Since the Abbotsford Canucks’ early playoff exit thanks to losing two straight games to the Bakersfield Condors, many people have wondered, “why has the AHL affiliate failed to produce any skaters over the last ten seasons?”
In a radio interview with Sportsnet 650’s Halford & Brough on Wednesday morning, Trent Cull answered.
However, I don’t think anyone expected the bombshell of an answer Cull provided off the hop.
For twenty-one minutes, Abbotsford Canucks head coach Trent Cull deflected the criticisms of his and GM Ryan Johnson’s player development track record by essentially throwing the old regime under the bus.
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For those that haven’t listened to the interview, Jason Brough prompted the discussion of a proper development philosophy by asking Cull, “What is the key to developing young players? Because I don’t know the reason, maybe it’s not enough draft picks that have been delivered to the AHL team, not enough picks, or some of those players have graduated directly to the NHL, or they were the wrong picks? But the list of players that have gone from the AHL and spent some time there with the Canucks AHL team and gone on to the NHL is pretty limited. I know that a lot of Canucks fans want that to change because they look at what successful teams do, whether they’re in Tampa Bay or in Pittsburgh, where all of a sudden they see this new guy in the Pittsburgh lineup — and see that this guy has spent a number of years in the AHL and now he’s contributing, so what is the key to doing that?”
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Cull leaned on his experience with the Syracuse Crunch, where he was an assistant coach running the team’s defence from 2013 to 2017. “There’s got to be some patience, too. I’ve been in that Tampa organization. I’ve worked there. Unless those guys are utter superstars, everybody spends time in Syracuse, New York, before they get to Tampa. So that would be a bit of a difference right there.”
Cull then uncorked a doozy on Canucks nation with a full-on critique of the previous regime’s prioritization of NHL results over a patient player-development approach. There’s a lot to unpack, so we’ll break it into segments!
“A great example would be someone like Adam Gaudette. Like, why wouldn’t he have spent two years with us so we can groom him and get him better hopefully? The goal is to get a more well-rounded finished product before he’s out of his entry-level contract to Vancouver. As opposed to something that’s maybe rushed and is not as finished of a product.”
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I mean, wow! A coach rarely comes into a 7:30 AM interview with an example of a failed development path lined up for the hosts. Adam Gaudette played fifty-six games for the Vancouver Canucks in 2018-19 in a heavily sheltered role. He started 72% of his shifts in the offensive zone and ended his season with the nineteenth-worst expected goals-for percentage among 700 skaters with 200+ minutes of 5v5 ice time. After the 2019-20 training camp, Gaudette impressed the team and the fanbase with four points in four pre-season games. Gaudette’s strong performance strongly influenced Sven Baertschi’s demotion to Utica alongside Nikolay Goldobin.
Gaudette would have benefitted from an entire season of development in the AHL during the 2018-19 season. Had the organization procured better forward depth, Gaudette could have spent the whole year as Utica’s 2nd line center alongside Jonathan Dahlen and Zack MacEwen instead of getting crushed against NHL competition.
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While he knocked down the door during the 2019-20 season to earn his spot, another season as a premiere #1 center in the AHL would not have hurt him either. After the Canucks’ 2019-20 season, the big question was whether Gaudette had the defensive chops to cement himself as an NHL third-line center. To put it simply, Travis Green did not have the incentives or the contract to warrant the time spent developing Gaudette into an NHL penalty killer in a lame-duck season.
Unlike years past, plenty of young guns earned penalty-killing reps under Trent Cull this year in Abbotsford, with Chase Wouters, Tristen Nielsen, Carson Focht, Jett Woo, Jack Rathbone, and Alex Kannok Leipert all featuring on the PK rotation at some point during the season. Would Adam Gaudette’s time with the Canucks have ended differently had he spent two seasons as the guy in Utica playing in all situations? Possibly!
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Trent Cull isn’t the only person related to the Canucks to believe that a long-term patient approach with prospects is for the best. Jannik Hansen was on Sportsnet 650 earlier this year talking about how Nils Höglander should have been in the minors instead of immediately being thrown into the NHL to work out his game.
Höglander, like Gaudette, was head and shoulders above his peers during training camp and quickly earned a roster spot over a very unimpressive forward contingent. If the organization had maintained a quality of depth as they had in Abbotsford this season, perhaps Höglander would have spent the last two seasons marinating in the AHL as a 1st line winger instead? Höglander’s struggles in his sophomore season resulted in his first healthy scratch and a significant dip in his production before an injury sidelined him for the remainder of the year.
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“As we all know, in the NHL, even though I believe development still needs to happen, it’s a results-driven league, and I understand that. But sometimes, we have to have a greater look. And I know from being inside one of those organizations that we have to be patient, and that’s one of the things that I see with the new regime coming in, that it’s about doing the right things. That’s the first sign in my five years that [Vasily] Podkolzin was sent down. As opposed to the last time we were in playoffs, [Darren] Archibald couldn’t go down on waivers because they were afraid of losing him. It’s a different mindset, and it’s the right one to have moving forward.”
