Abbotsford Canucks head coach Trent Cull on prospects, development, Abbotsford, and a challenging final year in Utica

Yesterday, on a cold Wednesday afternoon, a very sweaty and nervous writer for AHLNucksHarvest.com was fortunate enough to conduct a 1-on-1 interview with Abbotsford Canucks head coach Trent Cull.

Before the Canucks 2021-22 NHL and AHL campaigns kick-off, the AHLNucksHarvest wanted to pick Cull’s brain on player development, his final year in Utica, and Abbotsford.

Between the shortened schedule, the lack of Calder playoffs, the month-long hiatus, and the constant game cancellations, last season appeared on the outset to be one that was incredibly challenging. Cull had an admirable glass-half-full mindset about his challenging season.

I’ve been in it for a long time as player and as a coach in different roles. Normalcy is not normal in the American Hockey league, we’re always used to adversity, whether that’s guys being called up, or guys getting injured, etc. so it’s always a very adverse environment.

One thing that we learned last year is that the things that were in our control, we did the best we could with them. And the things that are not, we couldn’t worry or stress about it, or put any pressure on our team about that.

We tried to be as informative as we possibly could and as transparent as we possibly could with our players because there was a lot going on this past year!

Cull elaborated on his thoughts on last year and chose to speak quite positively about the highs that came during such challenging times.

All that beind said, we were ecstatic that we got together, I mean it’s not a full season, no playoffs, but we did a lot of good things and enjoyed our time together. It was tough to get together.

We had split affiliates which I’d never dealt with before, that had a lot of challenges in itself. So, it was a really, really challenging year behind the scenes for our coaching staff. But it was a great learning year!

Looking to dive into those roster challenges, the AHLNucksHarvest (as we do) laboriously calculated Cull’s roster turnover history since re-joining the AHL in 2013-14.

Yes, I really did this.

Trent Cull Roster Roster Return % History

The 2020-21 Utica Comets saw just 11 players return from that electric 2019-20 squad. This low return percentage doesn’t factor Taxi-Squads or the number of players who graduated to earn considerable looks in the NHL last year.

We asked Cull if he threw the proverbial playbook out the window due to the lack of familiarity with his group. Cull countered by talking about the joy in simply dealing with such a different field of players from two different organizations.

Yeah. But it was exciting! Getting to know guys, getting to know them as people first of all, and then what makes them tic; then exposure to different guys from St. Louis… We didn’t have that normal percentage of people [from Utica] returning, but with the dual affiliate there was less guys being signed!

Unprompted, Cull discussed how proud he was to see players from both organizations get recalled.

Mind you, I was equally as proud, or as happy for the guys who got called up for Vancouver, but also the guys that got called up to St. Louis, for a lot of them it was their first times, and I was excited for them as well.

At this point, even though we desperately wanted to avoid bringing up the rookie crisis of 2018-19, it felt appropriate to ask Cull about seeing players like Jonah Gadjovich and Kole Lind get called up last season.

At this point, everyone in Canucks nation is well-versed in the rookie struggles of Gadjovich and Lind. Due to Canadian quarantine protocol and border restrictions, there was a legitimate concern that the Canucks would be incapable of recalling anyone from Utica last season.

Given Cull’s history as Gadjovich and Lind’s coach throughout three seasons of AHL development, we wanted to know what was it like for Cull to see these two players specifically get recalled.

[On the rookie struggles] Plenty of people speak about how people are doing, and I’m fortunate enough to work with them every day, and sometimes year by year, and more than that. So, everybody’s on a different cycle, on different paths, and we all have to stay the course. [We] focus on what we can do to make them beter and that’s our job. 

For me, to see Jonah get recalled, and to see Kole go up, you know, I like these guys. We’ve said it before, the first year is not an easy year, we’ll find that out with some of the first-year guys from last years team, who will now join a full-fledged American Hockey League without taxi-squads.

I’m ecstatic for those guys [Jonah/Kole], they stayed positive, they deserve the credit, they’re the ones who worked really hard on and off the ice, and stuck with it. I’m really happy for them.

[On Kole] Kole has obviously moved on. [He] made himself attractive enough to get picked up by Seattle which I think is excellent

[On Jonah] I’m looking forward to seeing Jonah, I think he’s had a breakthrough in his own right too, and I think he’s doing a great job.

 

Cull’s point about adapting to the difficulty of a normalized AHL season was music to my ears. Naturally, I had to ask him what, if anything, he said to his first-year guys like Carson Focht or Jett Woo, about being prepared for that difficult come training camp.

