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Canucks’ prospect development in the AHL is a major issue that has to be addressed

The Abbotsford Canucks are out of the AHL playoffs after just two games but that's not the biggest concern with Vancouver's AHL affiliate.
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Zack MacEwen has been held up as a success story for the Vancouver Canucks' prospect development in the AHL.

The Abbotsford Canucks’ playoff run lasted a little bit longer than 24 hours. 

The Canucks’ best-of-three series against the Bakersfield Condors kicked off with games on back-to-back nights. They lost both of them. That’s it. It’s over.

Both were heart-breaking one-goal losses, with late goals in the third period either tying — Game 1 — or winning — Game 2 — the game for the Condors. And that means the Canucks won’t be hosting any playoff games in Abbotsford this year.

That’s tremendously disappointing but it’s far from the biggest issue with the Abbotsford Canucks.

Prospect development should be the bigger concern

Sure, we could question all sorts of decisions made by Abbotsford head coach Trent Cull in those two playoff games. Why were Sheldon Dries and Sheldon Rempal, who were two of the top scorers in the AHL while playing on a line together, split up for the playoffs? Why didn’t Cull change the line combinations after getting out-shot 47-to-31 in Game 1?

Why did Jack Rathbone, the Canucks’ top prospect and one of the highest-scoring defencemen in the AHL this season, play significantly less than Devante Stephens and Madison Bowey?

Those are questions that deserve an answer but the big picture questions for Abbotsford are all about prospect development.

The Canucks have had issues with developing prospects in the AHL for years now, the majority of them with the Utica Comets, whose first season was in 2013-14. Over the past eight years, they haven’t developed a single skater that stuck with the Canucks in the NHL.

For a sign of the problem, you just have to look at the current Canucks roster. Apart from a couple of players called up for brief stints, the only player on the Canucks’ roster this season that actually developed on their AHL team is Thatcher Demko. 

Honestly, goaltender development should be considered an entirely separate entity from skater development. Kudos to Ian Clark and Abbotsford goaltending coach Curtis Sanford, but Demko’s success — and the promising development of Spencer Martin — should hardly be seen as a reflection of the Canucks’ AHL development.

"I'm very impressed with Ryan Johnson."

Still, the AHL team — both general manager Ryan Johnson and head coach Cull — received a vote of confidence from the Canucks’ management team of Jim Rutherford and Patrik Allvin.

“I’m very impressed with Ryan Johnson and the work he’s done this year with Abbotsford, stepping up with the changes here,” said Allvin. “I rely a lot on RJ, we’ve got a great relationship, he’s a big part of the management staff. Moving forward, him and I are talking and I'm sure we’re going to figure out what the best role and position would be for him here…He’s doing a tremendous job with Abbotsford.”

“I have been down in Abbotsford, I would say five or six games,” added Allvin. “The excitement there, a great fanbase. I think the players have played really hard. I think the coaching staff have done a really good job.” 

Rutherford has high hopes for the Abbotsford Canucks.

“This could be the best franchise in the American Hockey League over time,” he said. “When Francesco first came and talked to me, that was a priority…the importance of having that 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 as good, but make it better and better and make sure you have good players there, so we have a good team every year. It’s very important to the franchise.”

The primary job of a team’s AHL affiliate, of course, is to develop players for the NHL. That’s something Rutherford is very familiar with. During his tenure as GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins, they saw a steady stream of talented players work their way up from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins to play a key role with the big club.

Development derailed for Jett Woo

The AHL playoffs, in particular, were seen as key for that development.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for all those young players to get the experience of playing in playoffs, playing important hockey in May,” said Allvin.

It’s too bad they didn’t last. 

Of course, if playoff hockey is so essential for prospect development, why was Danila Klimovich — arguably the Canucks’ best forward prospect — a scratch for both games?

Moreover, why was Klimovich scratched in favour of dressing Jett Woo — drafted in the second round as a defenceman — as a bottom-six forward?