In the back half of Cull’s perspective of the player development process, he indirectly (and kind of directly) sewers the past regime. For the second time in the interview, Cull came locked-and-loaded with another example of what he believed to be another process failure of the previous administrations regarding Darren Archibald staying in the NHL to avoid a waiver claim. Archibald would eventually be packaged in a deal to Ottawa in 2018-19, where the Canucks made room for Thatcher Demko’s arrival to the NHL. The Canucks traded Anders Nilsson with Archibald in exchange for Canucks legend Mike McKenna, Tom Pyatt, and a sixth-round pick.
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I understand Cull’s complaint about Podkolzin being the first young NHL player having his ELC utilized for AHL playoff conditioning. But, various circumstances over the past five seasons have prevented the organization from sending players like Podkolzin down for playoffs.
Brock Boeser finished his 2017-18 season with that infamous back injury on the open bench door. In 2018-19, the Utica Comets were so god awful that they weren’t even close to making playoffs, finishing 25th in the AHL. 2019-20 saw the cancellation of the AHL regular season and eventual Calder Cup Playoffs due to COVID, and 2020-21 was essentially a stay-fresh league, with all teams on the East Coast playing without the promise of any playoff format.
Vancouver Canucks AHL affiliate history 2012-present
The Vancouver Canucks’ AHL affiliate has a troubling history of disappointment. If it’s any consolation to Abbotsford Canucks fans, their recent two-and-out loss to the Bakersfield Condors was the AHL affiliate’s third first-round loss in their last ten seasons. The Canucks’ AHL affiliate has missed playoffs four times in ten seasons while losing out on two playoff runs due to pandemic-shortened seasons. Only once in the past decade has the Canucks’ affiliate gone past the opening round.
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The Canucks’ greatest AHL success of the last ten years came with the Utica Comets’ Calder Cup run that concluded with a 4-1 series loss to the Manchester Monarchs. Canucks fans would have to go back to the 2010-11 Manitoba Moose to find another playoff run past the opening round. While Cull’s criticism of the previous regime is bold, hilarious, and appreciated. The track record of the AHL team’s performance has been so underwhelming that there hasn’t been a reason for “Podkolzin to the AHL for playoffs” type maneuvers.
There are still many unresolved questions surrounding the AHL development program. Why have no European skaters thrived under Trent Cull’s tenure as head coach? Why was the team’s #1 defensive prospect only playing the third-most ice time during playoffs? Why did Arturs Silovs go two months between starts in the AHL?
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The Canucks’ AHLdevelopment record over the last ten seasons is bleak. Really bleak.
Vancouver Canucks AHL-developed players (post-2010-11 debuts)
The above list consists of every player who joined the Canucks’ AHL affiliate with less than ten games of AHL or NHL experience, played more than fifty games with the Farm, and eventually more than fifty games in the NHL with the Canucks. Of that list, two are goalies who fall under a completely different development path than skaters.
Brad Hunt qualifies technically, but he was released after his 79-game stint with the Chicago Wolves and found his NHL success elsewhere before rejoining the Canucks organization. This season, Brendan Gaunce returned to the list after dressing in thirty-one games for the Columbus Blue Jackets as a fourth-line forward. Outside of Gaunce, the only other forward with more than fifty NHL games played in the last ten seasons is Zack MacEwen, whom the Canucks lost on waivers for free to the Philadelphia Flyers at the start of this past season.
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Present Vancouver AHL TBDs
There are still plenty of TBDs currently in the Canucks AHL system that could turn into something for the organization down the road. However, the organization’s historically poor track record of producing skaters from the AHL negatively affects the current TBDs’ odds of making it.
While Trent Cull’s interview did not absolve him or Ryan Johnson of all criticism, Cull’s answers did provide critical insights into the frustration he and, likely to some extent, Ryan Johnson felt as leaders of the Canucks’ AHL development program. A program whose shortcomings and resource requirements had been heavily neglected and ignored by the previous management group.
Patrik Allvin and Jim Rutherford clearly have faith in the program that Johnson is trying to develop at the AHL level despite the poor track record. Despite their disappointing playoff exit, Johnson was emphatic in his support of Cull and his AHL coaching staff.
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The AHL affiliate was an afterthought under the previous regime. Allvin and Rutherford had demonstrable success with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to Pittsburgh pipeline. While smoke still emanates from the Canucks AHL affiliate and development program, with Allvin and Rutherford fully invested in developing a legitimate AHL program, it’s up to Ryan Johnson and Trent Cull to finally extinguish the fire or finally get consumed by it.