Canucks’ Rathbone hoping to put string of bad luck in rear-view mirror

Iain MacIntyre and Dan Murphy chat about Vancouver Canucks top prospects Nils Hoglander and Jack Rathbone's performances in the training camp, and their chances of making the opening day roster.

WHISTLER, B.C. – In the two years since he chose to leave school as one of the Vancouver Canucks’ brightest prospects, Jack Rathbone has seen a lot. Just not enough hockey games.

The fleet defenceman from Boston has endured injuries, demotions and pandemic-related career complications. When he has played, he has mostly looked good. But since his final season at Harvard University was cancelled by the arrival of COVID-19 in March 2020 — four months before the fourth-round draft pick from 2017 signed his first professional contract — Rathbone has logged only 47 games in the American Hockey League and another 17 with the Canucks, including a difficult nine-game stint in the National Hockey League at the start of last season.

Those 64 professional games over two years are less than an equivalent full season and about the same volume of games that Rathbone logged the previous two years at college.

He is now 23 years old and in his third training camp with the Canucks, trying to earn his way back on to the NHL roster after finishing his injury-shortened second pro season with 40 points in 39 games for minor-league Abbotsford.

A beautiful skater and puck mover, Rathbone remains an elite prospect – one of the Canucks’ best. But he needs reps.

“I think for anyone in any job — it’s been. . . not exactly a straight path forward in terms of how life’s changed since the pandemic hit,” Rathbone told reporters here. “So I think it’s no different in hockey right now. For me. . . every chance I get to get game reps, whether it’s in the AHL or the NHL, I think that’s how you get better. You can practise all you want, but I think those (game) reads are really key. I think I was able to take some big steps last year because of it.”

But the season began with a step back.

Rathbone made the Canucks out of camp and dressed for their first seven games. But the rookie looked uncomfortable and struggled to control possession. His expected goals-for was 42.3 per cent and the Canucks were outscored 6-1 at five-on-five when Rathbone was on the ice.

He saw his ice time reduced before former coach Travis Green made him a healthy scratch in Game 8. After dressing for just two of the next seven games, Rathbone was re-assigned to the AHL. He suffered an upper-body injury and had just started to play regularly and well when he was knocked out — literally — by a scary hit-from-behind in February by Edmonton Oilers minor-leaguer Colton Sceviour.

Rathbone missed another three weeks but finished the season with Abbotsford in terrific form, denied a late NHL callup mainly because the Canucks, under new coach Bruce Boudreau, ran into injury problems and needed other recalls while making a desperate final-month push for the playoffs.

“He got to a point last year where it was like, ‘OK, it’s time,’” Canucks director of development and minor-league general manager Ryan Johnson said. “But we were in a tough spot where we were in a playoff hunt and got pinched on recalls. He’s ready to take a run at our team now.

“He’s got a special skillset the way he skates, the way he sees the ice, the way he moves the puck. And he can shoot the puck. He’s got a lot of attributes that you love. It’s just about getting him reps and getting him up and going. You have to play games to grow as a player.”

Rathbone skated at training camp in the Schenn School of Defence, partnering with Luke Schenn — the same stable veteran who helped mentor Canucks star Quinn Hughes.

Former Detroit Red Wing Danny Dekeyser, invited to camp on a professional tryout, is auditioning on a prime spot to the left of second-pairing defenceman Tyler Myers, so it appears Rathbone will have to leapfrog a teammate or two during the pre-season to make the NHL lineup.

He did it last season and is entirely capable of doing it again, especially if the Canucks stick with their experiment of moving Hughes to the right side of defence, creating more opportunity on the left. Although Hughes, 22, is already an NHL star and one of the best passers in the game, Rathbone profiles with him in terms of size and strength of skills. Both shoot left.

“Obviously, everyone knows he’s gifted as far as skating ability,” Schenn said. “He flies around out there. We’ve had some conversations; I think the big thing is you want to continue to defend hard and take care of the front of the net and shut down plays.

“Obviously, Quinn does a heckuva job running the power play, so you’ve got to find other ways to contribute and earn your way into the lineup. (He’s) another guy who’s young, but it’s not his first time around here now, so I think he’s getting more comfortable. And I think the organization has high hopes for him.”

Rathbone is listening closely to Schenn.

“Anything that comes out of his mouth, I’m all ears,” Rathbone said of Schenn . “He’s a very calming presence out there. We try to make life easy on each other, and it’s definitely been working so far.”

Rathbone is only five-foot-10, but in a way is too big to fail for the Canucks, who haven’t much in their development pipeline to boost their defence.

Schenn and Myers are both 32. Schenn is in the final year of his contract and Myers has two seasons remaining on his five-year, $30-million deal.

Asked if he is cheering for Hughes to stay on the right side, Rathbone said: “I’m cheering for whatever’s best for the Canucks right now. He’s obviously a special player. I think you could put him at centre (and) I think he’d be OK. I’m kind of more worried about myself and my own game at this point. Hopefully I’m able to force their hand and no matter where Huggy is, hopefully be able to stick.”

Boudreau withheld assessment on Rathbone when asked Friday, saying the prospect will be judged by how well he does in the pre-season, which starts Sunday for the Canucks with a pair of split-squad games against the Calgary Flames. Boudreau said Rathbone will play a lot, which is exactly what he needs.

“Every time you come into camp, I think any chance you get to throw on that NHL jersey, it’s a privilege,” Rathbone said. “I learned a ton (last season). It was a little bit of stop and go, just with the injuries. But the time that I did get, both up and down, it was something that I don’t take for granted and something that I kind of gained confidence from and I’m able to come into camp this year just a little bit more ready to go.”

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