Canucks’ Klimovich looks to set the tone for a better season early with Young Stars play

PENTICTON, B.C. – Danila Klimovich is far from a Grade-A prospect, but is still one of the Vancouver Canucks’ best.

And he played like it on Sunday in a 4-1 win for the Canucks over the Winnipeg Jets’ prospects in the Young Stars tournament, scoring one goal and beautifully setting up another for buzzsaw linemate Tristen Neilsen.

The 19-year-old Belarusian, selected 41st overall in the 2020 National Hockey League draft, is very much a work in progress. But after a difficult rookie season in North America that saw Klimovich play in the American Hockey League as a teenager far from home, at least the work is progressing.

“He’s a kid,” Canucks minor-league coach Jeremy Colliton said Sunday. “It takes time, especially when it’s a transition culturally, language. The American League is an excellent league. You’ve got to treat it with respect. There’s little things that you have to do with and without the puck, and if you don’t do them, it’s hard to play. He is not unlike a lot of other young players who need to learn those lessons and we’ll do everything we can to help him through it.

“I thought today he took a step forward. He was just a little harder on the puck, stronger on the puck. And when he does that, he’s got a heavy shot. He’s got some vision and made a couple of really nice plays to create offence for us. Hopefully he can continue to raise his pace, with and without the puck. You can see the tools that are there.”

Those tools are why the Canucks, who were without first-round picks in 2020 and 2021 and had only two selections in the top 100, took a chance on the raw 210-pound winger.

After they chose to place Klimovich in the AHL last season rather than let him pile up points in junior, the winger looked lost at times and finished the year with just eight goals in 62 games.

The organization wants him to be a key player on a much younger, less experienced farm team this season. Klimovich and Neilsen, who is on an AHL contract, were probably the best Canuck skaters on Sunday. Goalie Ty Young, a fifth-round draft pick in June, stopped 28 of 29 Winnipeg shots.

Klimovich, who had almost no English when he first came to North America, said last season was a “good experience” for him and he needs to keep doing what coaches tell him. 

He spent the summer in Vancouver to focus on training and continue his transition to a new city, language and caliber of hockey.

“Here, it’s very high level,” he said. “I like (to be) here. I’m getting better day to day. Every time I believe in myself. . . more believe in myself (than) last season.  Last season, sometimes I, like, doubt.”

LONG SHOT WITH A SHOT

Typically, undrafted free agents signed out of junior or college hockey do not make the NHL. But Arshdeep Bains doesn’t seem typical.

Not only was the 21-year-old from Surrey the Western Hockey League’s leading scorer last season with 112 points in 68 games for Red Deer, the winger has now joined a Canucks organization that is trying to rebuild its prospects pool. Their young minor-league team in Abbotsford should provide opportunity to players like Bains.

That opportunity is on display in Penticton, where Bains has been deployed on a top line, Friday beside centre Chase Wouters and Sunday alongside Nils Aman. Linus Karlsson, the Swedish Hockey League rookie of the year who is arguably the Canucks’ top prospect here, was the first-line right winger in both games.

In his first game in a Canucks jersey, Bains scored the winning goal in Friday’s 3-0 shutout of the Calgary Flames’ prospects.

“It’s been a long couple of months looking forward to this,” Bains said. “Getting (the jersey) on, it’s pretty special. I’ve kind of looked forward to it my whole life.”

Wouters, who played in Abbotsford last season after signing as a free agent from junior, is another prospect who has looked good in this tournament, playing ahead of Canucks draft pick Carson Focht in both games. Wouters isn’t even on an NHL deal, having signed a two-year AHL extension in June.

“I think there’s a good opportunity for all the young players,” Wouters, 22, said. “There are spots available.”

TIME FOR WOO TO JET 

This looks like a make-it-or-break-it season as a Canucks prospect for defenceman Jet Woo, a 37th-overall draft pick from 2018 who has scuffled through two AHL campaigns and was being used as a depth forward in Abbotsford by the end of last season.

