Canucks focus on player development in makeup series against Flames


VANCOUVER – Least meaningful game in National Hockey League history meant more Jonas Gadjovich than any other member of the Vancouver Canucks.

It was his first.

The 22-year-old Whitby, Ont. Winger became the seventh player to make his NHL debut with the Canucks this season when he lined up against the Calgary Flames at Rogers Arena on Sunday night.

Since the start of the NHL 103 years ago, the make-up game was the first regular season competition held after the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Three totally insignificant games in four days this week between the long-eliminated Canucks and Flames are the latest symptom of the 21-player COVID-19 outbreak in Vancouver in April.

Sunday’s game was surprisingly entertaining, as the Canucks recovered from a four-goal third-period deficit to lose 6-5 in overtime when the Flames’ Elias Lindholm bounced a pass to defenseman Alex Edler’s cross, who had a better goal in mind for the 100th of his NHL career.

Gadjovich barely played, but the game certainly didn’t make sense to him or to the Canucks’ player development and minor league staff.

He joined the Canucks last week after being promoted (and quarantined) from the American Hockey League, but had to wait until the Utica Comets season ended on Sunday before he could play in the NHL. .

Will Lockwood, another 22-year-old reminder, is expected to be the eighth prospect to play his first NHL game for Vancouver this season when the Canucks and Flames play again on Tuesday afternoon.

It’s eight players who arrive in a season of 56 games. Six of those players – all but European rookies Nils Hoglander and Marc Michaelis – were groomed for the Canucks by their Utica farm team.

Yes, injuries and losses in Vancouver created opportunities that wouldn’t have existed if the Canucks had played as a playoff team this season instead of a last-five in the draft.

But eight players is still a significant achievement for player development, which is actually positive for the Canucks in a season that has gone badly.

Consider this: Gadjovich’s debut meant that the top five players drafted by the Canucks in 2017 have now played for the team. Second-round pick Kole Lind and fourth-round pick Jack Rathbone recently made their NHL debuts after the coronavirus outbreak forced Vancouver to play its last 19 games in just 32 days.

Goalkeeper Mike DiPietro, the third round in 2017, has spent most of this season on the Vancouver taxi team after getting an injury-caused start two years ago. Most people have heard of the first round of this draft: Elias Pettersson.

Gadjovich gave the puck on the Flames’ first goal, by ex-Canuck Josh Leivo. But the 210-pound forward, who scored 15 goals in 19 games for Utica before his recall, also stepped up a big fight against Connor Mackey after the Flames defenseman tackled Vancouver’s Matthew Highmore in the second period.

He didn’t play after that. By the time Gadjovich had purged his fighting major, minor instigator and 10-minute misconduct, the Canucks were on the verge of recovering from a 5-1 deficit. Brock Boeser scored twice to lead the return. Gadjovich finished with 4:55 of ice time and a story to tell for the rest of his life.

“It was a great experience for me,” he said. “I didn’t play my best; I could have been a lot better and had to be a lot better to save more time on the ice. But I gave it my all.

“When I got out of the box and we started scoring a few goals, I was just super excited. The guys were buzzing and I was like a cheerleader on the bench. I was so happy to see us score and we equalized and went into overtime, and it was fun to watch.

Successful player development is always fun to watch.

“He never backs down on an opportunity to defend a teammate,” player development director Ryan Johnson, who is also the Comets general manager, told Sportsnet before the game. “Jonah has the ability to play in tough areas. I bet 14 of his goals (in the AHL) came within five feet of the goal; he lives in difficult areas and finds ways to score goals. He built something.

After a dismal first season of professional hockey, when the former Owen Sound Attack junior scored just four times in 43 games and became a healthy scratch with Utica in 2018-19, Gadjovich began to transform into ” something ”last season.

He started to get stronger and slightly faster, a development that continued this year and led to his offensive breakthrough.

“I give Jonah a lot of credit in the sense that as a player coming out of his freshman year it was humiliating,” Johnson said. “It’s a lot of change for any first year pro player, and players who have played at the world junior championships and have been at the top level since they were 15, when they face in adversity for the first time, it is a real failure. to see what they’re made of.

“He had to go through a first year of that. He did a great job of responding. A normal challenge for guys is … to create your identity as a pro. What brings you to the NHL? Guys can kind of fall into a middle space where they don’t create that identity. You’re going to bring a guy, and the first thing a head coach asks you is, “Okay, what is he?” And when you can’t answer that question for a coach or a general manager, it’s hard to talk about this guy.

Johnson could answer that question for Canucks coach Travis Green: Gadjovich is tall and courageous, plays in tough areas and has enough talent and net presence to score goals. It is what it can be.

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