American Hockey League

Abbotsford’s focus on development creates long-term vision for Canucks

The AHL and NHL connection is an important piece of an organization’s puzzle.

Players in the AHL vary from 20-year-olds who are learning to play pro hockey in North America to 35-year-olds who add depth to an NHL club, and everything in between. No matter the case, if everyone is pulling on the rope in the same direction, success will come to all those involved.

Canucks General Manager Patrik Allvin believes that a well-run AHL organization gives you a chance at a competitive advantage over the rest of the NHL. Allvin challenges his staff in Abbotsford to set up for long-term success and believes that the correct alignment with the NHL team gives the AHLers the best chance to develop or provide depth to the NHL team.

“We’re very fortunate that ownership is committed to Abbotsford and the fan base down there,” said Allvin. “It’s just a great environment. I can feel it here a year or two in for me. The interaction and the trust from agents of, ‘Hey, we’re seeing what you guys are doing and we want our players to come to you in order to get better’. That’s a big credit to Ryan Johnson and Jeremy Colliton down there about the job that they’re doing.”

Ryan Johnson has been part of the Canucks organization since the 2013-14 season and has evolved to become the General Manager of the Canucks’ AHL affiliate for the past seven years. Johnson preaches about the ability for development to thrive in the AHL. He believes that though goals and assists are great, the goal is to become an NHLer, and his job is to assist the players in getting there.

“The things that we are preaching about in Abbotsford as part of our daily conversations as staff and with players is not result-focused,” said Johnson. “It’s based on these finite details of the game in Abbotsford that we think will translate when they get the opportunity to play in Vancouver. It’s a player’s wall-play, his puck management, his compete in one-on-one battles and being consistent — that is the avenue for myself to go to bat for a guy to get an opportunity to go up to the NHL.”

It’s about playing a similar style between each team and knowing how to fit well with the system instead of just being a point producer. We’ve seen enough AHLers struggle with the transition to the NHL and simply be known as ‘Quad-A players’. Johnson is working hard to change that with the Abbotsford Canucks.

“I think some people get production-focused and not focusing on the things that I know I can say to Patrik [Allvin], and talk with confidence that this specific player is going to step in and play the way we want our guys to play,” said Johnson. “That’s what we focus on in Abbotsford so that guys can not only get a chance to go up, but they can go up and have coaches and other management say that the player is doing what we expect the guy to come up and do. That’s one of our main jobs, if not the most important.”

Allvin is also development-focused when it comes to the AHL club. He spoke about his time in Pittsburgh and remembered the commitment from Teddy Blueger. The Penguins selected Blueger in the second round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft and it took 2412 days for Blueger to make his NHL debut.

Blueger also never saw the AHL after his first NHL game. He was slow-cooked through his time in the NCAA and the AHL but became a player who is fast-approaching 300 career NHL games.

“The message is that it’s not about getting one NHL game,” said Allvin. “The message is how can we turn you into playing hundreds of games, and that’s where Teddy trusted the process and I believe that our players are now starting to trust our process in Abbotsford that this is not a sprint. It’s a marathon for the player to be set up for success long-term.”

The AHL is a developmental league and if you are using the league for those reasons, it can be a competitive advantage over other NHL organizations.

“You emphasize on developing the players in the American League,” said Allvin. “Winning is important to create that winning culture but winning is never more important than developing the player. So it’s about Jeremy [Colliton] putting the players in position to succeed and that means you can be able to play in different positions and different critical times of the game.”

The staff in Abbotsford is a major piece of the development of the AHL players and the Canucks have one of the best coaching staffs in the AHL. Head coach Jeremy Colliton is joined by associate coach Gary Agnew and assistant coach Jeff Ulmer with goaltending coach Marko Torenius also being a part of the everyday staff. Daniel and Henrik Sedin are also big parts of the development staff out in Abbotsford.

“I just think it’s our job to prepare the players so that if they have a chance of having an NHL career, they can grab it when it comes because you never know when the opportunity is going to come again,” said Colliton.

Colliton spoke about how great it was for him to be part of the coach’s meetings in the summer and it was an opportunity for him to hear the NHL coaching staff present. Adam Foote and Sergey Gonchar were two of the coaches that Colliton was impressed by. But also, he was given an opportunity to present and Rick Tocchet has talked about some takeaways that he has taken from Colliton.

“I’m going to steal things from them and they’re going to steal things from me and that’s how you get better,” said Colliton when speaking on this summer’s coach’s summit. “We play very similarly with a similar identity, pillars, and the structure are all the same but there are certain details that are different and that helps keep things fresh. We can try things and see if they work, and then Vancouver might steal it, or they start doing something a bit different and it works, so then we adopt it. If we never tried different things, you can get in a rut, so I think that’s important.”

The young players speak highly of the development but for the AHL-NHL connection, a veteran like Matt Irwin also sees the connectivity between the two teams being something that will help everyone in the transition between the two leagues.

Irwin has played in 461 NHL games and 260 AHL games over his 15-year career. He signed with the Canucks in the offseason to provide leadership on the AHL team but also be depth for the NHL club. A local guy, Irwin was born on Vancouver Island and played his junior hockey with the Nanaimo Clippers. He’s seen a lot in his time as a pro and likes what he is seeing here with his hometown team.

“At this level, that relationship between the two teams is so important to have the same fundamental system,” said Irwin. “There’s going to be tweaks here and there, but at its core, have the same belief in how you want to play the game because when a young guy, or anyone for that matter, gets called up they can just slip in and not worry about systems. That’s just one less thing you have to think about when you’re out there. You just continue to play your game and if you continue to do what you are down here, it will translate up there. As for Jeremy [Colliton], for us, it’s huge to have a guy that has that NHL experience. He knows what it’s like at that next level and he wants to get back to that level. He wants all of us to get to that level and get an opportunity. Knowing that what’s coming from your staff is a huge push for our guys down here.”

The minor league team being down the highway in Abbotsford creates easy call-ups and conditioning stints while it also opens the door for management to attend games with ease and be able to be in the building as these players develop their craft.

This Abbotsford Canucks team is young and hungry for what is to come in the valley. They will continue to sharpen their axes in preparation to bring value to the NHL team one day. For now, the Abbotsford Canucks will roll on with their young core who are learning the pillars that this organization wishes to instill in any player who calls themselves a Canuck.

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