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Abbotsford Canucks

Abbotsford Canucks: The West Coast Returns, Part Two

Abbotsford Canucks: The West Coast Returns, Part Two

VANCOUVER, BC — Welcome back for part two of our preseason preview of the Abbotsford Canucks. If you’ve missed the first part where we talked about the forwards, you can check it out here

Now onto today’s programming: the defense and goaltending. The Canucks organizations have done a good job rounding out both sides of the team, and I’ll be taking a look at some of the players they’ve brought in and are bringing back. 

Back-End Stability 

Something that Abbotsford has in spades is a strong defensive core. Though Brogan Rafferty has departed for Anaheim and Jack Rathbone has rightfully graduated to the NHL, there’s still a lot of hold-overs from the Comets along with more depth. 

Ashton Sautner was announced on a minor league deal, and it’s a shrewd move by Ryan Johnson to bring him back. The defender from Flin Flon has appeared in 242 AHL games, almost all with the Comets. He’s rightfully in the conversation for the captaincy here and a huge part of the leadership group. 

Sautner is a very capable two-way defenseman and has shown himself to be one of the best defenders in the AHL. After riding the taxi squad all of last year, he looks to be a veteran presence for Abbotsford and earn himself a contract from Vancouver.

Sticking with experienced AHL defenders, Vancouver re-signed Guillaume Brisebois to a one-year deal. A third-round pick back in 2015, the defenseman has been a solid presence on the farm team, posting 11 goals, 36 assists over 179 games in his AHL career, along with being +15. Brisebois has been a good depth player in the NHL, but with Abbotsford, he will reprise a bigger role. The Canucks will look to him and Sautner to lead the back end, which is something these two are more than capable of.

New Faces

Devante Stephens and Kyle Burroughs were also in that mass free agent signing by Benning for depth, but one name that stands out is Brady Keeper. Signed to a two-year contract, Keeper has been an excellent fill-in player for the Florida Panthers. The pandemic has limited his professional exposure, but that won’t be an issue with the Canucks. He’s my pick as the first call-up in case of an injury but otherwise should provide for strong, dependable, and aggressive play from the blueline. 

His story is also something out of a movie. Keeper is the first person from Cross Lake First Nation to play in the NHL. An inspiration for Indigenous youth all across Canada, TSN produced a moving documentary about his journey to the league.

Jett Takes Off

The last piece to the puzzle in Abbotsford belongs to Jett Woo. The 21-year-old second-round pick of the Canucks made his professional debut last year, looking solid with the Comets in the pandemic-affected season. Vancouver fans have been concerned about his regression from his draft+1 year, going from 66 points in 2018-19 with the Moose Jaw Warriors to 46 points in 2019-20 with the Calgary Hitmen.

While that concern is reasonable, I feel that Woo has shown that he can live up to the second-round billing. He really impressed me at last year’s training camp, and although he hasn’t appeared in the NHL, Woo is only 21 and has already displayed his physical presence on defense and some underrated offense. I think that he has the tools to succeed, and Abbotsford provides the stage that he needs to develop and thrive. 

The defensive core that Abbotsford boasts is nothing to scoff at. Depending on how things shake up at training camp, one of Brad Hunt, Olli Juolevi, or Luke Schenn could be joining the minor league team too. In any which case, the Canucks are looking strong. They’re young but experienced, can produce points, and make sure the puck stays out of their net. Trent Cull’s defensive style should be a plus for this unit as it looks to make sure opposing forwards are punished and off the scoresheet. 

Goaltending Situation

Canucks fans, breathe a sigh of relief. Michael DiPietro will get the playing time that he deserves. After spending almost an entire year without game action, the 22-year-old comes into this season as the projected number one for Abbotsford. He’s been hyped to no end by this fanbase and with the pedigree to back it up. World Championship gold medalist this past year, Canada’s number one in the World Juniors, Mikey is a fierce competitor that’s been vocal about his desire to challenge Jaroslav Halak for the backup job. 

I have full faith in DiPietro to establish himself as one of the premier goalies in the AHL. Don’t let his 7.02 goals-against average in the NHL fool you: he was hung out to dry in those games. DiPietro has been good at the AHL level, with a career GAA of 2.76 and a save percentage of 0.909% over one season plus four games. For comparison, Thatcher Demko’s first year in the AHL saw him post 2.68 GAA on an SV% of 9.07. I think that he’ll need the time in Abbotsford getting the lion’s share of starts before Vancouver starts to consider easing him in. 

Another positive about the farm team moving to Abbotsford is that he’s now one hour away from the big club, meaning that goalie whisperer and coach Ian Clark can keep a close eye on his development. Personally, I’m excited about this, as any development for DiPietro means that the Canucks (both of them) are better for it in the future. 

The Replacements

In a smart move, Benning acquired Spencer Martin from the Tampa Bay Lightning for future considerations. The career AHL goalie is a solid option in net, a more than capable backup to DiPietro. Last season with Syracuse, he finished the year with a GAA of 2.83 and a 0.907 SV%. He’ll be challenging DiPietro for the starting role, but I feel that the Canucks brass would rather have the homegrown prospect receive the majority of playing time. 

His acquisition also means that Arturs Silovs isn’t thrown to the proverbial wolves. The Latvian was a sixth-round pick back in 2019 and only played one professional game last season with the Manitoba Moose.

Martin should provide time for Silovs to get integrated with Abbotsford or spend some time down in the ECHL to get some game reps. That being said, he wasn’t bad in his one appearance, a 2.07 GAA and a 0.920 SV% in a loss against the Laval Rocket. Silovs is definitely the third goalie in the depth chart but does have the potential to be a solid AHL goalie. 

The Canucks goalies are capable of holding their own and then some. With DiPietro and Martin, they have a tandem that doesn’t seem to have a true weakness, while any injury sees a backup who is no slouch in his own right. With the defense in front of them, I think the Canucks are very well positioned in net. 

Final Thoughts

I think Abbotsford is going to surprise people. There’s a ton of depth throughout the lineup, and Johnson isn’t done making moves to bolster the team. This is also excluding how the Vancouver training camp will play out, as the competition for that fourth line and defensive unit is going to be tight. Whoever gets sent to Abbotsford, it’s going to be a quality player. 

Everything is pointing to an exciting season, regardless of success or not. Intriguing players with tons of talent up front, a back end that should prove stingy, and a goalie prospect eager to prove himself. They’ll be playing with hunger and passion, and as someone covering this team, I’m eager to see them hit the ice. 

Oh, and Abbotsford? Hockey is back, and boy have we missed it.

Download the Field Pass Hockey app from the iTunes or Google Play stores or follow @FieldPassHockey on Twitter for the latest news on the AHL, ECHL, and SPHL throughout the 2021 season!

    Michael Liu covers the Abbotsford Canucks for Field Pass Hockey. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @FPHCanucks.

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