Woo’s development has taken a hard left turn in the AHL. The hard-hitting Woo was the Canucks’ top prospect at right defence not that long ago, tallying 66 points in 62 games in his first post-draft season in the WHL. While his production dropped off a bit the following season, it fell off a cliff in his first year with the Utica Comets.

In this past season in Abbotsford, Woo essentially stopped developing as a defenceman. Instead, he spent the bulk of the back half of the season playing as a depth forward with limited ice time.

Any hopes that Woo might be part of the Canucks’ blue line in the future seem completely dashed at this point. 

Who have the Canucks developed in the AHL?

Sometimes that happens with prospects. Not every draft pick develops the way you would expect. The problem is that this seems to be a pattern with the Canucks’ AHL affiliate — they can’t seem to develop NHL players, particularly not any top-tier talent. 

Zack MacEwen has been cited multiple times as a sign of how the Canucks have developed players and, to his credit, he found a home with the Philadelphia Flyers this past season, even winning a team award — the Gene Hart Award for “showing the most heart.”

But when your big development win is a guy playing less than 10 minutes per game on one of the worst teams in the NHL, there might be something wrong. 

Likewise, Jonah Gadjovich found his way into the San Jose Sharks lineup, but played just 43 games and averaged 8:45 in ice time, tallying three points.

Kole Lind got into 23 games for the Seattle Kraken, averaging under 12 minutes per game, after spending significant time in the AHL with the Charlotte Checkers.

The lone other Canucks prospect you could argue developed in the AHL is Jake Virtanen and the less said about him, the better. Suffice it to say, Virtanen was already on his way out of the NHL before he bolted to the KHL for other reasons.

Then there’s Olli Juolevi, who was a frequent healthy scratch for the Florida Panthers after he was traded to Sunrise, playing only 10 games before getting waived and claimed by the Detroit Red Wings, with whom he’s played just 8 games and has also been a frequent healthy scratch.

Players that actually stuck in the NHL barely had a cup of coffee with the Comets.

Adam Gaudette played a total of 16 games in Utica, split up over several stints. Sven Baertschi played 15 regular season games, then 21 in the playoffs, but that was after he’d already played three seasons in the AHL with various Calgary Flames’ affiliates, so you’d be hard-pressed to argue he did much developing with the Comets.

Troy Stecher and Ben Hutton spent four games each with the Comets. And Bo Horvat spent five games with the Comets on a conditioning stint in his rookie season.

That’s about it. 

Certainly, the Canucks top prospects — Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes, Vasily Podkolzin, and Nils Höglander — skipped right over the AHL, but that’s the case for a lot of teams. The Canucks simply haven’t done enough to develop other prospects to support them.

Plenty of prospects have passed through the Canucks’ farm team and had their development stall or plateau short of the NHL. Hunter Shinkaruk, Jordan Subban, Nicklas Jensen, Lukas Jasek, Alexandre Grenier, Ronalds Kenins, Brogan Rafferty, and Jalen Chatfield are a few names that come to mind. 

Maybe they just weren’t good enough prospects and the Canucks developed them as far as they could but when the track record is so poor, it’s hard to accept that none of them could have become NHL players.

The troubling tales of Palmu and Dahlen

Meanwhile, you can look back at prospects like Petrus Palmu and Jonathan Dahlen, promising prospects who grew disenfranchised with the Canucks’ development plan and publicly parted ways with the team. 

Palmu was a frequent healthy scratch and complained about a complete lack of communication, saying, “Nobody really talked to me.” 

This was a player with a deep desire to play in North America, who came across the Atlantic Ocean to play in the OHL for three seasons before he got drafted. His experience in Utica was apparently so bad that he’s stayed in Finland ever since, not attempting a return to the NHL despite being one of the Finnish Liiga’s leading scorers. 

Again, perhaps Palmu never would have made the NHL anyway. But losing a prospect — particularly after he had a strong NHL preseason — seems like a red flag. Cull, head coach of the Comets as well as the Abbotsford Canucks, chose to play AHL veterans like Cam Darcy, Carter Bancks, and Brendan Woods ahead of prospects like Palmu, Lind, and Gadjovich.

