Here’s a question: how many players drafted by the Canucks have spent a significant amount of time developing with the Utica Comets and have become regular NHLers in Vancouver?
Just one: Jake Virtanen. The Canucks’ first round pick in 2014 has played 77 games for the Comets, including almost an entire season in 2016-17. The Canucks draft pick currently on the roster with the second-most games played in Utica is Adam Gaudette, who has played all of seven games with the Comets.
Petrus Palmu’s comments on why he left the Utica Comets to return to Finland have raised questions about how the Canucks’ AHL affiliate is developing their young prospects. It’s a complicated subject, as there’s a lot that goes into a player’s development.
It starts with the player themselves and having the willingness to make changes to their off-ice habits, practice habits, and elements of their on-ice play to become NHL players. Those players also need the right coaching to identify areas where they need work and help them to improve. On top of that, the players need opportunity: the ice time to internalize the lessons they’ve learned in practice and to prove to themselves, the coaching staff, and management that they are becoming better players and are ready for the next level.
This process is further complicated by the fact that each player is unique. Not only does each prospect have different elements of their game they need to improve — a physical ability like skating, shooting, and stickhandling or mental aspects like defensive positioning or willingness to battle — but they also have unique communication styles and needs.
One player might respond best to a “tough love” approach, while another needs a softer touch. One player might benefit more from spending hours going over video, while another has to work it out on the ice before it connects. One player needs to know exactly why he’s not getting ice time; another might take that information the wrong way, crushing his confidence.
Each player also has a unique potential: one player might have a ceiling as a top-six forward in the NHL, while another simply doesn’t have that level of skill, but could become a solid third or fourth-line forward.
This is barely scratching the surface of how development works. That’s why, when something goes wrong in player development, it can be very difficult to identify where the problem lies.
Perhaps the issue is with the players themselves, if they refuse to put in the work necessary to get better. It could be a failure of coaching, with poorly-designed practices or ineffective skills development. It could be a communication issue, with a player needing more one-on-one time or back-and-forth dialogue than top-down communication.
Another issue could be mis-identifying a player’s potential: for example, if an organization sees a player as a fourth liner at the NHL level, they’ll get different opportunities and coaching than someone they see as a top-six forward. That player could have a higher ceiling, however, that is not being properly served.
Whatever the issue might be, there seems to be something wrong with the Canucks’ AHL development. Beyond Virtanen, just four other players currently on the Canucks roster have spent significant time in Utica: Nikolay Goldobin, Alex Biega, Jacob Markstrom, and Thatcher Demko.
The Canucks’ best forwards — Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and Bo Horvat — skipped over the AHL. Only Horvat played in Utica and it was just five games. The Canucks’ top defence pair of Alex Edler and Chris Tanev spend time developing in the AHL before the move to Utica, while Ben Hutton and Troy Stecher each played just four games with the Comets.
What about the players that did spend time in Utica?
Markstrom did seem to benefit from the season he spent with the Utica Comets, putting up the best save percentage of his AHL career and carrying the Comets to the Calder Cup Finals. You could make the argument that his 65 games in Utica helped him become the league-average goaltender he’s been in the NHL ever since.
Demko has spent much longer with the Comets, stepping in almost immediately as their starting goaltender when he joined the team in 2016. He’s played 112 games with the Comets, but we don’t know yet how good he will be at the NHL level.
Goaltenders are a bit of a unique beast when it comes to development, however. There are limited roster spots available for goaltenders, so they frequently spend longer in the AHL, or even the ECHL, than other prospects. They also have their own coaches, have different expectations from other prospects, and, when they’re in a game, they can’t really play limited minutes.
Of the three skaters, Goldobin and Virtanen could be seen as success stories for the Comets. Goldobin has spent 157 games in the AHL, with 38 of them coming with the Comets. The Canucks credit his more complete game to his time in Utica, where he spent time playing in all situations, including on the penalty kill. Likewise, the Canucks think the 77 games Jake Virtanen played in Utica, where he struggled offensively but worked on his details away from the puck, played a significant role in his development.
Meanwhile, Biega isn’t really a prospect that they developed. Rather, he’s an AHL journeyman who broke into an NHL lineup in dire need of defencemen.
That’s it. Three skaters, one of whom isn’t an NHL regular and one of whom spent most of his time in the AHL with another organization.
Here’s what stands out about this group to me: where are the bottom-six forwards? Why haven’t the Canucks, who stress details and defensive play both in the NHL and in their prospect development in the AHL, produced young prospects capable of playing on the third or fourth line? Why have the Canucks instead spent significant money on veteran free agents to play on their fourth line?
Perhaps they haven’t needed to. The Canucks have had some prospects develop in that role, like Brendan Gaunce, who Ryan Johnson once held up as a “perfect example” of their development process. There’s also Darren Archibald, who has been a decent fill-in on the Canucks’ fourth line in various call-ups over the past few seasons.
Those are two players that spent a significant amount of time in Utica and arguably developed into useful fourth-line forwards. Those are also two players that no longer play for the Canucks, as it seems Gaunce has been permanently exiled to the AHL and Archibald was sent to Toronto as part of the Anders Nilsson trade.
