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Patrick Johnston: Rathbone has skill, brains and potential to help Canucks in NHL

Young defenceman Jack Rathbone is pretty excited to have an opportunity to make his NHL dream come true with the Vancouver Canucks.
Young defenceman Jack Rathbone is pretty excited to have an opportunity to make his NHL dream come true with the Vancouver Canucks.

In the end, it seems that Jack Rathbone only briefly thought about delaying his signing with the Vancouver Canucks.

The young defenceman had discussions with Canucks’ management for almost a month, he said. When the new collective bargaining agreement between the NHL’s owners and players was ratified last week — opening a short window for him to sign with the Canucks this week — it was crunch time.

He might have considered waiting until next summer, when he could have signed with any team he wanted, but it was only a brief, fleeting idea.

He signed Tuesday, smack-dab in the middle of the modified summer window for teams to sign prospects to contracts that would burn an initial year off their deal.

Rathbone won’t make any money on the first year of his deal — the regular season is over, so there are no salaries to be had — but he’ll receive $92,500 in signing bonuses paid out before each of the next two seasons. If he plays in the NHL, he’s set to earn $832,500 if he plays the full year.

The fact the Canucks, the team that drafted him in 2017, had supported him as he went through an extra year of prep school so he could spend more time with his autistic brother Teddy before moving up to collegiate hockey at Harvard University meant a lot to him.

This is also the team whose former director of amateur scouting had known him long before he was an NHL prospect, which helped to form a bond.

“He’s a self-starter and a go-getter,” Judd Brackett said at the 2017 NHL entry draft. He coached Rathbone for three consecutive seasons in summer hockey.

The fact that the team’s development staff, Ryan Johnson and Chris Higgins, had kept in close touch with him were very important, he said.

“The comfortability factor and the loyalty of the organization,” Rathbone said about why he hadn’t really hesitated in signing this week.

Johnson and Higgins would regularly text him, he said. They’d send along video analysis, too.

The uncertainty of the COVID-19 world was also a factor, too, he admitted. He’s still a Harvard student but he didn’t know if he’d have a hockey season this winter.

“That was something that was pretty big … It was a serious discussion about the investment they’ve made,” he said of how the discussion of his education at one of the world’s great universities went.

Canucks head coach Travis Green said he got to speak with Rathbone and was excited about the defenceman’s potential, especially given his puck-moving skills.

“With the way the game is going you need players like that,” Green said.

He recalled seeing Rathbone at his first development camp. Rathbone got into a physical exchange with another player and that made an impression with Green.

“He wasn’t intimidated,” he said. “You want players who are confident like that, not just with the puck but away from the puck.”

Cam Robinson writes about prospects for Dobber Hockey and is a fan of Rathbone’s game. He probably won’t be a star, but “a quality, useful piece.”

The 21-year-old already skates like a professional, Robinson said.

“The key to his ability there is his aggression. He has sharp edges that allow him to escape pressure down low and facilitate offence via transition,” he said. “He has excellent instincts on when to move the play with his feet or pass. He can change gears effectively to create separation and exploit seams. Despite his size, he protects the puck well inflight.”

He also said Rathbone has an impressive shot, which coupled with great vision makes him a threat in the offensive zone. He got the puck on net the most of any blueliner per game in NCAA hockey.

“It is a favourite weapon and one he is unafraid to use. Whether it’s at a standstill on the PP or while in-transition, he’s effective. The rare ability to shoot through his stride,” Robinson said.

Like most young players, defending against professional forwards, especially on the rush, is where Rathbone needs to improve. That said, his skating will go a long way in guiding him toward the defender he’ll need to be to stop opposition attacks and then force the turnovers.

“Gap control, attacking at the line, and not being physically moved will need polishing,” he said. “But his skating affords him grace and the ability to help clean up mistakes.”

He’s close enough that he could conceivably push for an NHL spot next season, if there’s an opening, Robinson said.

Rathbone may be headed to Vancouver as soon as Thursday, although he’ll have to self-isolate when he arrives. The team has been talking to provincial health officials about his situation.

Rathbone is pretty much used to the quarantine lifestyle as it is, he noted, having spent so long at home with his family.

And even the fact there’s no certainty he’ll even have a professional team to play for next season isn’t bothering him much. All that matters is he’s one step closer to where he wants to be.

“It’s the NHL, it’s my dream,” he said. “There’s no level above this one.”

pjohnston@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/risingaction

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