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Jack Rathbone is lighting up the AHL with the Utica Comets — should he be in the NHL?

The Canucks' top prospect on defence has five points in his first three AHL games.
jack rathbone first goal
Canucks prospect Jack Rathbone holds up the puck from his first career professional goal with the Utica Comets in the AHL.

There’s something hard to miss about the Vancouver Canucks’ defence corps this season — they’re getting on in years.

Sure, there’s the 21-year-old Quinn Hughes, who is currently leading all NHL defencemen in points. They also have rookies Jalen Chatfield and Olli Juolevi, but they have bounced in and out of the lineup. The rest of the defence corps is a little long in the tooth.

Just take a look at the six defencemen expected to dress for the Canucks on Thursday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Apart from Hughes, the only one under 30 is Nate Schmidt and he’s 29 and turning 30 this July.

Alex Edler is 34, on the final year of his contract, and has lost a significant amount of footspeed. Jordie Benn is 33, Tyler Myers is 31, and Travis Hamonic is 30. The only two defencemeen signed beyond this season are Myers and Schmidt and it remains to be seen how their play will decline in their thirties.

It’s enough to make one wonder where the Canucks next defencemen will come from. Sure, Juolevi looks like he could secure a spot on the third pairing and Chatfield looks like a potential 7th defenceman that can be plugged into the lineup when needed, but where are the young defencemen that can play in the top four with Hughes? 

Where’s the replacement for Edler? Who will take top-four minutes from Myers in the coming years? Who will play on a pairing with Hughes?

Fortunately, the Canucks do have at least one prospect in the system that could be a potential top-four defenceman: Jack Rathbone, who just scored his first career professional goal on Wednesday night with the Utica Comets.

Rathbone drilled a one-timer past the Rochester Americans’ goaltender on the power play and it’s easy to imagine a future where Rathbone quarterbacks the Canucks’ second power play unit behind Hughes on the first unit.

In fact, Rathbone has been so good with the Comets that some might wonder why he isn’t in the NHL already.

An unusual route to the NHL

The Canucks selected Rathbone in the fourth round of the 2017 NHL Draft and he took an unusual route to his current status as one of the top prospects in an NHL organization. After the draft, he returned to high school hockey, citing a desire to spend one more year close to his brother, who is on the autism spectrum.

“I didn’t want to be away from him for many months in the USHL or another junior league and that was a very good decision on my part,” said Rathbone. “He put life in a new perspective when I learned he was diagnosed.”

The decision didn’t limit his upward trajectory in hockey in the slightest. He made an immediate impact in his freshman year at Harvard University, playing on the top pairing with Adam Fox, currently with the New York Rangers and one of the best young defencemen in the NHL.

Rathbone had 22 points in 33 games in his freshman year, but took a big step forward as a sophomore with Fox leaving Harvard for the NHL. He quickly proved that he didn’t need Fox as a partner, putting up 31 points in 28 games, good for third among NCAA defencemen in points per game.

Beyond the points, Rathbone wowed scouts with his smooth skating, impressive passing, and bomb of a slap shot that belied his 5’11” frame. In fact, some scouts believed that he could make the jump directly to the NHL this season.

It wasn’t to be. Rathbone showed some raw edges in his game, primarily on the defensive side of the ice, and he was beat out by the older Juolevi and Chatfield. Rathbone started the season instead on the taxi squad, available to step into the lineup in case of injury.

Flying like a Comet

His spot on the taxi squad meant Rathbone wasn’t playing any games in his first year of professional hockey — not an ideal situation for a still-developing prospect. That’s likely why the Canucks chose to send Rathbone down to the Utica Comets in the AHL.

Since getting sent down, Rathbone has been on fire.

Rathbone had three assists in his first AHL game, added another assist in his second game, then scored his first career AHL goal on Wednesday night. That’s five points in his first three AHL games, for those keeping score at home.