 

I talked about it all the time; their identities as players. I looked back on last year and I know there was a lot of trying times, but I think it was a great, great experience for guys, because some young players like that got to play a lot of minutes and keep themselves developing. And that was really rewarding getting time in a bit of a sheltered environment.  

So now, this year, they’ve had some experience, which is good. Now, for them, they’re older, they’re stronger, they’re obviously wiser from their time already, but we would say that this is going to be tough. It’s not easy. Just because [they’ve] had a little bit of time in the American League, we would say, this is not the true American League.

You add the other team’s best goalie, the other team’s best two D, the other team’s top line, and then it gets that much more difficult.

On that note, we began to ask Cull about a few of the first-year rookies who saw time with Utica last season.

We first asked him about Will Lockwood, a speedy tenacious winger who started slow but began to pick things up midseason. We asked Cull about Lockwood’s shorthanded goal that kicked off his scoring momentum, what he or his coaching staff may have said to try and encourage him.

[The slow start] didn’t bother me at all. I liked the way Will had started and how he was playing. He may not have created offence, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t playing well in my eyes. There was no pressure, well you could probably ask Will, but there was no pressure from me on those things!

Cull pinpoints a moment in time when he had goalie coach Curtis Sanford do some research on NHL players that reminded them of Lockwood. They knew that Will would get scoring opportunities because of his speed, so they tried to help him formulate a plan for when he had those opportunities.

Cull was modest about the effect of this approach, however.

I’m not saying that’s what did it for him. We were working on penalty killing, five-on-five work, all those other things. But, I will say that I thought Curtis did a really good job with the presentation. The three of us watched it together, we talked, and were trying to give him some confidence! 

We know that Will was going to get opportunities, it didn’t matter when that first one went in. It’s maybe a sigh of relief, but then all of the sudden, he broke out and go more opportunities more often.

When talking about penalty-killing, the AHLNucksHarvest wanted to ask about Carson Focht, who started his AHL season on the penalty-kill but quickly found himself playing exclusively at 5v5 with some time featured on the second powerplay unit. Player identity is important to Cull, so we asked if penalty-killing is something that he could see Focht doing full-time in Abbotsford.

Possibly. We’ll have to see how our team is. I like everybody having a role, if possible.

He had some opportunity with the powerplay right off the bat, so we kind of just let that ride. I didn’t think it was appropriate for him to be, you know, five-on-five, powerplay, and penalty kills. 

And that’s where other guys like Will, who was not on the power play, had a chance to dive-in and dial-in on their penalty kill. So that’s something we’ll see.

On the notion of roles, Cull offered this to say on his potential lineup in Abbotsford.

I don’t pretend to know what my lineup is in Abbotsford. I wait to see and watch. I’m a fan and I’m also working. But, I’m also a fan at training camp in the NHL, because I like to wath everyone and see what their niche is. Once we get to Abbotsford, we’ll talk to guys more and get a better feel for what the right fit is for them.

With practices having begun earlier this week and rookie development camp opening this Friday, we asked Cull whether he’d be involved or present at the latter.

I’m going to be coming in a couple days after [camp starts], but I know the boys are in safe hands

Cull laughed

…We have Curtis Sanford, [Chris] Higgins, Ryan Johnson, skills coaches, skating coaches etc. so it almost gets to a point where there’s almost too many coaches on the ice! So that’s why we said I’d sit that one out, come on the weekend, and maybe watch a couple days, if possible!

One of the players featuring on defence at rookie camp is 21-year-old Jett Woo.

 

Parroting a great Q&A from the Quadfather himself, we asked Cull if he saw any playstyle similarities between himself and Jett Woo.

It’s been a while, so I can’t remember how I was. We’re always better in our memory anyways!

Cull laughs before continuing with his assessment of Woo’s game.

I think Jett skated well, I liked his composure at five-on-five moving pucks, which is something we talked a lot about learning about. 

Learning how to pick up certain coverages in the d-zone, I think that’s one of the things he got better and better at as the shortened season went on.

I liked that he was willing to stick up for teammates and willing to just play aggressive. I’m sure if you talk to Travis Green, he likes those D that play with a little bit of an edge. 

What I always said too is, in those situations, if you can be a good first-pass defenceman, know how to check, get on the ice and be reliable. But play with some grit and be difficult to play against. I think that helps you [while] playing and playing more minutes because you become a guy that’s difficult to play against for other teams’ good players.

After hearing such a glowing review of Woo’s rookie campaign, I had to ask Cull, the former AHL defenceman, for his thoughts on last seasons defensive group.

