How Canucks’ relationship with Jack Rathbone led to his signature

Jack Rathbone of the Harvard Crimson. (GIL TALBOT / HARVARD ATHLETICS TWITTER)

VANCOUVER – There was a problem Wednesday with the Zoom video calls involving Vancouver Canucks defencemen.

We mean a problem beyond a format that exposes reporters’ inarticulate long-windedness, prohibits any genuine conversation and often makes interview subjects look like hostages awaiting ransoms, unsure if they will be paid.

The Canucks’ call with Jack Rathbone came immediately before the NHL call involving Quinn Hughes.

The order was wrong. It should have been Hughes before Rathbone. Because that is the order these gifted blue-liners will arrive in Vancouver.

No one should think that Rathbone, who spurned the possibility of free agency to sign with the Canucks on Tuesday, is going to be the same player as Hughes, who on Wednesday was named a finalist for the Calder Trophy after becoming only the third defenceman in the NHL’s modern era to lead all rookies in scoring. (A couple of plugs were the others: Brian Leetch and Bobby Orr).

Hughes, 20, launched himself into the NHL from the seventh-overall draft position, and most of the six teams who picked ahead of the Canucks in 2018 should be wondering what the heck they were thinking. Rathbone, 21, was the 95th pick of the 2017 draft.

Based on his 69-game body of work this season, Hughes may already be the greatest defenceman in Canucks history. And after the franchise waited 50 years for him, it would be naïve to think someone nearly as good is about to follow him through the door.

So they’re different, Hughes and Rathbone. But Hughes is special, and Rathbone could be, too. They possess tremendous skating and passing skills and having both players under contract at the start of their careers makes the Canucks’ defence look a lot brighter than it did before Rathbone left Harvard University after two seasons to embark on professional hockey.

"We talk often about engaging our players and teaching them what it feels like to be a Canuck when we draft them," player development director Ryan Johnson said Wednesday. "It’s rewarding. I talked to Jack last night and I was ecstatic for him, knowing his family and the process that has got him here. At the end of the day, he’s a Canuck. It was a great day, that’s for sure."

There may be more.

Hughes has a chance to inherit the Calder Trophy from teammate Elias Pettersson. The Professional Hockey Writers’ Association vote between Hughes and Colorado Avalanche defenceman Cale Makar may be one of the closest in history, but Hughes being named a finalist makes the Canucks the first franchise since the 1969-71 New York Rangers to have one of the NHL’s top three rookies in three straight seasons.

Pettersson won the award last year over St. Louis Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington, while Canucks winger Brock Boeser was a runner-up to New York Islander Mathew Barzal in 2018.

"It’s really easy… coming in and knowing guys have done it before you," Hughes said of a regular season that saw him score 53 points in 68 games. "I was roommates with Petey, so we’re on the road and if I have a bad game, he’s always supportive. We’re always supporting each other. It was just easy coming in and having his experience. We talk about it quite a bit. Same with Boes. Off the ice, just having young guys around makes it more fun. We’re all pretty close. I’m pretty lucky to have these guys here."

And Rathbone will be lucky to have them for advice and support when he arrives in the NHL, which could be as soon as next season. After 31 points in 28 games during his sophomore year at Harvard, he will have at least a chance to make the Canucks next winter.

He may be stuck behind Hughes on the depth chart forever, and he will have to leave his Boston area home for the first time and move across the continent. But Rathbone still chose to sign with the Canucks, taking advantage of a brief window in the NHL’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement to burn a year off his entry-level contract, when he could have forced unrestricted free agency next summer and chosen where to play.

"The comfortability factor and the loyalty thing was a big piece for me," Rathbone told reporters. "This organization has been great to me, everyone in it. It’s the NHL and it’s my dream."

Without having played a game for the Canucks outside a couple of week-long development camps, Rathbone cited the relationship he has with the organization and singled out Johnson and player-development assistant Chris Higgins.

"Ryan Johnson and I, we just care about the players," Higgins said. "Hopefully that comes across. In Jack’s case, I left an Ivy League school after my second year (Yale, 2003). I know the weight on his mom and dad: ‘Are we doing the right thing? Is this the right time?’ I was in those discussions with my own parents. His family reminds me a lot of my family. This guy is giving up a Harvard education to pursue his dream. That’s something I don’t take lightly."

"We put a lot of work into developing relationships and trust with the players so they understand all we want for them is to be the best player and the best person they can be," Johnson said. "We support them, but they need space. They need time to grow and make mistakes. Whether it was myself or Chris who was in to see him play, I always find the face-to-face conversations after a game are vitally important."

It wasn’t only Higgins and Johnson, of course. Rathbone was visited after games by Vincent Montalbano, who scouts college hockey on the East Coast for the Canucks, and crossover scout Derek Richard, and former amateur scouting director Judd Brackett. Rathbone’s skills development was supported by Canucks skills coach Glenn Carnegie, his conditioning by sport science director Bryan Marshall.

"The phrase the sum of all its parts – that’s what the organization is," Higgins said.

Johnson said: "After we drafted Jack (in 2017), then seeing him days later at our development camp, we just established something very good right from the beginning. This was Year 3 for me working with Jack. You see him after a game and there’s a smile and it’s just good to catch up, see where he’s at, where his game is at, check in with his family. That relationship never happens overnight. It has to be built. We take pride in it. At the end of the day, you want them to feel like they’re a Canuck even before they put their name on a paper."

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