His first career assist was simple enough: a quick back-and-forth with Will Lockwood let him unleash his one-timer, creating a rebound for John Stevens to collect and finish. What’s key is the crisp passing with Lockwood and Rathbone’s ability to get the puck through traffic to the net.

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Rathbone’s second assist came on a short pass to Sven Baertschi, who did the rest. On his third assist, Rathbone used the threat of his slap shot to throw a fake to freeze his check, then accelerated down the boards with a quick burst of speed and sent a low shot to intentionally create a rebound for Jonah Gadjovich.

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None of those three assists were gorgeous, pinpoint passes — they were just smart plays at the blue line to create scoring opportunities for his teammates. He was able to create those opportunities because he spent so much time in the offensive zone thanks to his solid work in the neutral zone to prevent zone entries and his smart work in the defensive zone to break up plays and quickly send the puck the other way.

For instance, check out this excellent defensive read in the neutral zone from his second game, picking off a pass at centre ice. He then quickly maneuvers through the Syracuse Crunch to create a shot from the high slot, creating an offensive zone faceoff out of what could have been a Crunch rush the other way.

Video courtesy of occasional PITB contributor Cody Severtson, whose Comets reports at The Comets Harvest are a must-read for Canucks fans eager for prospect updates. 

It’s been just three games, but Rathbone has dominated every time he’s been on the ice. According to Severtson, who has manually tracked statistics for the Comets this season, he has a 65.7% corsi this season, with the Comets getting 22 more shot attempts than their opposition when he’s on the ice.

For a defenceman, that is massively tilting the ice in the Comets’ direction.

Rathbone has been paired with fellow rookie Jett Woo and they’ve been a dynamic, dangerous pairing for the Comets, not to mention the best-named pairing in professional hockey. Rathbone has the confidence to jump up ice and get deep in the offensive zone, as well as the awareness and skating to get back defensively. It’s an excellent combination.

Should Rathbone be in the NHL?

The question of whether Rathbone should be playing in the NHL for the Canucks right now is a tough one. The truth is, he needed to be fantastic in training camp to steal a spot from one of the prospects ahead of him, especially since he was coming straight out of college hockey with no professional experience.

Rathbone entered camp with plenty of confidence.

All summer I was training with some pretty high-end NHL guys and I had moments there where it was like, 'Hey, you made the right decision in terms of turning pro,’” said Rathbone at the time. “Because I am a confident kid. I'm confident in my game and my ability to hopefully play at this level sooner rather than later.”

“A lot of it's consistency for me. From a rep-to-rep basis, I need to be a lot more consistent in terms of whether it's gap or positioning and that'll come in terms of learning what I can and can't do, and what I can get away with at this level,” he added.

While Rathbone had flashes of excellence in practice and scrimmages, that consistency just wasn’t quite there. He did get the chance to practice in Vancouver for weeks while with the taxi squad, however, and it appears to have paid off.

With the Canucks struggling, there’s certainly an argument for getting young players in the lineup to get them some NHL experience heading into next season. If the Canucks become sellers at the trade deadline, spots could potentially open up, assuming the quarantine restrictions of a global pandemic don’t scare teams away from making trades.

Rathbone has an NHL skillset with his skating, passing, shot, defensive awareness, and hockey IQ. While he may take some time to adapt to the NHL game, the tools are all there. He could be getting the NHL experience he needs to adapt to the speed of the game right now.

There’s another argument, of course — keep Rathbone as far away from the Canucks this season as humanly possible.

The Canucks players have talked about how mentally exhausting the team’s current struggles have been. For a young defenceman just adapting to professional hockey, perhaps it’s best if Rathbone instead stays in the AHL and dominates, entering next season with even more confidence.

When Rathbone does play for the Canucks — and it’s definitely a “when” not an “if” at this point — he and Hughes will give them two dynamic, puck-moving defencemen on the left side, and two bonafide power play quarterbacks. All that’s left is figuring out the rest of the defence corps.

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