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Photo Credit: (Photo by David Kirouac/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

What the playoff bubble taught Brogan Rafferty and how he found extra motivation this offseason

After a seamless transition to professional hockey from the NCAA, defenceman Brogan Rafferty is looking to crack the Canucks’ lineup out of training camp.

By now you probably know the story on Rafferty. Signed as a college free agent, he played two NHL games at the end of the 2018-19 season before ripping up the AHL last year. He scored seven goals and added 38 assists on his way to becoming an AHL All-Star, leading rookies in the AHL for assists and making the AHL All-Rookie team and AHL All-Second team.

He did everything you could have hoped for as an AHL rookie and then some.

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The Canucks’ defence core was very healthy last season and that meant that Rafferty would not end up getting called up to the NHL in 2019-20 but is now looking to crack the roster out of training camp for the 2021 season.

I spoke with Rafferty before he left for Vancouver to check in and see how his offseason has been going. Here are some of the highlights of the interview and I’ll post the full episode of the podcast at the end of this write-up if you want to listen for yourself.

I first asked about what the bubble experience was like for him.

“Yeah, it was really interesting. I don’t think that will happen for a while now, if ever again, so it was cool to be a part of the bubble experience,” said Rafferty. “It was a grind for guys in there, myself included. Looking back on it, you’re very focused every day. You wake up, you workout, depending on if you’re playing or not you have a certain kind of skate you have to do. You’re really focused when you’re in there. It was really cool seeing players that I grew up watching just walking around the rink, saying hi to them and having conversations with people that I haven’t caught up with in a while. That was the good part of it. The worst part was not seeing our families and stuff, other than that it was a pretty unique experience that I’m grateful for in the long run.”

I asked about what it was like for the underdog Canucks team to catch the eye of the hockey world during the playoff run.

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“We kind of knew that we were written off after we beat Minnesota. Facing St. Louis, everyone thought that St. Louis was going to roll over us but our group and coaching staff believe whole-heartedly that we were the better team, that we were the faster team and we wanted it more. That’s what we did.”

“I wasn’t really on the ice but I was watching them,” he chuckled. “They really outworked them and they really wanted it.”

I followed up by asking what he thought about the amazing stretch of games that Thatcher Demko played in the Vegas series.

“It was awesome, he’s such a good guy. He’s been a great resource for me and any questions I have. He’s been putting me under his wing because he’s kind of been in the same situation that I’m in. Watching him in those games was unbelievable, we were sitting in the suites up top. If you had a camera up there to see our group, our jaws were dropped on every other play, every other save he was making. Just hitting each other when he made a sick save or something like that. It was special to watch and everyone was so happy for him.”

I asked about what he thought about his performance at the summer training camp going into the bubble and if he performed up to the standard that he was hoping for.

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“Probably not in the camp,” he said. “As we went to the bubble and the skates I felt more comfortable. It was hard to get ice like three times a week [because of COVID-19] and get fully prepared for a training camp like that. No, I probably didn’t play as best as I could have. As I went into the bubble I thought [during] the practices I got better and was feeling more confident. I’m picking up stuff every day, learning and observing from guys, taking bits and pieces into my game. After I left the bubble that’s been my main focus on the ice. Try to start putting up those areas of my game so when I come into that training camp in a couple of weeks I am ready to go and make an impact.”

I asked how he felt he’s been able to accomplish that through a strange offseason where ice and gym time is probably still hard to come by.

“I’m lucky to have a home gym in my garage. I’ve put on seven, eight, nine pounds. I’m just trying to get stronger, stick strength, wrist strength is one of my big focuses. Just trusting my skating ability and watching video from the team’s games last season while I’m riding the bike in my garage. Watching what players like Taney (Chris Tanev) and Stech (Troy Stecher) do. The right-shot defencemen who unfortunately are no longer with us. Even just guys on other teams, keeping things simple and playing with an edge.”

I asked about what happened last year because it’s the most goals and points he’s ever put up in any high level of organized hockey.

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“I think everything just came together for me last year. We had a really good team and the coaching staff was great just putting me in every situation possible to succeed. It just came all together for me and I wanted to be more of a threat shooting the puck because I do think I have a decent shot to get through traffic.”

With all the question marks surrounding the Canucks’ third pairing, there is a path for Rafferty to earn a spot on that pairing out of camp. I asked him how he felt going into camp with so many things up in the air.

“The one word I would use is motivated. Focused and motivated on what I need to do to make the team and what they are looking for in me to crack the opening night roster. There’s a lot of motivation [with] Tanev and Stecher gone. I can’t say enough good things about them. [In the] short amount of time I knew them they were both really nice guys who were huge pieces of this team and I just would like to come in and try to fill that role the best I can.”

I asked how he looks at the transition to the NHL. Obviously, he has no problems scoring at the AHL level but if he were to make the Canucks third pairing he could be asked to kill penalties and have to change his game a bit. Similar to how we see high-scoring junior players have to improve their defensive game when they jump to the NHL.

“I didn’t [kill a lot of penalties last year], I did it in college a lot and it’s a part of my game where I think that I can kill penalties if I need to do that. In Utica, we had a lot of guys who had been there for a couple of years and who were penalty killers that were great at it so they didn’t really need me as much for that. For me, it’s finding my role in the NHL and I know that’s going to be different than what it was in the AHL last year. It’s just coming and analyzing what kind of role I need to fill and do whatever it takes to make this team.”

I asked about the difference between last year’s first camp and this one as per role and outlook of actually making the NHL team.

“I was just trying to make an impact and hope that stayed in their minds when I was down in Utica,” he said. “This camp is a little different because now I have a big opportunity here. I’m very aware that there is a spot open so it’s extra motivation and I’m more mature than I was a year, year and a half ago.”

Training camp opens on January 3rd and Rafferty is currently in the midst of his mandatory 14-day quarantine after travelling from Chicago to Vancouver. He will battle against players like Jordie Benn, Olli Juolevi, Ashton Sautner and Jack Rathbone to lock down a spot on the Canucks’ third pairing.

We will keep you posted on all the battles at training camp and can’t wait to be back in the rink to take it all in.

The full interview with Rafferty is on episode 122 of the Canucks Conversation Podcast and it begins at 49:24.
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