Canucks’ AHL Update from Utica

Who doesn’t like a good trip to the farm? There is plenty of cows, pigs, goats and other fun animals. Through 32 games, Vancouver Canucks’ American Hockey League affiliate or “farm” team, the Utica Comets, continues to impress with its league-leading goal-scoring efforts. Having a competitive AHL farm team is essential to developing younger assets and having them contribute to the big club in the near or distant future. Without further ado, it seems necessary to revisit the farm team to see which prospects we can expect to eventually see playing for the Canucks.

Unlucky Juolevi

In an ideal world, a farmer would raise his goats to live a healthy, injury-free life full of milk production. However, what happens to that goat if he tears his meniscus, blows his back out and experiences lingering hip issues all in the last two years?

While Olli Juolevi was never expected to be the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time), his status as a high draft pick has garnered some lofty expectations. The Canucks will have to temper their expectations due to the extensive list of injuries he has suffered.

Olli Juolevi
Olli Juolevi at the 2016 Draft (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

The plan was for Juolevi to start off the season building his confidence with the Comets before playing for the Canucks later in the year. However, a hip injury while playing for Utica forced Juolevi to take a trip to Vancouver to seek treatment (not to play for the Canucks) that derailed that plan momentarily.

Thankfully, it was nothing too serious, as Juolevi returned shortly thereafter and quickly tucked in his first of the season and this beautiful dime in his first few games back. In his 11 games back in Utica since his injury, Juolevi has quietly posted a solid eight points, despite the team’s cautious effort to limit his minutes.

The Finnish defenseman has totalled 13 points in 24 games, slightly behind the pace of 13 points in the 18 games he played in the year prior. Given the amount of time lost to rehabbing his injuries instead of training to improve, this is a reasonable result.

Vancouver Canucks' Olli Juolevi
Vancouver Canucks’ Olli Juolevi (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)

It is also reasonable to expect to see Juolevi get called-up to the Canucks later this season, however, a full season without injuries is what would be best for the young prospect.

Rafferty Turning Heads

The emergence of Brogan Rafferty has softened the blow of Juolevi’s injuries on the back end. The undrafted American signed with the Canucks in April after the completion of his season with Quinnipiac University and even played two games for Vancouver before last season’s end.

Rafferty continued his success into the 2019-20 preseason, scoring a goal and an assist in two games of action. Surprisingly, Rafferty was assigned to Utica before playing a third game despite his offence. Rafferty produced some defensive highlights but also made costly mistakes with his positioning in the defensive end. Unfortunately for Rafferty, the latter resulted in his assignment to Utica.

Life in Utica has been pretty pleasant for Rafferty as he has torched the league, producing at just under a point-per-game pace. His 29 points in 33 games lead all AHL defencemen, three more than every Canuck fan’s favourite Saskatchewanian, Derek Pouliot. With Canucks rookie Quinn Hughes appearing to be a serious contender for NHL rookie of the year, it would be unique to see Rafferty win the award in the AHL.

Rafferty’s ascension to the top power-play unit is a large reason why the Comets have scored the second-most power-play goals in the AHL this season. Expect the Canucks to give a serious look at Rafferty later this season, as the time is now for the 24-year-old prospect.

Reid for MVP

I would be amiss not mentioning the league’s top goal-scorer: Reid Boucher. With 20 goals in 28 games, Boucher is doing everything in his power to alter his trajectory of being a lifelong AHL player.

At 26 years old, Boucher is not a prospect anymore. Boucher has never received an opportunity to play more than half a season in the NHL. However, he currently possesses the highest point-per-game average in the AHL and is on pace to score over 50 goals and 100 points.

Canucks center Reid Boucher
Canucks center Reid Boucher (Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports)

Boucher’s dominance has helped spark revivals from players such as Sven Baertschi, Nikolay Goldobin and Kole Lind, all players who had struggled last season. In particular, Lind is a young prospect and 2017 second-round pick has shown chemistry with Boucher.

Sometimes dominance in the AHL never translates to the NHL and that may be the case for Boucher. However, it would be surprising if the Canucks or another team do not give Boucher another look after his excellent performance so far this season.

The Canucks’ second half of the season could go one of two ways: grind it out for the playoffs or slip in the standings and pray for the Alexis Lafrenière lottery.

If playoffs are in the cards for the Canucks, it is not uncommon for some AHL prospects to be called up in April to gain valuable experience around a winning team even if they are watching from the press box. Similarly, if things go awry, it is likely that some of the aforementioned names will be provided with trials during the throwaway games of the regular season.

Until then, it is time to allow the kids in Utica to develop into men and legitimate professionals or in farmer lingo, let the kids grow up into goats.