To say that the past year has been a whirlwind for the Vancouver Canucks’ AHL franchise would be a massive understatement.
The Utica Comets went through some of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the AHL, they iced a split-squad with the addition of players from the St. Louis Blues organization, and now, the AHL organization has relocated their operations to Abbotsford.
Building this AHL organization from the ground up will require many in the front office to postpone their offseason vacations and buckle up for some work to turn the Abbotsford team into the best AHL organization possible.
The man making most of the important decisions will be Ryan Johnson, Abbotsford GM and Director of Player Development for the Canucks. Johnson has been hard at work since the season ended with preparation for building an AHL team while also keeping up with the overseas prospects as he fills his duties as the Director of Player Development.
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“Obviously the draft is coming up and we’ve already been deep into free agency preparation,” said Johnson. “I think once we get through the draft and free agency, maybe we can get to take a deep breath a little bit before we kind of ramp back up to things in September. That’s exciting, I love when there is lots of good stuff going on.”
The overall feel of the Canucks organization is a very positive one when it comes to the relocation of the AHL franchise.
As it should be.
Bringing AHL hockey to British Columbia is a slam dunk for the province and it will make roster movement much easier for the Canucks when injuries or hot and cold streaks arise.
“It’s exciting and it gives us so much more flexibility as an organization,” said Johnson. “The outreach we’ve heard from players or agents and Western Canadian kids that would love to be a part of it are in all different stages of their careers. Just in the short time as things have been slowly coming together the buzz for the Abbotsford team is growing and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
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One of the immediate talking points around the Abbotsford AHL team is going to be head coach Trent Cull.
Cull has been the coach of the Utica Comets for the past four seasons and is quite the character and consistently has fun with the media. That fun side of Cull will show early on as the coverage of the AHL team is going to shift into the fast lane with many bloggers and aspiring journalists getting an opportunity to cover this AHL team.
There has never been any doubt from Cull about coming to Abbotsford to coach the AHL team and that’s exactly how Johnson wanted it to be.
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“Trent has done a phenomenal job with the club,” said Johnson. “There was a stat, in the last three years, 15 players made their debuts with the Canucks and a lot of them were from Utica, it’s a phenomenal number. Our group takes a lot of pride in the culture and the environment that we create, which allows players to get better. People have to understand that we’ve been very fortunate with [Brock] Boeser, [Elias] Pettersson, [Quinn] Hughes and these guys that skip that process. That’s a great thing, but some of them have to go through the process and we saw some guys have been humbled early in their careers in the American League but have come a long way. That’s the trend and the staff there have done a phenomenal job with prospects. Trent does a great job of wasting no moment in allowing these players an opportunity to get better.”
One of the topics that Johnson mentioned time and time again in our conversation was the added organizational support for the AHL team now that they are relocated to Abbotsford.
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“Something that Jim [Benning] and I are excited about is that there’ll be some more eyes on the organization,” said Johnson. “In regards to being able to come and sit and watch practice, to walk through the hallways, and see the eyes of the players. That has been communication on my behalf. I’m an in-your-face type of GM in the sense of I’m often in the locker room because I want to see the whites of my players’ eyes. I want them to know that I’ve got an open door, where they’re free to speak their mind and so am I.”
This type of connection between the NHL and AHL organization will only help the Canucks understand what they have in their prospects. When a player is getting hot in the AHL, Canucks management can now see what they are doing in practice, have lunch with them away from the rink, and be able to get a better understanding of the person instead of just the player.
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Johnson is excited about the proximity of the Canucks’ strength and conditioning staff, the medical staff and any other off-ice amenities that come with being so close to Vancouver.
Ian Clark is going to be able to meet with Mikey DiPietro and Arturs Silovs whenever he pleases, Daniel and Henrik Sedin can now give power play advice to Carson Focht or Will Lockwood and Jim Benning can be around the rink to see what the prospects need from the big club to improve even more.
All in all, the movement to Abbotsford was called a “slam dunk” from Johnson and he was so happy to hear when the relocation was completed.
As mentioned earlier in this article, Johnson is not just the AHL General Manager, he is also the Director of Player Development and that role is a spot that he loves to be a part of because of the full circle that comes from pulling double duty on those two jobs.
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“As for the players that have come through the draft, from the second they’re drafted, I’m often their first conversation. I spend a lot of time with the junior players, college players or overseas guys. I’ve always found that was a key part of the process. When they step into the pro game, I’m somebody they have an existing relationship with but that doesn’t mean we always have easy or soft conversations. They know I’m a supporter but they know that I’m an honest person when it comes to having tough conversations. They also know right from day one what the expectation is they know what the environment is going to look like. I want to give them the opportunity to apply themselves every day and know that they have resources so that they can get to exactly where they need to be.”
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As you can probably tell from the majority of my articles, I’ve spoken to a lot of prospects and one name who always comes up in these conversations is Ryan Johnson. He’s in constant communication with almost all of the prospects and having him as the AHL GM makes so much sense as his goal is to get these draft picks to come over to North American pro hockey and make a difference in the Canucks organization.
Johnson’s double duties come with an interesting twist as he has two goals for himself. He wants to get draft picks into the AHL to play pro hockey in North America and then he wants to get them out of there and into the NHL.
