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Jack Rathbone debuts for the Canucks; AHL affiliate headed to Abbotsford

May 5, 2021, 2:12 PM ET [513 Comments]
Carol Schram
Vancouver Canucks Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Are the Vancouver Canucks going to win another game this season?

The current losing streak is now at six games, following a 5-3 loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Monday, followed by a 4-1 defeat on Tuesday.

The disappointing part is that the team is playing pretty decently, considering the circumstances. On Tuesday, in particular, they probably deserved a better fate — outshooting Edmonton 29-27 and even leading for more than half the game after Brock Boeser snuck a puck past Mike Smith just 34 seconds into the game.

Now at 19 goals and 39 points in 47 games, Boeser has surpassed his 16 goals from last season and could end up beating his 45 points from 57 games in 2019-20. Though he's had some scoring slumps, his overall return to form has been a bright spot in a pretty dark year — especially considering he's played the last 21 games without his regular linemate, Elias Pettersson.

The scene now shifts to Rogers Place for two more games against the Oilers, on Thursday and Saturday. With six points against the Canucks on Monday and Tuesday, Connor McDavid is now up to 93, with five games left to play.

I feel like 100 is almost guaranteed — which is incredible. It doesn't even seem impossible that he could get it done by the weekend, and give himself a little time to rest before the playoffs begin.

As for the Canucks, their chance at a miracle run grows dimmer by the day — even with slumping Winnipeg now within reach, as well as Montreal. As of Wednesday, the Canucks and Flames' Tragic Numbers are both down to three.

Of course, the best part of Tuesday's game was the debut of defenseman Jack Rathbone — wearing Kevin Bieksa's old No. 3.

At 5'10" and 177 pounds, there's no mistaking Rathbone for Bieksa when he's on the ice. But the Boston native, who turns 22 on May 20, was solid in his NHL debut — particularly when staring down a McDavid/Draisaitl two-on-one in the second period.

Rathbone finished the night with 12:04 of ice time — less than any other defenseman, but more than Jayce Hawryluk, Tyler Graovac or Zack MacEwen. Out of three shot attempts, just one required a save by Mike Smith. And other than that, his stat line was clear — no hits or blocks, but no giveaways either.

Travis Green agreed. It was a good debut.

Kole Lind's shine is dimming a bit, though. After a minus-three night against Edmonton on Monday, he was limited to just 12:27 of icetime on Tuesday.

Of course, as we see prospects like Lind and Rathbone taking the next step in their careers, it's easy to wonder who's next.

If there's a silver lining to the way the Canucks' season is ending, it's that they've quietly sunk to 29th in the league standings. They're still 25th by points percentage, but with nine games in 14 nights still to go, I'm not sure how many points they'll be able to add to their current 41.

The talk is that the 2021 draft won't have a high-end gamebreaker. And of course, there's a lot more uncertainty than usual, given that a lot of prospects had highly unusual development paths this season.

Check out this week's U18 medal games if you want to get a look at some of the top prospects for this July — and two incredible talents in Canada's Connor Bedard and Russia's Matvei Michkov who won't be draft eligible until 2023. With 10 goals in five games so far, Michkov is a magician who has a shot at reaching the tournament record of 14 goals — shared by Alex Ovechkin and Cole Caufield. And Bedard, who's just 15, had a five-point night in Canada's 10-3 quarterfinal win over the Czech Republic on Monday.

Canada has been the class of the field so far — and Team USA, which usually dominates this tournament, was unexpectedly eliminated by Sweden in the quarterfinal on Monday.

You can read more in my U18 Story for Forbes here:

You can catch Canada-Sweden in the first semifinal on Wednesday at 2 p.m. PT on TSN, followed by Russia-Finland at 6 p.m. The medal games will go Thursday — same times, same station.

Also speaking of prospects, I was happy to see Tuesday's announcement that the Canucks are indeed working to bring their AHL affiliate to Abbotsford next season.

The move is subject to AHL Board of Governors approval, with the vote scheduled for Thursday. And the Canucks said in their media release that details of the agreement with the City of Abbotsford are still being finalized.

It would have been great to have this arrangement in place for this season, where the Canucks could have kept their prospects on the Canadian side of the border, and within a 90-minute drive or so if they were needed as call-ups or taxi squad replacements.

Even if things get closer to normal next season, I like the idea of fans and media keeping closer eye on the next group of prospects as they continue to grow their game. Most likely that group will include current Comets players like Will Lockwood and Jett Woo along with newcomers like Arturs Silovs and Arvid Costmar. (I'm pencilling Vasily Podkolzin in for the big club, of course).

Assuming the Canada/U.S. border has re-opened for hockey by fall, the club will join the AHL's Pacific Division, with a new name and logo in place.

During the 2019-20 season, the Pacific Division was one team smaller than the other three AHL groupings — made up of the Tucson Roadrunners (Coyotes), Colorado Eagles (Avalanche), Stockton Heat (Flames), San Diego Gulls (Ducks), Ontario Reign (Kings), Bakersfield Condors (Oilers) and San Jose Barracuda (Sharks).

And while the Seattle Kraken are set to join the NHL next fall, as scheduled, NHL to Seattle reported last September that Covid-related construction delays for the planned AHL arena in Palm Springs will push back the debut of Seattle's minor-league franchise until 2022, and that the Kraken will go without a dedicated AHL team in their inaugural season.

That would suggest that the Baby Canucks will be able to slide right into the Pacific next season — although I wonder if the Roadrunners will shift to the Central in lockstep with their parent club, the Arizona Coyotes, as was originally planned?

Back when the Calgary Flames ran their Abbotsford Heat affiliate between 2009 and 2014, the Pacific Division did not yet exist. Travel won't be nearly as difficult for the Canucks group as it was for the Heat.

And the Canucks' move will allow rivalries between players to grow as they move from the minor leagues up to the NHL — and will allow hockey fans in the lower mainland to get a chance to watch other top Pacific prospects live when they come to town.

This year, the AHL's top four scorers are all playing out of the Pacific, including former Vancouver Giant Tyler Benson, who has 33 points in 31 games with Bakersfield. Anaheim and L.A. also have particularly deep prospect pools. I'd drive to Abbotsford to see the Ontario Reign if some combination of Quinton Byfield, Arthur Kaliyev, Akil Thomas, Alex Turcotte, Samuel Fagamo and Tyler Madden are on the roster!
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