Abbotsford Canucks general manager Ryan Johnson believes something special is brewing for his American Hockey League club and the 2022-23 campaign was a big step forward for the relatively young group.
Johnson met with the media on Tuesday (May 9) and said development is his group’s main goal and a number of players made significant improvements.
“The way I operate from an AHL standpoint is you’re not trying to win a championship – you’re trying to develop players,” he said.
He said professionalism and being a quality teammate was spoken about from day one and that those goals were largely accomplished, which led to several players having career years as professionals.
“I felt pretty strongly by year’s end that if we focused on those things that we’d have a pretty good team and have an opportunity to win some playoff games and we accomplished that,” he said. “It was a heck of a series against Calgary, but if I look at each player and how much better they got and how they grew as players and people – I think we accomplished a lot.”
Johnson said the experience gained against Calgary will be valuable, but he doesn’t want to make panic moves and load up on veterans at the expense of continuing to develop young talent.
“I don’t go into an offseason with our group thinking about how do we win a championship,” he said. “We’re going to be a very young team next year. Obviously I want to insulate the young group with people that can make sure they develop. But we’re going to continue to get younger and build on the environment we have.”
He pointed out that the Canucks competed hard against Calgary, the club with the best record in the AHL and Johnson hopes his group uses those painful lessons learned for next season.
Forwards Linus Karlsson, Tristen Nielsen and Arshdeep Bains all emerged as important pieces for the Canucks this season. Karlsson led the team with 24 goals in his first year in North America. Nielsen made a major jump in his sophomore campaign, improving from 11 points in 2021-22 to 41 this season. Bains was a go-to guy in all situations for Canucks head coach Jeremy Colliton and had 38 points in his first year as a pro.
“His growth this year has been amazing,” he said of Bains. “The expectation for him moving forward is to keep growing. He’s got so much more room to grow and we’re not even close to what his ceiling is.”
Forward Danila Klimovich also continued his development this season. The former second-round pick jumped from eight goals in 2021-22 to 17 this season and had the team’s best plus/minus at +15. Forward Nils Höglander was also an important piece in the regular season and playoffs. He led the team with three goals in six postseason games.
Defence has traditionally been one of the weak points of Vancouver’s organizations, but there were some bright spots in Abbotsford. Christian Wolanin won the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s most outstanding defenceman and appears destined for an opportunity in Vancouver. Defenders Noah Juulsen and Guillaume Brisebois also contributed in Vancouver and Abbotsford.
It was also a big bounce-back season for defensive prospect Jett Woo. Last season Woo struggled and ended up being slotted in as a forward with Abbotsford for the playoffs and late in the regular season. This year he was far more reliable and produced offensively with 21 points, second on Abbotsford for defenceman.
Johnson said Woo had a great year and expects him to challenge for a job in Vancouver.
“He had a fantastic year,” he said. “He’s such a huge part of our group and formed his identity as a player. His identity was puck moving, physical, playing heavy and contributing offensively. He has shot himself forward. We were hoping to get him a chance to play some games on top [Vancouver] but he’s put himself into that conversation and will compete for a spot next year in Vancouver. I see him as a guy who will play NHL games next year.”
Goaltending was a source of strength for Abbotsford, with Spencer Martin and Arturs Silovs both having excellent seasons. Johnson said with all the travel it is important to have two reliable goalies. He also said Silovs is better when there is someone there to push him, which is what he said Martin did. He also stated that every start is the coaches decision and management does not get involved there.
The offseason now commences for the Canucks and they will remain involved in the community, but the next big events on the calendar include the NHL Draft in Nashville on June 28 and 29 and then the opening of NHL Free Agency on July 1. Both of those events will have significant impact on both Abbotsford and Vancouver and will likely provide an early glimpse of the roster construction for both teams.
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