“These last two years were difficult, with all the scheduling and COVID and everything,” Woo, 22, said. “So I’ve got big expectations for myself and for the team. I’m trying to take everything that I’ve learned these last two years and incorporate it.

“That’s hockey — there’s a lot of adversity. One day I’m going to laugh at this. I want to play in the NHL and enjoy (the journey), so the goal for me is to just keep working and building those good habits and make it to the NHL one day.”

The hard-hitting defenceman has played just 70 AHL games in two seasons and, with only 13 points to date, shown little of the offensive ability that made him a two-way player in junior. 

In Penticton, Woo has been on the top blue-line pairing with Quinn Schmiemann, the former Kamloops junior who was a sixth-round NHL pick in 2019 but not signed by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Playing for the Canucks on an AHL contract, Schmiemann’s poise and passing ability stand out among prospects. The 21-year-old had 54 points in 58 WHL games with Kamloops last season.

WORTH REPEATING

The benefit to reporters covering events like this is not only to have an early look at prospects, but to get quality time with key senior members of the organization before tension and time demands ramp up with the start of training camp.

There were a lot of strong, candid points Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin made in his sit-down interview with Sportsnet that was posted on Saturday.

But this quote is worth remembering: “Everybody’s talking about the culture, and every day the players have to raise the culture of this team. That was my year-end message: This is not good enough, we need to find a way to get better and it’s on you guys to come prepared and change things. You can talk about coaches and all those outside noises, but it’s up to the players to sacrifice and do what it takes.”

This is not only an organizational theme for this season but probably the single biggest factor that will determine what the team becomes. Can their excellent, young players who have endured a lot of losing embrace a mindset that their individual achievements matter far less than the team’s success, and that they will be judged only by whether the Canucks are a playoff team?

BEAR HUNT

The Canucks have been trying to upgrade their defence since the end of last season and Allvin confirmed to Sportsnet this weekend that the mission, which has failed so far, will be ongoing as the regular season approaches.

One name on the Canucks’ radar is Carolina Hurricanes right-shot defenceman Ethan Bear. The 25-year-old is currently on a one-way, $2.2-million contract that will make him a restricted free agent in 2023.

In his first season since leaving the Edmonton Oilers, Bear had 14 points in 58 games while averaging 16:05 of ice time for the Hurricanes, who acquired veteran defenceman Brent Burns from the San Jose Sharks in July.

COACHES, COACHES, COACHES

With their super-sized player-development department, the Canucks have had as many as nine or 10 coaches on the ice with players.

The last two seasons, the player-development staff was mainly Ryan Johnson and Chris Higgins. But in May, Allvin hired Mikael Samuelsson and Mike Komisarek to instruct prospects, while special advisors Daniel and Henrik Sedin moved from management into coaching roles that will see them work with players at both the NHL and AHL levels. 

Under Allvin and Johnson, the Canucks’ director of player development and minor-league GM, there is also a more comprehensive plan to support prospects with other resources for conditioning, skills and mental growth.

“Even when it was me and Higgy and I was trying to run a team (in Abbotsford), was my full attention always with it?” Johnson said of player development. “No. So this is awesome. Our guys are so excited to be together, to work together. We don’t just want to build a department, we want to build the best department and I feel like we’ve got the people and energy to do that.”

RELEASE THE KRAKEN?

Seattle Kraken general manager Ron Francis is in Penticton to scout the tournament of Pacific Division rivals. Geography alone would make the Kraken a natural fifth team here should Seattle want to participate next year.

But Francis said the Kraken, which is not at anyone’s rookie tournament this year due to the expansion club’s relatively small volume of available prospects, also has an option to join the San Jose Sharks’ six-team event in California that includes the five Southwestern NHL clubs, along with the Colorado Avalanche.

Francis, however, cautioned that his organization is still looking at the cost and value of running a prospects team and may skip next year’s tournaments too. 

SIMPLE PLEASURES

Only at a prospects tournament could you see Canucks head coach, Bruce Boudreau, sitting in the stands and either pumping his fist or bopping his head each time fans chanted “Bruce, there he is!” after a Vancouver goal.

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