“The players understand that I have one job, get them out of there,” said Johnson. “When they elevate, that’s when I’ve done my job. When players aren’t going anywhere, I’m not doing my job and I think the players understand that there’s an empathetic side to that, and for me that’s okay and that’s why I want them to look up in the stands and see me sitting there, I want them to see me every day so that they know it’s a two-way street. You’ll always see me around, that means a lot to me and making sure I’m consistent with that.”
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The AHL team is all about preparing prospects for the next level while also setting a culture. That culture is being laid out by Johnson and it trickles through the club with his commitment to excellence and wanting to put everyone in the best position to succeed.
This is where Daniel and Henrik Sedin come into play.
The twins are the perfect two guys to come in and help establish a winning culture.
Daniel and Henrik both spoke about wanting nothing more than this organization to be hoisting a Stanley Cup one day in the future. The Sedins’ roles will feature a lot of time being spent with the AHL team and Johnson loves the addition.
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“We have had some great conversations with Daniel and Henrik on what my expectations are,” said Johnson. “What was important to me was to give them a handle already just on the staff that is here, where they’ve come from, how they’ve ended up here, what they’re good at, to try to give them a framework of what that looks like. With Danny and Hank, I’ve tried to tell them about all the prospects in the system. I want them to know a lot about them out of the gate. Having them as resources is a home run. They are wanting to come in and watch practice or be around and support the coaching staff, or give us ideas that they’re having. From a development side or from the general manager side, I think one of my biggest duties, is making sure I have all the resources in place. So whether it’s skating coaches, skills coaches, mental performance coaches, and now to have two of the greatest Canucks to ever put on the jersey as a resource for our group. What else can I ask for? I’m looking forward to it, they’re excited, it’s gonna be a lot of fun. They’re great friends of mine. I’ve been in the trenches with the two of them and they are spectacular minds — that goes for not just as players, but as people as well.”
The Sedins will be learning from Johnson in a similar way to how Johnson learned from Laurence Gilman and Mike Gillis. Gillis brought in Johnson just a year before Gillis was let go by the Canucks. Gillis appreciated Johnson’s eagerness to be in on every single meeting and how Johnson wanted to learn every part of the front office.
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Another big help for Johnson’s development in the front office has been Stan Smyl. He was Smyl’s right-hand man early on and the pair are great friends who happen to be co-workers.
Now, Johnson is putting a pandemic season behind him and looking forward to what the Abbotsford AHL team can accomplish for the Canucks organization next season.
One spot where Johnson is extremely confident in his club is between the pipes.
Mikey DiPietro and Arturs Silovs will be patrolling the crease and after what both goalies went through last season, the vibe of the year will be vastly different from their combined 13 games in 2020-21.
When it comes to the star of Abbotsford, it’s very likely that it will be DiPietro. Johnson is confident that DiPietro will play a large majority of the games next season with Silovs breaking into North American pro hockey as a fresh 20-year-old.
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“Mikey loves a lot of action and he doesn’t love rest. He’s probably going to be a 50-plus start guy, especially with it now in a Pacific where we’re 68 games, not 76. We will come in on a Saturday morning and Mikey is the first one at the gates after a Friday night game and he is smiling and giving you that look of like ‘hey, I’m going right?!?’ I love it. So that’s why 50-plus starts doesn’t scare me, because Mikey thrives the more he goes.”
With the close proximity of the AHL team, this coming season looks to be very different when it comes to roster movement. Johnson spoke about how roster movement will be a night and day difference. We spoke about players like Kole Lind, Jonah Gadjovich, Will Lockwood, Jett Woo and a few others who didn’t graduate to the NHL last season and Johnson believes with the better communication and ability to call a player up that day and play that night will give these players a better chance to find roles in the NHL.
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“We’re going to have a very competitive training camp. There are a lot of guys in situations that are either NHL-ready or very close to it, and that’s a good problem to have. That’s what Jim [Benning] and I are talking about through free agency. We want to create a competitive environment for those players that maybe don’t earn a job right out of training camp. Our proximity now allows more of an opportunity to reward those types of players. Cross country and the full day of flying and you have less ability to change guys out. We’re going to be holding guys in Vancouver more accountable than knowing that if a guy’s had a heck of a two-week run in the AHL, we can easily swap things out if we need to solve a problem. I think it’s gonna be good. Knowing that down the road there are players knocking on the door makes us a better organization, whether it’s small injuries, hot streaks or slumps, we need those (AHL-NHL) types of players to come in to keep us competitive and help make us a playoff team in Vancouver.”
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We finished the conversation talking about the difference in interest from Utica to Abbotsford. Johnson is “astonished” by the interest from players and agents now that the AHL team is in Abbotsford. “Agents and players are telling me, I want to be there. How do I become a part of this?” said Johnson. He went on to say that players signed with Vancouver to play with Vancouver but then if they are sent down, they are moved across the country and that’s a tough spot to be for a borderline NHL player. Look no further than Justin Bailey, Nikolay Goldobin or Sven Baertschi for examples of that.
The AHL team is set up to be much more successful in adding NHL-calibre players and that was a theme throughout our conversation. All RJ wants is for the team to have all the necessary assets and amenities to give the players their best chance to get to the NHL.
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His double duties as GM and Director of Player Development give him a huge say in what happens to the Canucks’ prospects.
Johnson is the perfect man for the job and he will continue to grow in this organization. He learned a ton after a pandemic season and is now primed to make this Abbotsford AHL team a stronger pipeline for the Canucks to pluck players from.
And no, he wouldn’t tell me what the Abbotsford team would be called and he didn’t tell me the colour scheme.
Trust me, I tried.