Canucks focus on player development in makeup series against Flames

Elias Lindholm scored the overtime winner as the Calgary Flames halted the Vancouver Canucks comeback with a 6-5 win.

VANCOUVER – The least meaningful game in the history of the National Hockey League meant more to Jonah Gadjovich than any other member of the Vancouver Canucks.

It was his first.

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

Since the NHL began 103 years ago, the makeup game was the first regular-season contest staged after the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Three utterly meaningless games in four days this week between the long-eliminated Canucks and Flames are the last symptom of Vancouver’s 21-player COVID-19 outbreak in April.

Sunday’s game generated surprising entertainment, as the Canucks rallied back from a four-goal third period deficit only to lose 6-5 in overtime when Flames' Elias Lindholm bounced a centring pass in off defenceman Alex Edler, who had a better goal in mind for the 100th of his NHL career.

Gadjovich hardly played, but the game sure wasn’t meaningless to him or the Canucks’ player-development and minor-league staff.

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

Will Lockwood, another 22-year-old winger-callup, 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.

That’s eight players arriving in one 56-game season. Six of these players – all but European rookies Nils Hoglander and Marc Michaelis – were prepped for the Canucks by their Utica farm team.

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

But eight players is still a significant player-development achievement, something that’s actually positive for the Canucks in a season gone wrong.

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

Goalie Mike DiPietro, the third-rounder in 2017, spent most of this season on Vancouver’s taxi squad after getting one injury-induced start two years ago. Most people have heard of the first-rounder from that draft: Elias Pettersson.

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

He didn’t play after that. By the time Gadjovich had served his fighting major, instigator minor and 10-minute misconduct, the Canucks were about to charge back from a 5-1 deficit. Brock Boeser scored twice to lead the comeback. 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 I needed to be a lot better to earn more ice time. But I gave it my all.

“When I got out of the box and we started to score 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 scoring and we tied it up and went into overtime, and it was fun to watch.”

Successful player development is always fun to watch.

“He never backs down from an opportunity to defend a teammate,” player-development director Ryan Johnson, who doubles as the Comets’ general manager, told Sportsnet before the game. “Jonah has an ability to play in the hard areas. I bet you 14 of his goals (in the AHL) have come within five feet of the goal; he lives in the hard areas and finds ways to score goals. He has 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 turn himself into “something” last season.

He started getting stronger and slightly quicker, an evolution that continued this year and led to his offensive breakthrough.

“I give a lot of credit to Jonah in the sense that as a player coming out of his first year, it was humbling,” Johnson said. “It's a lot of change for any player in the first year of pro, and players that have played at world juniors and been at the highest level since they've been 15, when they face adversity for the first time, it's a real check to see what they're made of.

“He had to navigate through a first year of that. He did a great job of responding. A normal challenge for guys is ... creating your identity as a pro. What gets you to the NHL? Guys can kind of fall into a middle space there where they don't create that identity. You go to bring a guy up, 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 GM, it's tough to bring that guy up.”

Johnson could answer that question for Canucks coach Travis Green: Gadjovich is big and brave, plays in difficult areas and has enough skill and net-front presence to score goals. That is what he can be.

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