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Kole Lind and Jonah Gadjovich struggled as first-year pros, but Canucks hope that made them stronger

Canucks' 2017 2nd-round picks have a lot to prove in the AHL with the Utica Comets.
Kole Lind skates for the Vancouver Canucks in preseason action.
Kole Lind skates for the Vancouver Canucks in preseason action.

“Why isn’t anyone taking Kole Lind?”

That was the question Jim Benning asked to the rest of the Canucks draft table late in the first round at the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. While Lind wasn’t ranked in the first round by every draft ranking, a couple prominent ones had him in the top 25: International Scouting Services and Hockey Prospect.

Clearly the Canucks had Lind much higher on their own list, as evidenced by Benning’s disbelief that he was still available by the time the Canucks picked at 33rd overall in the second round. Benning’s memorable statement gave fans reason to believe that Lind could be a steal for the Canucks — a first-round talent that didn’t cost a first-round pick — and his post-draft season solidified that view. He put up a stunning 95 points despite missing a chunk of games and finished sixth in the WHL in points-per-game.

He wasn’t the Canucks only pick in the second round in 2017, however, and the team’s 55th selection in the draft also looked like a steal. Jonah Gadjovich had 46 goals in 60 games in his draft year and had the build and demeanour of a gritty power forward.

In his post-draft year, injuries prevented Gadjovich from taking a big step forward, but he still produced at better-than a point-per-game pace and was named to Team Canada for the 2018 World Junior Championship, winning a gold medal.

Gadjovich’s picture on his Elite Prospects profile perfectly encapsulates why so many Canucks fans were excited about the big winger: his jersey is splattered with blood and he’s bleeding profusely from his mouth, but there’s something approaching a grin on his face. This is a player that loves to battle, get to the dirty areas, fight, and win.

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Heading into the 2018-19 season, there was a buzz of excitement among Canucks fans about the team’s AHL affiliate, the Utica Comets. The team was expected to have an exciting assortment of high-end prospects: Olli Juolevi was the big one, but the addition of Lind and Gadjovich to the Comets roster had fans thrilled to see the Canucks developing a pair of prospects with top-six potential.

Unfortunately, the first professional seasons for Lind and Gadjovich didn’t go as planned.

Both had seasons marked by injuries, healthy scratches, and disappointing point totals. After 95 points in junior the season before, Lind managed just 17 points in 51 AHL games. Gadjovich struggled even more, with 10 points in 43 games. Along with the struggles and departures of a couple other prospects, it all seemed to be part of a trend with the Utica Comets.

“It was a big change for me,” said Lind at Canucks prospect camp this weekend. “It was a big eye opener.”

Ryan Johnson, the Canucks director of player development and GM of the Utica Comets, has repeatedly talked about the difficulty of going from junior to the AHL, emphasizing that it’s a better and more difficult league than people think.

“I had to adjust my game,” said Lind. “Getting quicker mentally and just making those plays a little quicker than what I'm used to playing from junior.”

Those adjustments came with time. Lind had a stronger January with 6 points in 10 games and ended the season with 6 points in his final 11 games.

“I think the way I ended the year was pretty good,” he said. “The last couple weekends, I started to score and put up some numbers. So try to carry that into this year.”

“I want Kole to have a little bit of arrogance to his game, a little bit of cockiness to his game, and it’s tough when they jump into the pro level,” said Johnson. “We have to support them and make sure we were kind of keeping them up and believing in themselves.”

For Gadjovich, the biggest challenge was no longer having the same physical advantage he once had in junior. Gadjovich has had size on his side for a long time and was able to use his strength in junior to win puck battles and drive to the net. In the AHL, he can no longer solely rely on that size.

“Everyone is my size or bigger,” said Gadjovich with a rueful smile. “I mean, you go from junior, and I was a big strong guy, and I'm still strong. It's just when you're playing against every guy who's basically your size, then you have to adjust your game and that was something that I was trying to figure out.”

