Under held breath, Canucks fans rejoiced Tuesday as the Jack Rathbone saga came to its conclusion. Under unique circumstances, the Canucks brass inked their most important defensive prospect to a three-year entry-level deal.
It’s no secret that two of the biggest challenges the Canucks will face on the road to becoming a Stanley Cup contender will be navigating the salary-cap and improving the defence corps. The first intersection of these two hurdles will come this summer when the Canucks have a decision to make with pending free-agent Chris Tanev. Regardless of their decision on the 30-year-old defender, the Canucks will still need a long-term solution to supplement their top-four.
There is no easy solution to the blueline puzzle but a valuable and cost-effective opportunity has presented itself by way of their prospect pipeline. Jack Rathbone will arrive in Vancouver for the 2020-21 season and will be given a legitimate shot at playing real NHL minutes. A deep dive into the Harvard defenceman is in order.
The Competitive Advantage
To be an impactful NHL player, one not only needs to be well-rounded but must also possess one or two skills that give them an edge. For the 21-year-old defenceman, his separating trait is his borderline-elite skating ability. Everything that Rathbone does on the ice is predicated by what he can do with his feet.
Breaking down the components of Rathbone’s stride, it’s quite clear that his linear skating is already NHL quality. Some prospects have tweaks to work out in their stride like violent arm swings, hunched over posture, or flailing leg kicks but Rathbone comes ready-made.
The first thing to look for is a three-point flexion in the skater’s pose. The ankle is the first flexion point and the most important. If a skater can properly bend the ankle forward, they are then able to “stack” the knee and hip over the skate blade resulting in a proper skating pose. The quality and stability of the load over the skates determine the potential ability of a skater.
If you learn better through practical experience, try doing this from home. Take a seat in a chair with your feet planted on the ground. Next, try to move your feet towards your heels while keeping them flat to the floor until your knees are past your toes. This is the ankle flexion that serves as a crucial base for skating. Because you’re sitting down, your knee is bent which simulates the knee bend of a skating stride although it is to an extreme. You’ll also probably notice that your weight has shifted forward causing you to bend slightly at the hip. That’s alright but we don’t want to be too hunched over as that eliminates a lot of potential power in our stride. This is the third flexion where skaters need to be flexible in their hips to keep their butt out and chest and head up.
The video below shows that Rathbone checks all the boxes in his pose. Ankle, knee, and hip flexion are all there. I’ve seen him hunch over at times which I would attribute to fatigue but for the most part, he stays upright. When putting it all together, he has a powerful, effortless stride. No wasted energy due to a quiet upper body and full leg extensions.
Notice in the clip above that he also makes use of using linear crossovers, an extremely dangerous weapon in today’s game, and a skill that takes Rathbone’s ability to transport the puck up ice to the next level.
What makes the linear crossover so deadly is that it is deceiving while also speed generating. A quick stepover from the left or right foot and the skater can alter their attacking line. Acceleration is also at work here as power is formed from the push off of the inside edge of the lead foot and then a cut of the outside edge from the planted foot. Connor McDavid is the best in the world at this and abuses it.
Rathbone is confident in utilizing it to great effect when manufacturing zone entries. What makes him extremely effective with it is that he understands how to manipulate speeds. In the next clip, Rathbone glides through the neutral zone waiting for an opening to expose itself. He identifies it and quickly takes two linear crossovers to attack the blueline and easily gain the zone on the powerplay. The acceleration catches the defender flat-footed and Rathbone can turn the speed differential into a scoring chance.
Improvements can be made in his lateral agility when carrying the puck. He tends to get driven wide when attacking and doesn’t have many moves to cut towards the inside and find the high danger areas. Instead, he prefers to circle the net, and if a wrap-around chance is not available, often his attacks end without a quality scoring chance.
The Ancillary Skills
If straight-away skating ability is at the heart of Rathbone’s offensive, puck-moving game, there must be secondary skills to compliment. His most dangerous weapon that will show up on the scoresheet is his canon of a slapshot. It’s heavy, accurate, and effective as a one-timer. He can beat goalies cleanly with it or use it as a tool to create rebounds. He also has the wherewithal to correctly aim shots for rebounds by shooting low and towards the side of the net where his teammates are positioned to clean up loose pucks.
The release is nothing special but when paired with his skating, it becomes lethal. His go-to move is pairing a fake slap into a drive move and where his talent shines is in his ability to link moves together in a fluid motion.
This video shows a perfect angle of his deception hidden in plain sight. When normally winding up for a slapshot, it is standard for the outside foot to move forward as part of the weight transfer. For the left-handed Rathbone, that would be his right foot. Watch as he winds up for a slapshot and his right foot shifts forward as part of his shooting motion. The deception of this play is masked by his shooting motion. The right foot serves as a plant foot and is what allows Rathbone to quickly go from faking a slapshot to attacking downhill towards his left as he pushes off of the anchored right foot.
Oh yeah, as you can see, he also has a laser of a wrist shot from the top of the circle.
The other ancillary skill I want to talk about is his edgework in tight spaces under pressure, both offensively and defensively. In the offensive end of the ice, he seems to be much more comfortable walking the line moving from his right to his left. He will either use the fake shot into drive move that was just shown off or he will use pivot turns to move laterally while keeping his hips square to the net. He is also quite good at implementing a stutter step to throw off defenders’ timing when attacking downhill.
I especially wanted to highlight this play where he gains the offensive blueline and then impressively shakes off his defender and wires a clap bomb off the post.
This play checks off so many boxes for me; he understands how to slow the game down, shield the puck while feeling for defenders, and manipulate defenders using body language. The most impressive movements are what he does with his feet. His feet transition from pointing to 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock and then a slight fake back to driving down low for a split second and then using his right outside edge to dig in and turn away from the defender. Not only do his feet sell it but so do his hands.
