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Photo Credit: © William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

The best and worst case scenarios for Brogan Rafferty’s 2021 season with the Vancouver Canucks

After a standout rookie season in the AHL, defenceman Brogan Rafferty now has his eyes on a full-time NHL job with the Vancouver Canucks.

Rafferty will turn 26 during this upcoming season. Now is the time for him to make his impact felt at the NHL level if it’s ever going to happen. Last year he was by far the most offensively productive defenceman for the Canucks AHL team, the Utica Comets. He posted seven goals to go along with 38 assists in 57 AHL games. He was named an AHL All-Star, led all rookies in assists and also made both the All-AHL Second Team and All-AHL Rookie Team.

There’s a lot to like about Rafferty’s game but there are also a lot of question marks about where he fits with this team and if he can transition his skills to the NHL level.

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Let’s look at the best and worst-case scenarios for Rafferty in 2021.

Brogan Rafferty Now

Last season, Rafferty did not make an appearance in the NHL. He got a small taste back in the 2018-19 season where he participated in two games that saw him average 13:21 of ice time.

Rafferty came into his own after an injury to Olli Juolevi propelled him onto the Comets’ first power play unit. That is where he was at his best, playing with a stacked AHL power play group that featured players like Nikolay Goldobin and Reid Boucher. Rafferty’s shot from the point along with his ability to make things easier on his teammates with his calm demeanour and good passes make him a candidate to be a power play contributor at the NHL level.

He gets shots on net and does a great job of helping gain the zone with his puck carrying or ability to make the right pass under pressure. The Canucks currently have defencemen like Quinn Hughes, Tyler Myers and Alex Edler who are likely higher on the power play depth chart but Rafferty could sneak his way into some time on the second unit if things were to fall into place for him.

The tough thing for Rafferty is that he didn’t kill a lot of penalties last season.

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I recently spoke with Rafferty and he said that killing penalties is something he has always done in his career up until last season. The team wanted to use him a lot at 5-on-5 and on the power play because of his skills and there were other defencemen who were more known as defensive defencemen in the Comets’ lineup. If he is able to kill penalties at the NHL level and can help give a player like Nate Schmidt some time away from the penalty kill, he could find a spot on the Canucks’ third pairing as soon as opening night.

The Best of 2021 Rafferty

Games Goals Assists Points
56 5 18 23

Realistically, to put up 27 points he will have to get some time on the second power play unit, which is possible if he impresses enough in camp or we see an injury to a player like Tyler Myers.

In this best-case scenario, Rafferty makes the Canucks lineup out of training camp and plays in all 56 projected games. He would likely be alongside Jordie Benn or Olli Juolevi and that pairing probably doesn’t get to see the ice a ton. They would, however, get more offensive zone starts, specifically if Juolevi is his partner on the third pairing.

The assist number should be relatively high for Rafferty if he is in the lineup for the Canucks. One of his best skills is the ability to move the puck up ice quickly to streaking forwards. I can see a relationship between Rafferty’s passing making a solid connection with players like Nils Höglander, Jake Virtanen and Elias Pettersson as they quickly exit the zone to begin creating offence.

There’s a lot of hype about passes to create zone exits from Juolevi and Jack Rathbone, but Rafferty has shown to be the most consistent of the trio at the highest level of play. I think there could be a bigger adjustment needed for Rathbone, who’s coming from the NCAA, and Juolevi just didn’t do it enough at the AHL level last season to rank him ahead of Rafferty, who did an amazing job breaking out of the defensive zone last season.

The Worst of 2021 Rafferty

Games Goals Assists Points
15 1 3 4

Even though he had a stellar 2019-20 campaign in the AHL, there are no promises that his game will translate to the NHL. Some scouts and people who have watched Rafferty a lot tend to speak on his lack of defensive coverage in his own zone. Training camp 2.0 showed that a lot as it looked like Rafferty was not ready to defend against NHL talent. When we spoke this week, he said it was very tough for him to get ice and stay ready for that training camp during the pandemic.

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Canucks management seems to be pretty high on players like Olli Juolevi and Jalen Chatfield. These two players could both realistically come out of camp ahead of Rafferty in the depth chart.

If this were the case, Rafferty would not get a ton of action and that would limit his ability to make an impact on the ice. Even if he is thrown into action due to an injury, I doubt Travis Green would give that pairing a lot of time. Likely more than the six minutes that we saw Juolevi get in the playoffs, but it wouldn’t shock me to see him get somewhere around 12 minutes if he is the 8th or 9th defenceman on their depth charts and is forced into action.

What else does a successful 2021 for Rafferty look like?

Just Play the Game: The biggest success for Rafferty would come from simply playing games. He did enough last year to earn that but the Canucks defence core stayed healthy enough to keep him playing in the AHL. If he is able to get into game action and keep up with the speed of the NHL, he will be ok.

Special Teams: This is where he is at his best. If Rafferty gets time on the power play unit, he will produce offence. The bigger question for me is if he is able to kill penalties for the Canucks. If Rafferty can make himself into an NHL penalty killer, this is a huge boost in his chances to play games for the NHL squad.

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Become More than a Tweener: Defencemen at Rafferty’s age typically know where their career is headed. Like I mentioned earlier, Rafferty will turn 26 during the 2021 season. If he is able to keep up with the NHL speed and still shine with his offensive skills, he will be known as a 6th-8th NHL defenceman instead of a first pairing AHL guy. That AHL-NHL tweener tag is a tough one to shake and this year he could do that with a solid performance at the top level.

What Might Get in the Way?

Olli Juolevi, Jalen Chatfield, Jordie Benn and Jack Rathbone: These four defencemen all have a shot at making the Canucks opening night roster. You could even throw Ashton Sautner’s name into the mix if you’d like, as he played the right side for a majority of last season even though he is a left-shot defenceman. Rafferty could get lost in the mix if he doesn’t show well in camp and that may result in him being sent back to the Comets.

Defensive Struggles: There’s too much to like about his offensive abilities to not at least give him a shot this season. He will have to be able to consistently defend against NHL competition though and after what we saw at training camp 2.0, this could be the one thing that holds him back.

He will have to be better than this.

I think Rafferty is the best option for the Canucks on their third pairing right now.

They need to at least see what he does against NHL competition. He should be one of the 23 players who make the roster cut and I would give him all the opportunity in the world to secure that spot. The other options for the third pairing just didn’t have a 2019-20 season like Rafferty.

That third pairing role is his spot to lose at camp.