The lifestyle changed for Gadjovich as well. He may look a lot older with his beard, but Gadjovich is still just 20 years old and going from playing with teenagers to playing with men was an adjustment.

“A lot of the guys on the team were married had kids, they were 30 plus years old,” he said. “So, that's a big change from playing with 16 year olds, where we're going to the movies and our billets are cooking dinner for us.”

Despite the struggles, Gadjovich had plenty of positive things to say about his first season in the AHL, from the extra work the coaching staff did with him while he was scratched to the impact a veteran like Jaime Sifers had on him. He felt the biggest positive, however, was that he never gave up.

“A positive I can take from it is that I stuck with it the whole way,” he said. “I think it would have been easy to turn away and try to find a different spot or do something like that, but I stuck with it, I put the time in.”

When it was suggested that might sound like a shot at some of his former teammates, who left the Comets to play in Finland or may or may not have demanded a trade, Gadjovich was diplomatic.

“For them, it may have been the right choice for them to go somewhere else,” he said, “and that's fine. It’s just for me, I want to play for the Vancouver Canucks and if that means that I have to be in Utica for a year or two or three, then that's what I'm going to do. I'm going to grind it out, I'm going to put in the extra time and work, and I'm going to do whatever it takes, because I want to play here at the end of the day.”

In some ways, the goal of playing for the Canucks could seem further away than ever. Lind and Gadjovich have gone from fans pencilling them into the team’s future lineup to an afterthought. Johnson, however, believes in both players and chalks last season up to the learning curve of becoming a first year pro.

“For us that were in the fire with them every day, [we] saw the improvements,” said Johnson. “After getting your feet wet in that first year, you go, ‘Okay, that’s what this is all about. This is what I need to do in the off-season.’ Some players just have to go through that.”

“I expect them to both take big steps and become better players through what they’ve had to experience,” he added.

Speaking specifically about Lind, Johnson talked about confidence. Going from junior, where you’re the best player on your team and one of the best in the league, to the AHL, where you’re just another guy, can be a big challenge.

“We spent a lot of last year supporting Kole as a person and helping navigate,” said Johnson. “But I think he has a real appreciation of his craft. Some people from afar may take his adversity and things he faced as a negative, but at the end of the day, it’s going to make him a better player.”

“We always said to Kole, ‘When the puck is in your hands, that’s when great things happen,’” he added. “How are we going to get the puck in your hands more. We want to get you more involved, we want you more physical, we want you puck-protecting, holding on to the puck because you’ve got a skillset that not may have.

Have the expectations changed for Lind and Gadjovich? Where they were once seen as potential top-six forwards, now just making the NHL seems like a lofty goal, but perhaps the expectations were too high to begin with. Most prospects don’t make the NHL, particularly those drafted outside the first round, but Lind and Gadjovich still have a good chance of doing so.

There’s a lot of work to be done, however. One of the big issues for Lind last year was the lack of time and space with the puck in the NHL. Part of that is mental — making quicker decisions — but that can be aided by the physical tools.

“Definitely getting quick and stronger in my legs. I think that was something that was key for me this summer,” said Lind. “I worked on that week in, week out, trying to get stronger, trying to get quicker on the ice and be a half-step ahead of the play, instead of — I felt a little slow out there, obviously, last year.”

For Gadjovich, conditioning was a big part of what he worked on throughout the season and into the summer.

“You can only prepare so much, you just have to experience that first year pro and I did that now,” he said. “I think this year, it’ll be better for me, because throughout the summer, I had that in mind. I know what the battles are like, I know what the rushes are like, I know what I have to do in the D zone, I know that intensity that I have to bring on a consistent basis.”

“[The Canucks] have expectations for me, high ones, and I have high expectations for myself as well,” he added. “Whatever I can do, however I can chip in and help out, I’m going to find a way.”

If Lind, Gadjovich, or both can make the NHL in the near future, that would be a big boost to a Canucks team that has relied on high-priced veterans for their bottom-six depth. Both will need to take big steps forward in the AHL this season and prove that their first-year struggles were just growing pains.