PENTICTON, B.C. -- The last week of summer felt Thursday a little like Christmas Eve for Ryan Johnson and the Vancouver Canucks’ coaches and player-development staff.
Sure, the sun rose, warm and slightly diffused by wildfire smoke, above Okanagan Lake and the green ribbons of vineyards and orchards that climb the hillsides from its banks. But the Canucks’ prospects, hopeful of launching careers in the NHL, practised Thursday afternoon at the South Okanagan Events Centre.
It’s hockey season.
“Edmonton and Calgary were adamant that we get this back together,” Johnson, the Canucks’ player-development director, told Sportsnet about the tournament. “And Winnipeg. . . was like, ‘OK, we're in.’ So I think everybody is excited.
“It's not necessarily about wins and losses. But as I told these guys: ‘What a huge opportunity to change perceptions on you as a player. Don't stand around watching; make an impact.’ With the shortness of training camps, guys that ease in are just forgotten. This is an opportunity in the next four days here for guys to change what happens to them in the next three or four weeks.”
NHL training camps open next week and every player in Penticton is trying to upgrade his standing even if it's just proving he deserves an invitation to main camp.
Cole Perfetti, the 10th-overall draft pick from 2020 who actually played 18 NHL games last season for Winnipeg, headlines the Jets’ prospects. Teammates here include 2021 first-rounder Chaz Lucius and enigmatic 2022 first-rounder Brad Lambert, the flying Finn who struggled through his draft season and was grounded as a healthy scratch by his national junior team.
The Oilers have brought to Penticton first-round picks from the last four drafts: Philip Broberg, Dylan Holloway, Xavier Bourgault and Reid Schaefer. Holloway and/or Broberg could play in the NHL this season.
The top-rated Flame in the tournament is Jakob Pelletier, the 2019 first-rounder who was a point-per-game forward in the American Hockey League last season as a 20-year-old rookie. Canuck prospects feature Swedish Hockey League rookie-of-the-year Linus Karlsson, who scored 26 goals in 52 games last season for Skelleftea and has blossomed at age 22 into a legitimate NHL prospect after being ballast in the 2019 trade of Jonathan Dahlen to San Jose from Vancouver. Other key Canuck prospects include Danila Klimovich, the big, skilled Belarussian who played in the AHL as an 18-year-old last season, and Swedish free agent Nils Aman.
They’re all trying to use as a starting point the same September tournament that helped launch Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Mark Scheifele and Conor Hellebuyck, Elias Pettersson and Thatcher Demko to the NHL.
The round-robin tournament opens here Friday when the Jets play the Oilers at 4:00 p.m. PT/10:00 p.m. ET, followed by the Canucks versus Flames at 7:30 p.m. PT/10:30 p.m. ET.
“We can set up battle drills and scrimmages and stuff like that,” Canucks minor-league coach Jeremy Colliton, the Chicago Blackhawks former head coach, told reporters after running practice on Thursday. “But when you finally play someone with different colors on, it's just a whole different thing. That's when you really learn about a player and where they're at right now.
“I want to see guys win races, win battles, be extremely competitive, find ways to advance the puck and then hold the puck. . . be hard to play against because that's the stuff that translates to a different level. Even if they're doing very well here production-wise, if they don't do those other things, it's not going to translate.”
A squabble over tournament revenue led the Oilers and Flames to break away on their own in 2018, before the event was cancelled entirely in 2019. Then along came the COVID-19 pandemic.
Johnson and the Canucks’ development staff, which now includes Hall-of-Famers Daniel and Henrik Sedin after new general manager Patrik Allvin tripled the department’s size in the off-season, are elated to have the tournament back. They’re also hopeful that Karlsson’s strengths will translate eventually to the NHL.
The winger, a third-round pick of San Jose in 2018, was scuffling through the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s second division, until he changed teams two years ago.
In his first full season with Bofors IK, Karlsson amassed 20 goals and 51 points in 52 games. He then backed up his breakthrough year in the tougher SHL with 26 goals and 46 points last season. Karlsson’s skating has improved significantly since his trade to the Canucks, and his size and strength have also improved. He always had skill.
“I love his process,” Johnson said. “He was not handed anything. He basically started at the bottom and worked his way up in the Allsvenskan. He had a good year and got an opportunity (in the SHL). So he has worked for everything he's gotten. He understands that it's not going to stop here. I like that.”
The physical aspect of Karlsson’s game, his willingness to compete and get to the front of the net, was evident in Thursday’s practice. He signed a two-year, two-way contract with the Canucks in May and is fully committed to trying to build his career in North America.
“I will give this a 100-per-cent chance to make the NHL,” he said. “I'm much closer to the NHL when I play in the AHL. It's a smaller rink out there; I have to get used to it. But I will work every day to make the NHL some day. I will work hard and when the opportunity comes, I will try to get it.”