Rathbone gearing up for exciting stretch run with Canucks

Photo: Abbotsford Canucks

📝 by Patrick Williams

The past is the past for Jack Rathbone, and it is the future that matters for the 22-year-old Abbotsford Canucks defenseman.

Rathbone took a heavy hit in a Feb. 16 game and missed nearly a month with an upper-body injury. Speaking about getting back to health before Abbotsford’s game Tuesday night against the Manitoba Moose, Rathbone said he had “dodged a bullet.”

That injury absence also halted what had been a dominant run for Rathbone, who had been selected as the AHL Player of the Week just two days before the injury. In winning the honor, he had assembled a 10-point (three goals, seven assists) week across four games, including a five-point effort (one goal, four assists) in a wild 8-5 home win against the Tucson Roadrunners on Feb. 7. Abbotsford went 4-0 that week, outscoring opponents by a 26-9 margin.

So both Rathbone and the Canucks received a major boost when he returned last Friday night after having missed eight consecutive games. Abbotsford head coach Trent Cull is pairing Rathbone alongside rookie Alex Kannok Leipert.

“Jack had some rust to blow off,” Cull told the Canucks website following Rathbone’s return. “But he did some good things out there for us.”

The 5-foot-10, 177-pound second-year pro has 24 points (six goals, 18 assists) in 22 games for Abbotsford this season. Sixteen of those points (four goals, 12 assists) came during an eight-game point streak that ended in Tuesday’s entertaining 2-1 overtime loss to the Moose, which left the Canucks at 26-19-4-1 (.570). The teams finish their two-game set tonight in Abbotsford.

A 2017 fourth-round pick by the Vancouver Canucks, Rathbone played two seasons at Harvard University before turning pro last season. He has progressed quickly since joining the Vancouver organization, needing just those 61 games at Harvard to climb from New England prep school hockey to the pro game. As a freshman in 2018-19, Rathbone won a place on the ECAC All-Rookie Team. A year later, his awards haul included being named to the ECAC First All-Star Team before he signed his three-year entry-level National Hockey League contract with Vancouver in July 2020.

Rathbone also appeared nine times with Vancouver at the start of this season before going to Abbotsford. In his rookie year last season with the Utica Comets, then Vancouver’s AHL affiliate, he gathered nine points (two goals, seven assists) in just eight contests while also scoring his first NHL goal May 6, 2021.

Going to Abbotsford this past November has helped Rathbone’s development, he said.

“A lot of credit goes to the coaching staff down here,” Rathbone said of Cull, associate coach Gary Agnew, and assistant coach Jeff Ulmer. “They’ve helped me a ton.”

Mobile and able to move the puck quickly out of his zone, playing that sort of game becomes an increasingly difficult test at each new level. But he has handled that adjustment in his limited NHL time.

“I don’t think I changed my game too much [in the NHL],” Rathbone said. “It’s more just being able to learn what you can and can’t get away with up there. The size, the speed, and physicality up there. A little bit less time and space, and you’ve got to make plays a little bit quicker. So honestly, just being able to read that and make that adjustment once you get up there.”

Working on his shot is another objective.

“I put a lot of work into it,” Rathbone continued. “I guess I try to hide the release a little bit. But one of the things I’ve probably been trying to work on down here is just getting [shots] through, getting it to the net, and letting our forwards do the job once I get it there.”

Currently fifth in the Pacific Division, the Canucks are trying to track down fourth-place Bakersfield, which hosts Abbotsford on Saturday.

“We’ve got a good team this year,” Rathbone said as Abbotsford gears up for a run to the Calder Cup Playoffs. “So hopefully we can keep that going here down the stretch.

“I think we’ve got a lot of skill. We’ve got a lot of guys who like to play fast, guys who like to play get-up-and-go hockey, play a pretty up-tempo style. I think we’ve found some chemistry there just in terms of how we want to play, and I think we’re trying to start to form an identity. That’s been big for us, just trying to stick to that here down the stretch.”

Like much of the AHL dealing with COVID-19 postponements, the revamped schedule will test the Canucks. Following a six-game homestand at the beginning of April, Abbotsford will play six of their final seven games on the road.

Rathbone is looking forward to the first late-season test of his young pro career.

“I think it’s huge,” Rathbone said. “A lot of tight, one-goal games, and I think it’s huge, just being able to learn how to play in those one-goal games. I think that’s when you have the most fun. I think the biggest games are when you want to be in it here down the stretch.

“I think we’ve got the team to probably do something pretty special here.”