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It’s a special edition of the weekly tracker, where we take a deep dive into the prospects pool with Vancouver Canucks director of player development and Abbotsford Canucks GM Ryan Johnson:

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A new regime. A new plan.

Yet a strong young core and a baseline of remaining prospects to build upon.

That’s the overarching message from Canucks development head Ryan Johnson, who spoke to Postmedia on Thursday about the state of the prospects pool, and what the organization needs to do to deepen it.

“We’d like to add to it. The organization, the last few years, we’ve moved on picks via trade,” said Johnson, one of the few holdovers from the previous management group.

“I think we’ve got some good players in, but we’d like to get more. We’d like to get younger, we’d like to add to it and continue to build.”

Ryan Johnson, GM of the Abbotsford Canucks and director of player development in Vancouver.
Ryan Johnson, GM of the Abbotsford Canucks and director of player development in Vancouver. Photo by Patrick Johnston/PNG /PNG

While the cupboard needs some restocking, a handful of viable prospects remain in the system — and could still make an impact on a roster that’s bound to be revamped this coming off-season.

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One of those prospects is defenseman jack ratbonewho, despite missing large stretches of the season, continues to build upon his dynamic, multi-faceted game with the Abbotsford Canucks, winners of eight games in a row and streaking their way toward the AHL playoffs.

This past week, Rathbone notched Gordie Howe hat trick in a 5-4 overtime win at the San Diego Gulls on Wednesday, then followed it up on Friday with an assist in a 5-4 overtime win at the division-leading Stockton Heat.

The 2017 fourth-rounder scored his goal at a crucial moment on Wednesday, wristing the puck into the net from the point with half a minute left in the third period to complete a three-goal Canucks comeback.

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Rathbone was also involved in the first fight of his AHL career in the second period, emphatically throwing his gloves off and going toe-to-toe with Gulls forward Jacob Perrault.

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The 5-foot-11, 190-pound left-shot D-man finished the game with a goal, an assist and an even rating.

Rathbone’s assist on Friday was his 40th point (10G, 30A) in 36 games, furthering the evidence that his offensive ability from the blue-line is professional grade.

But it’s his work away from the puck that the organization sees noticeable improvement on.

“I think he’s improved dramatically in his reads in the D-zone, time and space, being able to defend in all situations to give him a chance to be adaptive,” said Johnson, who is also Abbotsford’s general manager.

“He’s a competitor, he’s a hockey player, he’s faced everything he has to with a smile on his face and he keeps coming back stronger … I don’t think we’re anywhere near his ceiling quite yet.”

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Another prospect the organization remains high on is Danila Klimovich, the raw 19-year-old Belarusian forward whose size, strength and skill tease of top-six potential. The Canucks wanted Klimovich to go through his growing pains within the organization in Abbotsford, rather than send him away to play junior hockey in Quebec.

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“He’s come an extremely long way since September, with just his ability to use linemates, his puck management, his decisions down low,” said Johnson.

Abbotsford Canucks forward and Vancouver prospect Danila Klimovich celebrates after scoring a goal earlier this season.
Abbotsford Canucks forward and Vancouver prospect Danila Klimovich celebrates after scoring a goal earlier this season. Photo by Darren Francis/ @darrensfrancis /Submitted

The Canucks would like the 6-foot-2, 205-pound right-shot winger to up the pace of his game and increase his explosiveness, especially his first three strides.

“That’s something we’ll spend the off-season on,” said Johnson. “For a kid that young to get his first kick at the can in the American League, the cultural change, and to think he could end up with 10 goals… there’s a lot of growth there.”

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Klimovich, a 2021 second round pick, has eight goals, 10 assists and a minus-5 rating in 58 games this season.

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While the Canucks are thrilled with the staff in Abbotsford — who have guided the first-year team through a series of unfortunate events this season, be it wildfires, COVID or the great flood — the organization wants to add more resources in Europe and other parts of North America to continue to build their development department.

power-forward Aidan McDonough (2019, Rd. 7), who scored 25 goals in NCAA play this past season but decided to return to Northeastern for one more year, is a player the team has plans for. Others making the grade after strong seasons are Swedish forward Linus Karlson and Finnish defenseman joni jurmo.

Jurmo, for his part, is a big, fast blueliner with puck skills who stepped it up defensively with Mikkelin Jukurit ‚ going a plus-10 overall for a contending Liiga team.

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“That’s what we want to see. Obviously the size, for a big man who can skate like that, we wanted to see him improve defensively and become a wall, so to say, in his own zone,” said Johnson. “Big defensemen that have a reach that could read the game and have the sense all over the ice are so valuable.”

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The organization wanted to have a closer look at the 6-foot-4, 200-pounder last summer at rookie camp, but COVID travel restrictions scuttled those plans. The Canucks, however, are excited to bring the 20-year-old into the fold this summer and get working with him directly.

“We think he has a very bright future.”

As for Karlsson, a breakout rookie season in the Swedish Hockey League has propelled him forward in the eyes of Canucks management.

“His lower body strength improved and his skating improved,” said Johnson. “With his small-area skill, his shot from him, he’s a threat when he’s on the ice.”

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Karlsson, who scored 26 goals in 52 games with Skellefteå AIK, is “a guy you’ll hear us talking about real shortly here.”

Sounds like a contract could be coming the 22-year-old’s way once a stint with the Swedish national team for the 2022 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship is over with. The tournament begins on May 13 and ends on May 29.

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It hasn’t been all roses for a prospect group ranked in the bottom third of the league this season. There have been up and down campaigns from defenseman Jett Woo (2018, Rd. 2) in Abbotsford, defenseman Viktor Person (2020, Rd. 7) in Kelowna and goaltender Michael DiPietro (2017, Rd. 3), also in Abbotsford.

DiPietro, however, is playing his best hockey right now, with the 22-year-old winning his past five starts and posting an improving 2.74 goals-against-average and .908 save percentage in 31 games this season.

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Meanwhile, forward Will Lockwood (2016, Rd. 3), the speedy wrecking ball of a player who tallied nine goals and 16 assists in 46 games with Abbotsford this season, appears to have acclimated himself well in Vancouver playing on both the third and fourth lines. And despite not registering a point in 13 NHL games this season, the 23-year-old could be a fixture on the bottom six for years to come

Johnson reiterated that this off-season will allow the new management group to instill its philosophy more clearly and continue to build on a roster that isn’t far from contention.

“To be a successful organization, we have to draft well, we have to sign well, bring in young players that you move up the organization, to become important players for you in Vancouver.

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“When you do that, when you’ve got competition, when you have players vying to be the next group to come up and play through your system — you’re a healthy organization.”

Abbotsford has three games left in the regular season and are currently in third place in the Pacific Division (based on winning percentage) with a record of 38-21-5-1. The top four teams in the division get home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs, which will be a best-of-three series with all three games played in the same building.

Vancouver Canucks prospect Arshdeep Bains (20) in action this season with the WHL's Red Deer Rebels.
Vancouver Canucks prospect Arshdeep Bains (20) in action this season with the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels. Photo by Rob Wallator /Red Deer Rebels

Elsewhere: forward Arshdeep Bainswho topped the WHL in point this season with 112 (43G, 69A) in 68 games, scored a goal in Game 1 of the Red Deer Rebels’ 5-0 win over the Brandon Wheat Kings on Friday to up his goal-scoring streak to 10 games in a row.

That streak, however, would be snapped on Saturday, as the Wheat Kings defeated the Rebels 2-1 in overtime to even the series at one piece. Bains, 21, had five shots on net and an even rating in the loss. Game 3 of the best-of-seven series is on Tuesday in Brandon.

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