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Vancouver Canucks Next Man Up

The Vancouver Canucks “next man up” from the AHL and onto the team could be a complete surprise. A lot will depend on whether they can re-sign – or trade for – a big name before Draft Day.

Canucks Next Man Could Be Plural for 2024-25

While Vancouver has plenty of free agents, two stand out as budget-crippling possibilities. If neither Elias Lindholm nor Filip Hronek sign on with Vancouver, they are likely gone by the 28th. If that’s the case, they will be spending a lot more time and money chasing down free agents than originally planned.

They could, for instance, open the vaults chasing Jake Guentzel. Or, failing that, load up the middle of the lineup with forwards like Tyler Bertuzzi, Viktor Arvidsson, or Jake DeBrusk. Hoping the increased skill will avoid overreliance on their top-end talent isn’t their preference, but little else presents itself this year. The 2024 crop of forward talent doesn’t have much in the way of game-breakers.*

In the world of Jim Rutherford and Patrik Allvin, it’s the top end that matters. They ran the team that produced the famous Mark Donk and Buzz Flibbit meme, after all.

(Sidebar: how tempting is it to name your child Mark if your surname is “Donk”? Write in and tell us!)

Should the team become top-heavy with talent, they will need cost-controlled players elsewhere. The good news is that they have some mature prospects who might make the team. The bad news is that they might have to make the team.

If You’re Better, You Better Pay Up

The changes wrought by the team as a whole can’t be overstated. If an owner is willing to spend the money, there is no limit to the number of coaches and support staff a team can have. The Canucks increased their numbers significantly from Jim Benning to Jim Rutherford, and it shows. There are practice sessions with half a dozen coaches on the ice working on different drills at once. That was a rare sight just three or four years ago.

A side effect of the increased coaching is that players are more likely to retreat to their systems if things go wrong. Trust in those systems lets the Canucks keep their calm when behind and work their way back into games. Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat became something of a calling card in 2023-24. It might not be a coincidence that so many support players hit career highs in goals, points, or ice time.

That very success is making it very hard for Vancouver to keep those players and forcing them to look to Abbotsford.

Better Than It Was Still Isn’t Great

There is talent in AHL Abbotsford, but let’s make something very clear, here. We’re not talking about “prospects” in the classic, can-they-be-a-star sense. Yes, Vancouver has a (very) few of those, but none are coming to the team next year. Instead, the Canucks next man up is going to be players who fill those bottom-six and third-pair roles. That’s fine, they’re needed, too. But Tom Willander isn’t on this list.

We’re going to put up some limits, here. Vasily Podkolzin and Noah Juulsen have made the club, pending talent getting brought in above them. Juulsen is at 6/7 for defence, but he’s with Vancouver, not Abbotsford. The old guys, however, we assume are old guys to be called up in emergencies. That’s Phillip Di Giuseppe and Guillaume Brisebois, as well as Zachary Sawchenko and Christian Wolanin if they re-sign.

Nils Åman

Nils Åman is as close to a lock to make the big club as it gets. Not an actual lock, but he’s played over 100 games with Vancouver and has a two-year, one-way extension signed. So the fourth-line centre is pencilled in to start the season with the big club. That said, he has only scored seven goals and 23 points in 111 games, and his possession numbers aren’t great.

If Åman gets outplayed in camp, getting bumped to the 13th forward or even back to the AHL is a possibility.

Aatu Räty

Aatu Räty has been waiting for his chance longer than he wanted, but not as long as you think. Perhaps most famous for plummetting down the draft board to 52nd overall, he has far less pressure now as a supposed “bust”. The Canucks have been working with him to bring out his defensive side since they already know he can score. He’s got the size and hands to play a control game the coaches love.

On the other hand, last season was his first in three years where he hasn’t played for four different teams. His production was fine, scoring 18 goals and 52 points in 72 AHL games. But that’s not “potential-first-overall” levels of fine. The Canucks may hang a Do Not Touch sign on him to keep that stability going, but a good camp and low cost can easily have him starting in Vancouver.