Dahlen reportedly demanded a trade — something that Dahlen always denied — after putting up 29 points in 50 games with the Comets in the 2018-19 season. 

When asked what went wrong in Utica, Dahlen notably praised his teammates, saying, “Great captains and vets and everything. Had a Grade-A experience with the team there.” He notably left out the coaching staff. 

“We had a little stuff down there in Utica where I really wanted to feel good about myself and have confidence in my game and play well,” said Dahlen after he joined the San Jose Barracuda in the Sharks’ system after he was traded. “I don’t want to say anything bad about anybody, but I didn’t feel too good about my hockey game there.

“To be honest, I just want to put it behind me, and I’m really excited to work with the great coaching staff here who have already made me feel a lot better about myself. I’m really ready to get going here and work hard and just be happy and love to play hockey.”

Dahlen then went back to Sweden for two seasons with the blessing of the Sharks organization and returned to the NHL this past season, putting up 12 goals and 22 points in 61 games. 

Some might question bringing up Palmu and Dahlen — they're old news — but the same head coach and general manager are still in place.

There are two sides to all of this, of course. Maybe it really was Dahlen’s fault that things went awry with the Canucks organization, just like it might have been the fault of the dozen or so other prospects that came into Utica and fell short of becoming NHL players. It’s the overall pattern that gets concerning.

Rutherford's Penguins excelled at AHL development

If Rutherford really wants the Abbotsford Canucks to be the best franchise in the AHL, they need to start developing talent. It’s not just about drafting — some of the biggest success stories from the Penguins’ AHL team under Rutherford were not high draft picks but they were effectively developed in the AHL.

Jake Guentzel was a third-round pick. He played 54 games across parts of two seasons with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the AHL and is now one of the Penguins’ stars, with two 40-goal seasons.

Bryan Rust was also a third-round pick. He played a total of 67 games in the AHL but is now a legitimate top-six forward with the Penguins, putting up 24 goals and 58 points in 60 games this past season.

Teddy Blueger was a late second-round pick and spent 197 games in the AHL before becoming a steady contributor in the NHL as a two-way shutdown centre. 

Conor Sheary was undrafted and initially joined the Penguins organization on an AHL deal before signing an entry-level contract with Pittsburgh after his first AHL season. Sheary played 113 games with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before getting the call up to Pittsburgh and winning two Stanley Cups. He hit a career-high of 23 goals and 53 points in just 61 games in the 2016-17 season.

Zach Aston-Reese was likewise undrafted and played 62 games in the AHL before becoming an analytics darling as a bottom-six defensive forward with the Penguins.

Then there’s Matt Murray but goaltenders are, of course, different. 

Those are some of the highlights, but the Penguins also got something out of guys like Scott Wilson, Tom Kuhnhackl, and Chad Ruhwedel. 

“I think that’s the key in today’s game,” said Allvin in reference to AHL development in his first media availability. “I think that’s something we want to emphasize on moving forward here in order to be successful.”

“One year in Pittsburgh, I think we ended up with five or six players that started the season in Wilkes-Barre ended up with their names on the Stanley Cup,” he added.

Could Rathbone and Lockwood be the start of a turnaround?

If that’s the goal, does Allvin need to take a cold, hard look at the Canucks’ lack of development in the AHL and make some changes? Is Cull the right coach to develop young talent given his track record? Is Johnson the right GM?

Given the comments of Rutherford and Allvin, it certainly seems like they have faith in Johnson and Cull. If so, have they made changes to how they will develop prospects in the future? How can fans have confidence that the Canucks' AHL development will improve?

The Canucks can certainly hope that Jack Rathbone and Will Lockwood can buck the development trend. Both spent some key development time in the NCAA, but the last couple of years have been largely spent in the AHL with the Comets and Abbotsford Canucks.

Rathbone’s offence certainly looks NHL ready, though he’s had some struggles in the defensive zone when he’s been up with Vancouver. Lockwood looks like he might have a future as a bottom-six energy forward thanks to his speed and willingness to play the body. Maybe, after eight years, the Canucks might finally graduate a couple of prospects to the NHL.