By all accounts, the Abbotsford Canucks had a successful inaugural 2021-22 season in the Fraser Valley. Fans flocked to Abbotsford Centre every night to watch their team rack up an impressive 39-23-5-1 record along with several standout performances by American Hockey League (AHL) veterans and rookies alike. They even got to see history be made with the first AHL goal scored by a Japanese-born forward in Yushiroh Hirano’s tally on Jan. 22, 2022, against the San Diego Gulls. It was a goal for the ages as he went on to score five goals in 30 games and play for the Japanese National Team at the 2022 Division 1B IIHF World Championship in Finland where he wore an “A” and led his team to a silver medal on the strength of six goals and 10 points in four games.
That was just one of many memorable moments during the season as the baby Canucks also enjoyed a long nine-game winning streak to propel them into the playoffs on the backs of career-best performances from Sheldon Dries, Sheldon Rempel, John Stevens and Jack Rathbone. All in all, it was an exciting debut season for a farm team that president Jim Rutherford and general manager Patrik Allvin hope will become the gold standard for development in the future.
Rutherford, Allvin, Ryan Johnson and Cammi Granato seem committed to making Abbotsford a powerhouse next season. Whether it be through trades, free agents (AHL contracts or otherwise) or just prospects transitioning from junior to pro, they have stated that they will spare no cost in building their minor league roster for 2022-23. So with all that said, let’s take a closer look at some of the young new faces that will hopefully continue the excitement all the way to the franchise’s first Calder Cup in only its second year of existence.
By now everyone knows what Arshdeep Bains did in the Western Hockey League (WHL) last season, as he dominated the landscape to the tune of 43 goals and 112 points in 68 games. Now he will turn pro in the fall and suit up for the Canucks in Abbotsford. Likely destined for the top-six alongside players like Dries, Stevens or even fellow rookie Linus Karlsson, he will be given every opportunity to succeed in his first foray into the AHL.
Playing only 40 minutes away from his hometown of Surrey, Bains will undoubtedly have his fans in Abbotsford as the South Asian population is quite strong in the Valley. Red Deer Advocate editor Byron Hackett, who has followed him throughout his career, has seen his growth firsthand and says that he’s starting to become a role model for aspiring hockey players of South Asian heritage.
“I think he realizes what kind of an impact he can have…He’s sort of starting to embrace that role as a mentor and as a public figure in the community. I think that’s something that has become more and more important to him as he’s grown” (from ‘Surrey’s Arshdeep Bains chasing pro hockey dream in Abbotsford’, Surrey Now-Leader, 5/17/22).
Bains reiterated that fact in an interview with Sportsnet’s Sonny Sachdeva when he said – in reference to winning the WHL scoring title – “It’s great that I could do that for the community…Maybe it’s something that can push kids to want to play. And being a role model for kids that want to play one day, if that’s what it does, that’s super cool. I’m hoping that more kids of South Asian descent want to play hockey, and think they can achieve great things.”
As a result, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a huge cheering section of South Asian fans when Bains hits the ice for the first time at Abbotsford Centre. Known for his consistency, competitiveness and willingness to battle along the boards for pucks, he should quickly become a favorite of not only the fans but also new head coach Jeremy Colliton.
Another exciting rookie that Canucks fans will be clamouring to see in Abbotsford will be Karlsson, the man that recently broke Elias Pettersson’s rookie record and won Rookie of the Year in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) with 26 goals and 46 points in 52 games. Fans got to see a glimpse of his tremendous skill in the final scrimmage of development camp in July, but there were some deficiencies that will have to be ironed out for him to make a push for a full-time NHL job. One of them is his skating, which was noted by Canucks Army’s Chris Faber as being worrisome.
“We’re not that confident in Karlsson’s foot speed being NHL-ready but his willingness to go hard at the net and be able to battle in corners should give him a good opportunity in the AHL…It’s possible that he gets into NHL games this season but he will need to work hard with skating coach Mackenzie Braid to add some agility to his game. He looks like he could be strong enough to compete at the NHL level but we will have to see how the pace is for him.”
