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Canucks prospect Danila Klimovich scores in back-to-back games to kick off AHL season

The Canucks' top pick in the 2021 Entry Draft was supposed to play in the QMJHL this season.
Danila Klimovich skates at the 2021 Vancouver Canucks rookie camp.

Danila Klimovich wasn’t supposed to play in the AHL this season. Now, after two goals in his first two games, it seems like he’ll spend the entire season with the Abbotsford Canucks —  assuming he doesn’t get called up to Vancouver.

Oh sure, the AHL was an option. As a player drafted out of Europe, Klimovich doesn’t have to abide by the CHL transfer agreement, which requires that all draft picks under the age of 20 have to be loaned back to their major junior team if they don’t make an NHL roster. That transfer agreement prevents 18 and 19 year olds from playing in the AHL if they’re drafted from the CHL.

So, the options were wide open for Klimovich. He could have started the season with one of four different teams: HC Dinamo Minsk in the KHL, which would have kept him at home in Belarus; the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, who selected Klimovich in the 2020 CHL Import Draft; the Abbotsford Canucks in the AHL; and there was the extremely remote possibility of making the NHL out of training camp.

“We’ll see where he’s at when he comes to training camp,” said Canucks GM Jim Benning during the summer. “We’ve talked to his coach over in Minsk, Belarus, and he said that he’s going to be a top-six forward for him playing in the KHL, so that’s an option for us. Or he’s been drafted to Rouyn in the Quebec league and that’s an option for us, so we’ll see where he’s at, we’ll continue to talk about it, and we’ll try to figure out where the best place for him to play in his development this year.”

Benning didn’t even mention the possibility of the AHL for Klimovich and said his most likely destination was the QMJHL.   

Klimovich came to camp with a purpose, however, and made an immediate impression with the Canucks coaching staff. Head coach Travis Green, who parcels out his praise in small doses, quickly volunteered Klimovich as a player that had surprised him.

“Our young draft pick from last year, second-rounder, Klimovich has looked good,” said Green. “He's a big kid, skates well.”

Klimovich thrived at training camp, though a minor injury limited him to just one preseason game. It was enough for the Canucks to send him to Abbotsford when he was cut,  instead of sending him directly to Rouyn-Noranda.

“We'll see how it goes down there for him but for a young kid, I thought he had a pretty good camp,” said Green. “It's not always that you see a younger kid like that go down to the AHL but just out of what I've seen so far, I think he has a chance to play there this year and hopefully that fast-tracks him.”

Through the Abbotsford Canucks’ first two games of the regular season, Klimovich definitely looks like he’s on the fast track. After recording the first shot on goal in Abbotsford Canucks’ history in the first period, Klimovich followed it up with his first AHL goal in the second period.

The goal came off the forecheck, with veteran AHL centre John Stevens creating a turnover. The excellently-named Jarid Lukosevicius tried to turn that into a shot on goal but lost the handle. Fortunately, the puck slid across to Klimovich, who was in the right spot at the right time to elevate the puck over goaltender Stuart Skinner.

That was a nice finish in tight but Klimovich’s second goal, which came in Abbotsford’s second game, was even better. It also happened to be the first power play goal in Abbotsford Canucks’ history.

That’s a mature, intelligent attack on the power play by Klimovich. He curls up high, bringing a penalty killer with him, then attacks downhill on the right side, shooting midstride and going just inside the far post. There’s a reason why his shot was considered one of his best attributes by scouts. It’s heavy and accurate.

Beyond the goals, Klimovich looked confident with the puck on his stick. This sequence in the second period of Abbotsford’s second game is an excellent example. 

(Video via Cody Severtson of AHL Nucks Harvest)

Not only does Klimovich pull off an excellent drag move around a defender at the top of the zone to evade a stick check but he also pounces on his own rebound and had the chutzpah to go in-between his legs for a shot that went just wide of the far post.

Abbotsford general manager Ryan Johnson gave his thoughts on why the 18-year-old Klimovich has thrived early in the AHL during an appearance on the Halford & Brough show on Sportsnet 650.  

“He’s a big kid. He’s mature in his physical attributes,” said Johnson. “He’s eager, he wants to learn, he wants to do well. We’ve had John Stevens, who is a great professional, a great person, room with him on the road to help him out and to guide him and get him involved with teammates and make him feel comfortable and part of the group. He’s been excellent to work with.

“Imagine, an 18-year-old in this situation, just been drafted, coming to North America, language challenge, food is different — everything — and he’s just jumped right in with two feet.”

That’s not to say that everything has been perfect for Klimovich. The biggest criticism of his game — and what allowed him to slide to the second round of the draft where the Canucks picked him — is that he’s very raw and unrefined. For Johnson, there are some clear areas where Klimovich needs improvement.

“For Danila right now, it’s puck management, it’s getting his feet moving,” said Johnson. “Making sure that you’re making smart decisions, whether it’s within five feet of our own blue line or five feet of the attacking blue line. It’s the back pressure, the pace, the physicality, it’s different, and you make it hard on yourself when you don’t move your feet.

“That’s one of the biggest things we’re talking with him right now, is management, his defensive zone awareness, and getting his feet moving and giving himself a chance to play down in the offensive zone, below the tops of the circles. That’s where he can really change the course of a game with his puck protection, his ability to shoot the puck, and make plays, and that’s what we’ve seen on the power play in the first couple of games. We just want to make sure we give him the opportunity to do that 5-on-5 as well.”

You can see an example of what Johnson is talking about in this play against the Bakersfield Condors. Along the wall, Klimovich stopped moving his feet as he picked up a loose puck, so when he loses the puck, he’s at a standstill and can’t get to it, coughing it up at his own blue line. The turnover forced an excellent save by Mikey DiPietro.

It’s important to keep in mind that Klimovich is still so young and has a lot to learn. He clearly has the offensive tools to thrive in the AHL: the next step is to learn to play a better two-way game that can give him more opportunities to use his offensive tools.

That’s a challenge because of the language barrier but the Canucks are doing their best with the tools available to them.

“I use a Google translator to talk with him, to text with him,” said Johnson, “and had Trent Cull with the monitor in his coach’s room use that to be able to communicate on a daily basis with Danila. It's worked out great.”

If Klimovich keeps scoring, it’s going to be impossible to send him down to the QMJHL. It will already be difficult, as the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies already have two import players on their roster.

CHL teams are allowed just two import players. With Klimovich up with the Canucks, the Huskies have two other imports in the lineup: Jakub Hujer and Daniil Bourosh. The two imports are among their leading scorers early in the season.

The Huskies also hold Klimovich’s CHL rights after the 2020 Import Draft. If the Canucks do decided that Klimovich’s development would be better served in junior, the Huskies would need to move one of Hujer or Bourosh or trade Klimovich’s rights to another QMJHL team. 

Of course, at this rate it doesn’t look like that’s going to matter: Klimovich is on the Canucks to stay.