When Jack Rathbone showed up in Massachusetts this summer after 8 games in the NHL for the Vancouver Canucks, Conor Garland could immediately tell that something had changed.
“I told him the first skate, I said, ‘I can tell you played pro this year, you're so much more detailed and way better than where you were,’” said Garland. “By the end of the summer he was probably one of the best guys on the ice.”
That’s saying a lot because the group of players Garland and Rathbone skate with in the summer features several established NHL players, like Kevin Hayes, Ryan Donato, and Alex Kerfoot, as well as top prospects like Matt Boldy and Alex Newhook, both high first-round picks in 2019.
“He had such an improvement this summer,” said Garland, “He's a real special player.”
That’s been evident so far at training camp and in the preseason. Rathbone doesn’t just look like a player competing to make the Canucks’ third pairing on defence — he looks like he’s already earned the spot.
It’s not just the two points (and shootout goal) he tallied in the first game of the preseason or his impressive ability to transition the puck up ice or his ability to create chances in the offensive zone. Head coach Travis Green has specifically praised Rathbone for his effort on defence, something that Rathbone has focussed on in recent years.
“I try and put as much effort and thought into my own zone that I do to try and create offence,” said Rathbone during training camp. He knows it will be a challenge, especially given his smaller size. He’s not tiny, by any means, at 5’11” and 190 lbs, but the size and strength of NHL forwards is something he’ll need to learn to defend against.
Again, his experience skating in the summer against NHL talent comes in handy.
“We've got a lot of local pros and guys of all different sizes that you've got to learn to contain, so you don't get embarrassed there in the summer,” said Rathbone. “I think being able to go one-on-one, two-on-two against guys like that, you're able to make reads and you learn what you can and can't get away with, especially a guy like me.”
He’s not kidding about “all different sizes.” Kevin Hayes, for instance, is 6’5” and a handful to deal with in puck battles and in front of the net.
“I have to use my feet a little bit more and my stick positioning a little bit more than trying to engage guys like that just because there's no sense in me trying to run guys over that are that big,” said Rathbone. “So I think a lot of that is just kind of relying on my skating and being able to close gaps and stick positioning.”
So far, that’s shown up in spades. He’s turned aside several rushes in the preseason by giving opposing forwards no room to maneuver and getting his stick on pucks. Along the boards, he’s quick with his stick to jostle the puck free instead of simply trying to outmuscle players. And, when he does make forays into the offensive zone, he’s so fleet of foot that he easily gets back defensively every time.
Of course, one of Rathbone’s toughest opponents in those summer skate is actually one of the smallest: Garland himself.
“Skating against a guy like that in the summer, it doesn’t really let you have...an offseason,” joked Rathbone about Garland’s competitive edge that evidently doesn’t get turned off in the summer.
“I’m pretty competitive,” said Garland with a smile. “I always joke that I’ll compete in anything.”
The two shared that in common. Rathbone, for his quiet and calm demeanour, is a fiery competitor as well. Garland knows this firsthand, whether it’s on the ice or on the golf course.
“He’s a sandbagger,” said Garland. “He’ll tell you he’s worse but I haven't beaten him yet. Ever.”
The two connected as friends beyond the summer skates. Garland is friends with Ryan Donato, now with the Seattle Kraken. Rathbone is friends with Donato’s younger brother, Jack Donato, who played with Rathbone at both Dexter Southfield School and at Harvard.
“Us four hang out in the summer all the time,” said Garland. “It's a good group.”
But even before Garland became friends with Rathbone off the ice, he knew he was bound for great things. He knew it right from the first time he skated with Rathbone when the defenceman was just 17 years old, calling him “fun to watch.”
“I was with the Coyotes at the time and I told somebody, 'This guy's unbelievable. I skate with him in the summer, I think he's getting drafted this summer, I'd keep an eye out,'” said Garland. “Sure enough, he went [fourth] round and looks like he could be a steal.
“He's so good.”