2020-21 Utica Comets Defense: Total prior AHL/NHL Experience

The Comets d-core of last year had four players on their roster with more than 50 games of combined AHL/NHL experience. Two of those experienced vets played five games each. The 2019-20 Comets relied almost exclusively on their rookies for minutes.

We asked Cull about his concern for the total experience of his d-core and the impact it may have had on their attitude towards the season.

I guess, I’m always concerned about that [lack of experience]. But, the one thing is that, it was the youngest year I’ve ever seen in the American Hockey League. There were a lot of teams that were in the same boat. 

It was a good year to get guys ice time repetitions and it was great for the organization to see where guys fit and to see them play a lot of minutes and see whether they were a part of the future of the Vancouver Canucks. For some guys, it was a really good learning environment for us.

It’s not all about winning, I like to have a winning culture, I like guys wanting to win, and I want to win. I think that’s a good enviroment to develop and make sure guys are trying to better themselves. But not only that, but do it in a team enviroment that’s trying to win hockey games and I think it’s okay to develop like that.

With a challenging season in the rearview mirror, we turned the page to the next chapter of Cull’s hockey career.

Cull has planted serious roots in upstate New York, his kids grew up playing for Syracuse/Utica triple-A junior teams, and he’s been coaching for and against Syracuse in the “Galaxy Cup” for the last eight years.

So, has it sunk in yet? Is it surreal for coach Cull to not be coaching in NY this year?

Yeah, you know I’m excited by new challenges! This has been a great environment for me. I finished playing hockey in the AHL in Syracuse. I have three sons who were all born in Syracuse. This little area has been a good spot for us as a family. I’m not gonna lie about that, but I’m excited by our move! I’m excited going to the west coast. 

I’ve never lived on the west coast, I look forward to that. I haven’t been there [Abbotsford], I planned it, but it’s been a weird summer with everything, even still with COVID conerns. That being said, I’m excited to go there.

It’s funny, even talking to people on the phone, everybody’s into it! I’ve talked to my staff who are already out there, and they’ve talked about how excited the people are. So that’s a great environment!

I’m excited, first of all, to go back to Canada and to go back to Canada and coach hockey! It sounds like a hungry town and I’m really excited by that!

 

Since Cull’s last availability, the AHL publicized their season schedules. In total, the team faces 24 back-to-backs, cross-country travel but fortunately, no home-and-homes! The month of March looks pretty brutal also, with the team playing fourteen games in 30 days.

Cull was initially pretty optimistic about the schedule, so we figured we’d follow up on that optimism!

[Laughing]

I guess I’m always leery, as a coach, about the schedule. It’s going to be new to me, and all my staff as well. Some of the players will have experience with the west coast schedule though.

I’ve actually done a bit of research on Manitoba, to watch them, because they’re one of those teams that’s by themselves, they have to fly everywhere for those games; what their schedule’s have been like in the past and their travel, I’m relating [ours] to that.

As a coach, I’ll try to protect my players and make sure we’re okay and well rested. It’s going to be one of those new challenges to see what the right recipe is to make sure we’re developing players and putting ourselves ina good situation heading into our games as effective as we can be.

AHLNucksHarvest asked for a follow-up on the possibility of Michael DiPietro playing 50 games.

[laughs]

You know, I don’t plan a schedule at this point, because you never know how things can go. With injuries etc.

Cull took the opportunity to speak very highly of DiPietro’s character and his personal belief in Mikey’s potential.

But you know what, with anyone I can say it to, I really enjoy Mike. I think he’s a great goaltender, he did a really good job and became pretty much my number one goaltender in his first year in the league. So, I’m excited to have Mikey, if he’s there, but I don’t have Mikey until he comes and shows up and I see the whites of his eyes in Abbotsford.

Now, it wouldn’t be an AHLNucksHarvest interview without some goofy question to wrap everything up.

So we asked Cull the most important question weighing on Canucks fans minds.

Would Trent Cull be bringing the duster to Abbotsford?

Oh man, that’s funny. Because a lot of people that didn’t even know I had that for about a month or so! Then all of the sudden I took the mask off one day and everybody’s kind of giggling to themselves. But, sometimes you gotta switch it up I guess!

Fingers crossed Cull indeed switches it up and brings the push-broom to Abbotsford.

 

[Featured Image Credit: UTICACOMETS.COM]

One thought on “Abbotsford Canucks head coach Trent Cull on prospects, development, Abbotsford, and a challenging final year in Utica

Leave a Reply