However, where improvement can be made is when he is playing on the left side of the ice and hoping to move towards the middle. He is much less confident going left to right and doesn’t have the edgework required to create shooting lanes that way.
It makes sense, going from right to left means you are playing on your forehand as a left-handed shot, and going from left to right means you are on your backhand which is a far weaker position. This is one of the reasons why I don’t call his skating elite at this point but he certainly has the potential to be an elite skater. A reminder that he is only 21 and not everyone can instantly be one of the best skaters in the NHL like Quinn Hughes. Speaking of Hughes, this goal of his against San Jose is a skill that I would like to see Rathbone learn and implement into his game. Hughes spins away from a Sharks forward along the left boards and retreats back to the point. He then quickly spins to open himself up towards the net and in position to blast a slapshot from the point. Imagine Rathbone, with his howitzer of a slapshot, adding this to his toolkit.
In his own end, Rathbone is slippery on his edges and can dodge forecheckers at a collegiate level. He doesn’t quite have the control of the top skaters but he can use his edges and body language to create space for himself and escape pressure.
However, because he doesn’t accelerate out of these turns like a certain Quinn Hughes, he can sometimes find himself at a standstill out of a turn and with limited options. I’d like to see him move his feet more coming out of a turn along with a better plan of attack after evading a checker.
The offence and puck carrying ability may very well be enough to warrant a look on Vancouver’s third pair next season but how he is able to hold his own away from the puck will ultimately dictate Rathbone’s arrival to the NHL.
As I previously mentioned, Rathbone is cool under forechecking pressure and can evade checks while creating space for himself by way of his edges. He can also send lead-man passes out of the zone and on the tape of his streaking teammates.
However, the decision making could still stand to use some work as he can throw the puck towards the middle of the ice when no clear options present themselves and he could stand to learn when to simplify his game.
Against the rush, his skating ability is of massive benefit to him as he can close gaps, use his stick to take away space, and then close in on a player once they are angled towards the boards. He’s also aggressive in this sense as he likes to fully close out his man and finish any rushes with a body check when the opportunity is right.
For today’s NHL, the ability to keep up with speedy players flying down the wing with the ability to shift from backward to forwards skating on a dime is invaluable and Rathbone fits this new-age mold.
When defending against sustained pressure, Rathbone’s work ethic is unquestionable. He reminds me of a little bit of Troy Stecher in how hard he competes for pucks along the boards. He also doesn’t shy away from battles in the corners. He likes to attack by first engaging in a quick stick lift and then follow up by throwing a hit along the boards. It’s almost a throwback style of defending and is uncommon for defenders of his stature. I’m curious to see how this translates in the NHL but fans will notice quickly how aggressive and willing he is to lay the body.
He also reads the play very well and can anticipate puck movements and find the right lanes to fill.
Jack Rathbone 2019-20 Statistics
Rathbone had a fantastic sophomore season at Harvard notching 31 points in 28 games, good for 8th out of all defencemen in the Nation. His 1.11 points-per-game are only behind David Farrance and Scott Perunovich. He used his shot all season long and was the premier shot contributor from the point with 3.36 shots-per-game – tied for first in the NCAA for defencemen.
Courtesy Jeremy Davis
Historically, his point production is even more impressive.
Since 2010, only 10 U21 defencemen have scored at a point-per-game rate. Six of these defencemen have gone on to not only play significant minutes in the NHL but they are top-four contributors with young players like Zach Werenski, Adam Fox, Cale Makar, and Quinn Hughes even displaying top-pairing potential. David Farrance is in the same boat as Rathbone as he was also in his age 20 season this year. Jake Walman played his one and only NHL game this year and Danny Biega is the only player on this list without an NHL game.
The 21-year-old blueliner was the Crimson’s highest scoring defenseman last year.https://t.co/40wD7a7vcX
— Eliteprospects (@eliteprospects) July 15, 2020
Advanced stats tracked by InStat Hockey showed just how impactful Jack Rathbone was for Harvard this year with an overwhelming 72.3 xGoals For%. Harvard boasted a top team in the ECAC finishing fifth in the standings this year so the quality of teammates is definitely a factor but the number is still astronomical and further evidence of Rathbone’s play driving ability and scoring chance creation.
His 4.5 zone entries and 7.5 zone exits per-game speak to Rathbone’s penchant for moving the puck up the ice. For reference, by my tracking this year, Quinn Hughes averaged 4.6 zone entries per game and 5.8 zone exits. Rathbone made quite the transitional impact on Harvard.
What is important to note is Rathbone relied heavily on the powerplay for production as 17 of his 31 points came on the man-advantage. His 5-on-5 play wasn’t quite as strong in terms of actual goal share as we can see by his teammates chart provided by Jeremy Davis. The blue bubble represents his 5-v-5 GF% which is hovering just over the 50% mark.
In Rathbone, I see a fluid, puck carrying defenceman that can quarterback a second powerplay unit in the NHL. The offensive foundation is there to have a top-four impact in the future but what will ultimately decide if he becomes a reliable NHL regular or a powerplay specialist will rest on improvements to his decisions with the puck in his own zone.
It’s a huge transition from defending college athletes to the top 0.1% of all hockey players and Rathbone will surely go through some growing pains. However, due to his work ethic, skating ability, and smarts, I think he could surprise at camp if he can refine his decision making with the puck.
Offensively and in transition, I think he could step in on the bottom pair in controlled conditions and at the very least hold his own. I’d argue that with some of his skills, he could have a positive impact on the Canucks blueline next year, and at an ELC cap hit, the Canucks could use all the salary efficient help they can get.