It’s easy to forget that Räty is just 21 years old. He has time to develop. In theory, he’s a centre, but he’s far more likely to get his break on the wing.

Arshdeep Bains

The Canucks next man up was occasionally a Vancouverite himself. Arshdeep Bains showed well early in an eight-game call-up last season but faded quickly. Hopefully, he’s learned from that sample and the adrenaline that pushed him in the first few games will become a regular part of his play. He’s been a coach’s dream in Abbotsford, changing his play to suit whatever the situation needs.

That versatility, if he can bring it at an NHL level, will suit him well. Vancouver had great difficulty finding wingers to play higher in the lineup, so bottom-six players got their chances. We’re not saying Bains will start that high, of course. But if he can stick with the team for a few years, he’ll get at least one chance to show he can get there.

Linus Karlsson

Even if it was just two, getting into playoff games tells you how much coach Rick Tocchet likes Linus Karlsson. Like Bains, Karlsson has a scoring touch. Also like Bains, it didn’t show itself in a brief call-up with the big club. But the potential is there, as last year he had a point-per-game pace in the AHL. He also played in two NHL playoff games, both against the Edmonton Oilers.

The added bonus for bringing Karlsson up is that he’s a right-handed centre. If the Canucks can’t keep Elias Lindholm then they will have a total of zero signed. Karlsson is currently a restricted free agent with arbitration rights, but it’s very unlikely he’ll use them.

Canucks Next Man – Getting the D Up

There’s not a lot to look at on the defence for Vancouver, unfortunately. But given the paucity of signed contracts, there are opportunities for someone to make their presence felt. Again, we’ll assume Brisebois missed his shot last year with his long-term injury and Juulsen is already there.

Elias Pettersson

Now, we know you know, and we know you know we know, but we’re going to say it anyway. “Not THAT Elias Pettersson!” Okay, we good here?

Pettersson has only played eight games in North America, and they’ve been generally positive. He showed a willingness to use his body not just in bodychecks but in defence of teammates. That will get the attention of every level of management. But he’s also very raw in his skills, putting himself in the wrong place occasionally. That’s not a surprise, given his age and lack of experience.

He should remain in Abbotsford for the entire season and get accustomed to the Canucks system and play in North America. On the other hand, he’s a 6’2″ defenceman who can skate pretty well and likes to throw his body around. It’s easy to see Pettersson being called up if he proves himself at camp.

Akito Hirose

Those of us old enough to remember Chris Tanev‘s arrival in Vancouver will remember Kevin Bieksa‘s description of him.

“He could have played with a cigarette in his mouth.”

Akito Hirose is, like Tanev, a cool customer. His calmness on the ice is a calling card for him. That can be enough to bring him up to the NHL early, if not often. The downside is that he’s not a physical player, running at 6′ and 170 pounds. He’s also 25 years old, so expecting a different game from him now is folly. Though if the team needs more bite, that’s what Juulsen is for.

Cole McWard

Early in Vancouver’s 2023-24 training camp, Cole McWard was getting attention as a possible partner for Quinn Hughes. That he remained in camp as long as he did fanned those unrealistic flames higher. All that was based on the five perfectly decent games he played in his post-signing tryout in 2022-23. McWard was eventually – rationally – sent to Abbotsford for the season.

He did get a one-game call against Anaheim and was fine there. Hirose certainly has the inside track of the three defencemen here, but the larger McWard isn’t that far behind. He’ll need to blow the doors off during training camp to win an NHL spot. That being said, if Vancouver doesn’t find who they want at the price they want on the right side, the opportunity could be there.

There aren’t going to be any eye-popping prospects among the Canucks “next man up” prospects this year. But that’s okay, as there is still enough skill and reliability they won’t be afraid to pick up the phone.

*Sorry, Vancouverites! Sam Reinhart isn’t coming home this year.

Main Photo Credit: Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports


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