Fortunately, Faber also pointed out some other skills that could get Karlsson to the NHL regardless of his skating abilities. However, if he is able to improve that part of his game enough – ala Bo Horvat – he could be an intriguing option for Vancouver’s top-nine and second power play unit in the future. Until then, fans should be excited to see him dangle around the competition in the AHL and possibly be one of the top-scoring rookies in the process.
Now onto the rookies that won’t be playing in Vancouver this season unless they impress the Canucks brass enough to earn an NHL contract. First up is defenceman Quinn Schmiemann, who was signed by Abbotsford on June 28 to a two-year contract after scoring a career-high 14 goals and 54 points in 58 games and two goals and 18 points in the playoffs. A former sixth-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2019, he graduated from the WHL with 26 goals and 136 points in 201 games – all with the Kamloops Blazers. He also wore the “C” on his sweater for the 2021-22 season.
Yet another draft pick that went unsigned by the team that selected him, Schmiemann might turn out to be a diamond in the rough like Chris Tanev or to a lesser extent Jalen Chatfield (who has become a serviceable depth defender in the NHL). According to Hockey Prospecting’s model, he still has a 47 percent chance of becoming an NHLer, which is pretty good for a guy that is only signed to an AHL deal at this point.
Praised by scouts for his mobility, hockey IQ and strong defensive game, it will be interesting to see how Schmiemann adjusts to the increased competition of the AHL in 2022-23.
Finally, there’s Chad Nychuk, another defender that just graduated from the WHL on the heels of a career year. After only 12 goals in parts of four seasons with the Brandon Wheat Kings, he exploded in 2021-22 for 21 goals and 71 points in 64 games along with an impressive plus-26 in the plus/minus column. Now 21 years old, he will try and carve out a career in the AHL and hopefully impress the right people to garner an NHL contract in the future. Given his improved offensive game and howitzer of a shot from the blue line, I wouldn’t bet against the Canucks being the team that hands him the opportunity, especially if he can continue that sort of production during his rookie season in the AHL.
Nychuk’s 21 goals led all Wheat Kings defencemen and were only behind Nate Danielson (23), Ridly Greig (26) and Nolan Ritchie (33) in overall scoring. In fact, his goalscoring exploits got him the nickname “Rossburn Rifle” which the team’s marketing department took full advantage of by producing T-shirts for the fans to buy and wear at the games.
“When he [former broadcaster Branden Crowe] first told me about it, I was ‘OK, whatever, we’ll see how this goes,’” Nychuk said. “Then when I saw the T-shirt, I’m grateful that Crowey did that for me. I was getting a lot of Snapchat pictures of my buddies wearing them out and about. That’s something I’ll remember for a long time and I have to thank Crowey for that.”
According to reports from his former teammates in Brandon, Nychuk’s personality will also provide a boost to the dressing room when it comes to morale.
Chad is a great teammate…He always has a smile on his face. He’s a great guy.Marcus Kallionkieli
All in all, judging by the reception Nychuk received in Brandon last season, he should quickly become a fan favourite in Abbotsford along with Bains and Karlsson. He will also likely be one of the guys that lift the room up when things aren’t going the team’s way during the season or the playoffs, which is often the difference between victory and defeat. Just look at the Tampa Bay Lightning, who became a very tight-knit group because of players like Nychuk (from ‘Anthony Cirelli is a prime example of Lightning’s tight-knit culture’, Tampa Bay Times, 5/21/22). And all they did was win back-to-back Stanley Cups and make it to three straight Finals.
Rookies Headline Season 2 in Abbotsford
After a great inaugural 2021-22 season in the Valley, Abbotsford will look to provide fans more of the same in 2022-23. With exciting rookies like Bains and Karlsson along with AHL signees Schmiemann and Nychuk, they will have plenty of things to look forward to. Throw in another campaign of journeyman veterans Dries and Stevens, and potentially even some NHL bodies from the parent club in Nils Hoglander, Jason Dickinson or Dakota Joshua and the baby Canucks could be in store for a long run in the Calder Cup Playoffs when April 2023 rolls around.
Latest News & Highlights
Matthew Zator is the assistant managing editor at THW and a writer who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.
Matthew also co-hosts The Hockey Writers Prospect Corner on YouTube.