Who are the “four or five” Abbotsford Canucks that Jim Rutherford thinks can push for NHL jobs next season?

Photo credit:Abbotsford Canucks/ Instagram
Dave Hall
19 days ago
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While the Florida Panthers and Edmonton Oilers are heading to game 7 with hopes of bringing home a Stanley Cup, the rest of the NHL is in full offseason mode.
And boy, are they ever.
It’s typical protocol for the league to wait until the Stanley Cup has been awarded before announcing contract extensions, trades, or anything that may take away from the spotlight of the Cup. But with less than a week out from the NHL Draft and still no Cup awarded, teams seem to have grown restless and broken the seal.
Last week, we were blessed with several trades and contract extensions from around the league as teams basked in their newly realized cap increases.
One of those deals saw the Vancouver Canucks lock up 26-year-old right-shot defenceman, Filip Hronek. The timing of the deal couldn’t have been better, as it addressed a lingering issue on the right side and added an important piece to the off-season puzzle. With Hronek signed, the Canucks can now focus on filling the remaining spots with a clearer picture of their cap situation.
However, upper management isn’t done yet. Far from it.
This week, Canucks President of Hockey Operations Jim Rutherford sat down with Iain MacIntyre of Sportsnet to discuss the club’s offseason plans. One key topic was the potential of losing several free agents and where the team might find replacements.
When asked about the task at hand and the difficulty of losing free agents, Rutherford responded confidently:
“We do feel comfortable in the fact that we have four or five guys now from Abbotsford (in the American Hockey League) that should be knocking on the door to be with the big team,” Rutherford said.
Four or five guys, you say?
Last season, the Canucks had five Abbotsford players receive call-ups, and that number jumps to nine if you include already-established names such as Mark Friedman, Vasily Podkolzin, Jack Studnicka, and Nils Åman.
Here’s a breakdown of games played by those who, at some point, suited up for Abbotsford:
  • Nils Åman – 43 GP, 5 GP (playoffs)
  • Vasily Podkolzin – 19 GP, 2 GP (playoffs)
  • Mark Friedman – 23 GP
  • Artūrs Šilovs – 4 GP, 10 GP (playoffs)
  • Arshdeep Bains – 8 GP
  • Jack Studnicka – 5 GP
  • Linus Karlsson – 4 GP, 2 GP (playoffs)
  • Akito Hirose – 3 GP
  • Cole McWard – 1 GP
In light of Rutherford’s comments, who could he be referring to in his “four or five” assessment?

Identifying Rutherford’s four or five

First up, and probably the most necessary, is Vasily Podkolzin. At 22 years old, and with 137 NHL games already under his belt, it’s time for the Russian forward to command a permanent spot.
Simply put, Abbotsford should be off the table.
With the current sample size as proof of concept, there’s a strong likelihood that his upside never reaches that of a 25-plus goalscorer at the NHL level. And that’s okay.
Given his solid frame and a game built on determination, there is a role, and a big need, for Podkolzin to live up to his potential as a power forward somewhere among this lineup. With the potential loss of Dakota Joshua this summer, could they find bits and pieces from their 2019 first-rounder?
At his best, Podkolzin can play “Tocchet” hockey, and it’s now just a matter of honing in and realizing that potential as a full-time Vancouver Canuck.
Arshdeep Bains feels like an easy bet to push for a spot in the lineup this fall.
In his second year pro, the local Surrey native took incredible strides last season. Finishing with the AHL’s eighth-highest assist total (39), he was a prominent fixture in all situations for Abbotsford and a go-to driver for a team that tied for the sixth-highest goals-for in the league.
While his skills didn’t fully translate during his eight-game NHL stint, there were certainly moments. With a taste of the size and speed at the highest level, Bains now has the tools to attack his summer regiment with first-hand knowledge. We’ve seen what he can do at the AHL level, and there is a good chance he’s given all the runway to show he can match that and push for a middle-six spot on the big roster in September.
Linus Karlsson, who recently re-signed to a one-year extension, isn’t a flashy addition to the team’s bottom six but should be given the chance to compete for a fourth-line role. He did sneak into two playoff games, so there’s an interest in the game that he brings. If he can work on his feet to match his intensity and strong board play, there’s certainly value down the lineup.
Max Sasson represents the lone player within this group who hasn’t seen the NHL ice surface in a game situation. But it’s probably overdue.
Sasson was a top producer in 5v5 situations down in Abbotsford, notching over 70 percent of his 42 points at even strength (30 points). Those 42 points also finished tenth-highest among AHL rookies.
His ability to play with pace and get involved in puck battles makes him an exciting player and one that is sure to catch the eye of Rick Tocchet. Camp will be the perfect time for him to showcase his growth and flex his now professional-tested muscles.
With the Canucks pushing for a higher position in the playoff picture, it’s no surprise that Sasson wasn’t given a shot at the tail end of the 2023-24 campaign. But right out of camp may be the best time to give him his limelight and his first audition to get a feel for the size and pace of the next level.
Cole McWard might not be the flashiest player, but he’s one of the most well-rounded options on the Canucks’ defensive depth chart. He’s a right-shot option, to boot. He won’t put up huge offensive numbers, but he’s reliable in his own end and moves the puck well. His ability to kill penalties and his sound positioning give him the edge to be put in a position to play depth defence for the 2024-25 campaign.
Of course, there’s Artūrs Šilovs, who stole the show this spring and virtually planted himself as next year’s NHL backup option. Given his performance, there’s a good chance that he was not one of the players Jim Rutherford had in mind during his comments. Rather, a near lock to play games.
While those are the top names most likely to push for spots, there are a handful of additional names who could garner interest.
Aatu Räty is close but could benefit from more AHL seasoning. Jett Woo has made significant strides over the past two seasons and, with his added physical edge, seems poised for an NHL look soon. Tristen Nielsen, with his blend of skill and tenacity, might also get a shot in a Vancouver uniform at some point.
As an add-on to his initial answer, Rutherford also mentioned the club’s top prospect, Jonathan Lekkerimäki.
“We have Lekkerimäki coming, which based on his year this year (in Sweden and the AHL), if he comes in and has a good camp, he’ll make a case to be on the team right away.”
Could Rutherford simply be trying to light a fire under him? Who knows.
There is no question that all eyes will be on Lekkerimäki this fall. However, there are questions about whether his playing NHL games out of the gate is the right option. After all, fast-tracking hasn’t been kind to the Canucks in recent memory.
With that said, it’s exciting to hear such high praise.
Given his development needs, it’s a far more likely scenario to see Lekkerimäki start in the AHL. There, he can gain confidence as a top-six presence, shoot the puck and hopefully score some goals in preparation for a fruitful NHL future.
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