ABBOTSFORD, B.C. – After playing with Adam Fox at Harvard, Jack Rathbone said everyone knew that his college defence partner was going to be special.
But, Rathbone added: “I think it'd be tough for us to call it that he was going to win the Norris in his second year in the league.”
At age 23, Fox won the Norris Trophy in June after a 47-point season with the New York Rangers.
Also surprising, Rathbone, a fourth-round draft pick who left Harvard a year after Fox did, made his National Hockey League debut last May with the Vancouver Canucks during his first season as a professional.
“I wouldn't say I surprised myself just because that was the goal that I set,” Rathbone, 22, said Friday. “But I think it's nice to be able to prove to yourself that you belong. That was something that I was pretty excited about going into those first few NHL games -- proving to myself that I belong and I can play in this league.”
Already an intriguing prospect, the dynamic Rathbone has become an important figure at the Canucks’ training camp in Abbotsford.
The absence from camp of unsigned free agent Quinn Hughes is giving Rathbone a slightly larger stage to show himself as he tries to build on his impressive eight-game NHL cameo at the end of last season. And his deployment beside Luke Schenn, the same rugged veteran who shepherded Hughes through his first few games as a Canuck in 2019, is suddenly a potential opening-night pairing due to the Travis Hamonic mystery.
Expected to partner with Hughes on the right side of Vancouver’s defence, Hamonic is home in Manitoba for “personal” reasons, according to the Canucks. It’s unclear when the 31-year-old might join the team.
Partly out of necessity, Rathbone was fast-tracked to the NHL last season after amassing nine points in eight games as an American Hockey League rookie. It appears the Canucks need him now.
Even if Hughes re-signs, Rathbone is mature and talented enough to make the Vancouver roster on the third pairing, behind Hughes and Oliver Ekman-Larsson on the left side.
Rathbone said Thursday he has been asking Ekman-Larsson about tradecraft – little details about the NHL game that could help him. After his callup to the Canucks last season, Rathbone’s landlord was the uber-talented Hughes, who finished ahead of Fox in Calder Trophy balloting in 2020.
On the ice, Rathbone was mentored by Canuck Tyler Myers. The prospect practised all summer with his Boston-area training group that includes Stanley Cup-winning defenceman Ryan McDonagh and new Vancouver teammate Conor Garland.
Rathbone raved this week about Garland’s work ethic and determination and Fox’s hockey IQ. Interestingly, these are the same traits that have put Rathbone in a position to become an NHL regular. He appears to be a sponge, absorbing and utilizing what he is learning from the excellent hockey company he keeps.
“I got pretty tight with Hughesie last year, and I've kind of been picking OEL's brain a little bit here,” he said. “For me to grow as a player, it's fun for me to be around guys like that.
“Every day, you just kind of want to get a little bit better and better. I think it's more just a drive and an excitement around where my game's at right now and where I think I can be. I'm excited where my game is going, and excited just to continue to learn and hopefully play at a level that I can help these guys win.”
In his eight games in May, Rathbone contributed three points, was a minus player just once, and had a 47.3 per cent shots-for percentage that was second only to Hughes among Vancouver defencemen. He averaged 15:30 of ice time but logged as much as 21:17, even getting a look on the power play as a shooter being teed up by Hughes.
“I thought he did some good things when he played with us,” coach Travis Green said Friday. “He's a good young player. When you know that you have good young players, I don't think they surprise you when they play well.”
Asked about Rathbone’s drive to get better, Green said: “I got a glimpse of it (at) his first development camp. It's probably the one thing that I remember most of his early time was that part of his game. He's a pretty driven kid. He wants to do well, he's got a lot of energy, he's committed.”
And his timing looks perfect.
• Green offered no updates on Hamonic or centre Brandon Sutter, another missing player who was among the Canucks crushed by COVID-19 last April. Sutter trained fully and was healthy for most of the off-season before starting to feel tired and fatigued around the middle of August. That condition has continued.
General manager Jim Benning wouldn’t comment on whether Sutter may have “long-haul” effects from COVID or what the circumstances are surrounding Hamonic. Benning said at his pre-camp press conference on Wednesday that Hamonic would be joining the Canucks, but the defencemen subsequently requested more time away.
Hamonic opted out of the NHL’s return to play during the first summer of the coronavirus, in 2020, due to the vulnerability of his immuno-compromised daughter.
Benning said the Canucks have enough depth players to fill in for Hamonic and Sutter. For now, Schenn appears to be the third defenceman on the right side, behind Myers and Tucker Poolman.
• Another right side defenceman, prospect Jet Woo, stood out in Friday’s scrimmage with a couple of sturdy hits, including one that knocked down rookie Vasily Podkolzin to create a turnover that led to Jonah Gadjovich’s goal.
• Out indefinitely while recovering from summer surgery for an upper-body injury, winger Tyler Motte was able to practise in a small group after the main sessions ended Friday. There is no timeline for his return and it is possible Motte could miss the start of the season.
• Backup goalie Jaroslav Halak is honouring late Slovak countryman and former Canuck Pavol Demitra by displaying Demitra’s name and number on the back of his helmet. Demitra died 10 years ago when the entire Yaroslavl Lokomotiv hockey team was killed in a plane crash in Russia.
“It’s always hard to talk about,” Halak told reporters. “It’s been 10 years, but I just want to have a tribute to him and his family.”
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) September 24, 2021