as an organization through injuries and things in Vancouver while helping us grow an environment where young kids can grow at the same time.”
Eight of their 10 top scorers are without a contract for next season, and all of their six starting defencemen are without a deal for next season.
With president Jim Rutherford and NHL general manager Patrik Allvin still new in the organization, there may be questions about the future of the coaching staff and developmental coaches in Abbotsford.
Rutherford gave very positive quotes about the AHL franchise’s future during his end-of-season availability on Tuesday afternoon.
“This could be the best franchise in the American Hockey League over time,” said Rutherford. “Francesco [Aquilini] first came and talked to me, and that was a priority for a number of things that we talked about — the importance of having a franchise here in British Columbia. And how good it’s already done in its first year, but to make sure that it’s not only good but that we make it better and better, and make sure we have good players and we have a good team every year. So it’s very important to our franchise.”
Hearing Rutherford say that this could be the best franchise in the AHL is definitely reassuring for Canucks fans who have not seen a lot of production from their AHL team over the recent years. You could point at players like Zack MacEwen, Kole Lind, and Jonah Gadjovich who have come through the Canucks AHL team and made it to the NHL. These players aren’t major success stories as they are each fighting just to be in an NHL lineup on a regular basis on three teams that didn’t make the playoffs this year.
With the AHL team now in Abbotsford, they need to be better at developing NHL players. Francesco Aquilini is willing to invest in his AHL franchise — you could see it this year with the money spent on high-end AHL players. Now, with Rutherford at the helm of the organization, there should be confidence that the AHL will make changes to improve the development of its prospects.
Having the second-best prospect in the system not play in the most crucial games of his rookie AHL season is inexcusable. I don’t personally believe that Danila Klimovich was one of the best 12 forwards that Abbotsford had available to them for their playoff series but it’s more about the process.
The AHL is a developmental league.
For that reason only, Klimovich should have been in the lineup for Abbotsford on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Instead, defenceman Jett Woo was used as the third third-line right winger.
We have seen quality performances from rookie forward Tristen Nielsen, who had a hat trick earlier this season and found himself sitting in the press box for both of Abbotsford’s playoff losses. Even Carson Focht had a couple of decent games this season. Seeing a defensive defenceman on the wing just didn’t make sense, especially in the two most important games of the season.
Jim Rutherford knows best in this situation, and he will lean on Ryan Johnson to help make decisions about the AHL franchise but Rutherford’s decisions will be the ones that are final. My confidence is high that he and his management staff will make the right decisions to turn Abbotsford into a powerhouse AHL team that can begin to churn out NHL talent over the coming years.
The immediate question from the fanbase seems to be about Abbotsford’s coaching staff that features head coach Trent Cull, assistant coaches Gary Agnew and Jeff Ulmer, and goaltending coach Curtis Sanford.
Cull and Agnew have been a part of the AHL coaching staff for five seasons. Ulmer is in his first year as an assistant who also works on special skilled development with the players. Sanford is in his fourth year with the organization as a goaltending development consultant where he has specifically worked with the AHL goaltending coach.
Though the fanbase is not pleased with Cull and his staff, Johnson has confidence in his entire staff and confirmed that they are all under contract for next season.
“The entire staff here is under contract for next season,” said Johnson. “I couldn’t be happier with the the job that they have done since day one… You have to be a structured coaching staff, you have to have a set of values in place that players come in and execute every day. And to be able to do that with players coming in and out, I don’t think people realize how hard that is on a coaching staff on a daily basis.”
Johnson is confident in Cull and his staff and I’d be surprised to see a change because it sounds like Johnson likes the work that this current staff has done.
It would not come as a surprise to see added development coaches to go along with skating coach Mackenzie Braid and video/analytics specialist Ian Beckenstein.
Sources say that Beckenstein has been a big boost to the operations behind the scenes in Abbotsford and we’ve been singing praises about Braid’s work from what has been observed before, during, and after practice.
There’s a lot that goes into coaching an AHL team. You don’t know which players are going to be available for you week-by-week, you need to balance players on professional tryouts, and Abbotsford dealt with COVID-19 cases that hit every player on the roster in December-January. I’d expect to see Cull and the current staff back next season as they held their own throughout the regular season and have earned enough of a chance to show what they can do next season.
When it comes to the players, there is a lot of work to do. Sheldon Dries, Sheldon Rempal, Phil Di Giuseppe, Justin Bailey, John Stevens, Noah Juulsen, Madison Bowey and many more will see their contracts expire this offseason.
Players like Dries, Rempal, Petan and Juulsen may have shown enough to earn a chance on a weak NHL team’s roster but with Rutherford’s promise of improving Abbotsford, you would hope to see some of these high-end players back in the Fraser Valley next season.
One veteran player we know will be back is Vinny Arseneau. Big Vinny is beloved by the coaching staff and management for his play and protection on the ice as well as the great person that he is off the ice. Arseneau signed a two-year extension with the AHL team at the end of March.
Young talent like Klimovich, Karel Plasek, Carson Focht, Jett Woo, and Arturs Silovs are all under contract for next season and you’d hope that each of them continue to take steps forward in their development.
Will Lockwood and Jack Rathbone will be fighting for an NHL job out of camp while Mikey DiPietro will need a new contract before joining Abbotsford next season.
The three WHL rookies all impressed this season. Chase Wouters broke right into the lineup and showed his value with his two-way play, willingness to stand up for teammates and off/on-ice leadership. Wouters is a big success story for the Canucks being able to identify and sign players out of the WHL. He earned the trust of the coaching staff as the season went on and will be a solid bottom-six centre for years to come.
Tristen Nielsen showed flashes of excellence and proved that he could translate his speed to professional hockey. Rookie defenceman Alex Kannok-Leipert fit in as depth for the AHL team and might have looked at his best when he was playing forward.
Johnson mentioned that signing talent from the WHL and British Columbia is very important to him.
“You just saw the [WHL] guys that I brought in here last year, they weren’t the highest scorers or the obvious [overaged WHL players],” said Johnson. “I wanted to find, character type people that I felt to give us an opportunity to really build an environment that was sustainable and that was conducive to people growing and developing.”
Though Johnson mentioned that the players he brough in last year weren’t the top scorers, next season will have the top scorer from the WHL and the top rookie from the SHL. Expect to see Arshdeep Bains and Linus Karlsson join the group and play a key role in the offence. Karlsson and Bains are both coming off great seasons and primed to jump into Abbotsford’s top-six forward group. Both players should spend a lot of time on the power play and it will be curious to see if Bains’ high hockey IQ can help him develop into a penalty killer.
One of the Canucks’ draft picks who may make the jump into the AHL is Kamloops Blazers’ defenceman Viktor Persson. If he does make the jump to the AHL, he would add depth to the right side of the defence. Persson has options back in Sweden and it will be interesting to see where he decides to play next season.
Joni Jurmo is expected to play in the Finnish Liiga next season and Dmitri Zlodeyev signed a two-year extension last month to stay in Russia.
Abbotsford has a lot of work to do if they want to become the best franchise in the AHL. There were huge steps taken in the right direction over the past year, the biggest one being the new location of the AHL team. Expectations should be even high for the AHL in the Fraser Valley now that Rutherford is in charge of things for the organization and has the financial backing of Francesco Aquilini.
There should be no excuses about making Abbotsford an AHL hot spot in the near future.
It was important for Aquilini to bring AHL hockey to the province of British Columbia and now that he has the correct people in place to operate the franchise, it should only be up from here.
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