Besides the time spent in Utica, Gaunce, Virtanen, and Goldobin have something else in common: they’re all first-round picks. Apart from the goaltenders, the Comets haven’t developed any prospects drafted outside the first round into NHL players.
To be fair, the Comets haven’t been around for that long — this is just their sixth season in existence — but it still seems like we should have seen more players from the Comets on the Canucks roster by now.
There are some promising prospects currently on the Comets. Olli Juolevi was off to a great start before his season was ended by knee surgery and Zack MacEwen is looking more and more like a legitimate prospect with NHL potential. But then there’s the underwhelming performance of Jonathan Dahlen, Kole Lind with just six points in 23 games, Jonah Gadjovich with four points in 21 games, and the Palmu situation. It’s concerning.
The question is, what does a good AHL development system look like? How many NHL players and what type should an AHL team produce?
To answer that, we could look at a team on the opposite end of the spectrum, renowned for producing NHL talent from their farm system: The Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Syracuse Crunch have been the Lightnings’ AHL affiliate for just one year longer than the Comets have been in existence, so it’s an interesting comparable in that sense. There’s also a connection between the two teams: current Comets’ head coach Trent Cull was an assistant coach with the Crunch from 2013 to 2017 and was a part of the development of the players that went through their system.
Of the 20 skaters that have played at least 20 games for the Lightning this season, nine of them played at least 40 games for the Syracuse Crunch at some point in their careers. Add in goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who played 37 games in Syracuse, and a significant portion of the Lightning lineup was developed by their AHL affiliate.
In fact, there are only two players currently on the Lightning who were drafted by the team and spent no time in Syracuse: Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman. Even Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point had a cup of coffee with the Crunch.
Players throughout the Lightning lineup were developed in Syracuse, from top-six forwards like Tyler Johnson and Yanni Gourde, to fourth-liners like Cedric Paquette and Mathieu Joseph. You could argue that they haven’t developed defencemen well, however: most of their top-six defencemen are from trades or free agent signings apart from Victor Hedman, who never spent any time in Syracuse.
To top it off, the Lightning gave up on Slater Koekkoek and traded him to the Chicago Blackhawks on Friday, again acquiring a more experienced defenceman in Jan Rutta.
Apart from the defencemen, however, the Syracuse Crunch have done an impressive job producing NHL talent. That’s not even counting the players that came through the Crunch that are now playing for other NHL teams. That includes players like Anthony DeAngelo, Brett Connolly, and Vladislav Namestnikov that were traded away, as well as the likes of Matthew Peca and Jake Dotchin, who signed with other teams as free agents.
Even Jonathan Marchessault, now a star with the Vegas Golden Knights, spent 103 games with the Syracuse Crunch.
So that’s the gold standard: twice as many homegrown, AHL-affiliated-developed players on the roster as the Canucks have currently, with enough additional homegrown players that you can trade them away for other assets.
Can the Canucks get there? Possibly. In Cull, the Canucks have a coach intimately familiar with the Lightning development system, even if he’s made some confusing lineup decisions this season. They also have more depth in their prospect system than in the past.
There’s something to be said for a potter only being as good as their clay. The Lightning have drafted very well and acquired other young talent to develop in the AHL via free agency. The Canucks could certainly learn some lessons from the type of players the Lightning have targeted, but player acquisition alone doesn’t adequately explain the success they’ve had with the Crunch.
What do the Crunch look like this season? Do they still look like they’ll be producing more NHL players in the near future?
It sure seems like it. They’re led in scoring by 23-year-old Carter Verhaeghe, who is positioning himself to be the next call-up to the Lightning. They acquired Verhaeghe from the New York Islanders for spare goaltender Kristers Gudlevskis, who’s now in the KHL.
Alex Barre-Boulet is second in the AHL in scoring among rookies. The 5’9” forward was signed by the Lightning as a free agent after he led the QMJHL in scoring last season.
20-year-old Taylor Raddysh has 23 points in 33 games and 21-year-old Alexander Volkov has 20 points in 33 games. Both were second-round picks for the Lightning. Meanwhile, first round pick Cal Foote, is their top prospect on defence. The 20-year-old is second in scoring behind Cameron Gaunce among Crunch defencemen.
That’s not to mention 20-year-old Mitchell Stephens (8 points in 9 games), 22-year-old Ross Colton (15 points in 32 games), and 20-year-old Boris Katchouk (12 points in 33 games), all of whom have NHL potential. These are young prospects that are getting ice time with the Crunch and are helping to lead their team to the fourth best points percentage in the AHL.
It certainly seems like the Crunch are prepared to produce more NHL talent for the Lightning.
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the Canucks to one of the best prospect development systems in the NHL, but a comparable system should be the Canucks’ goal. It’s possible the changes have already been put into place to create a stronger AHL farm system for the Canucks. This is only Cull’s second season as coach and the same is true for the Canucks’ Director of Player Development and Comets GM Ryan Johnson. In addition, prospects like Dahlen, Jasek, Lind, and Gadjovich are more promising than past prospects like Nicklas Jensen, Alexandre Grenier, and Alex Friesen.
It’s possible that, five years from now, people are speaking about the Comets in the same way they currently speak about the Crunch. It’s just hard to ignore some of the red flags currently cropping up.