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Photo Credit: © Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

Jack Rathbone will make the Canucks a better team, starting this year: CanucksArmy prospect rankings #2

Folks, it’s been an ultimate honour to help pen the 2021 edition of the annual CanucksArmy Prospect Rankings. Now, it’s time for the penultimate honouree.

With little mystery left at the top of the list, Jack Rathbone deftly slides into the #2 slot. And by the end of the 2021/22 season, Rathbone could very well find himself in that same position on the Canucks’ blueline.

He’s that good, and he’s that ready.

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Height: 5’11”

Weight: 190lbs

Age: 22

Position: Defence

Handedness: Left

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2021/22: Vancouver Canucks

The Canucks selected Rathbone at 95th overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft after a season in which he captained the Dexter Southfield School in the USHS Prep League and recorded 35 points in 22 games.

That all sounded very promising, but Rathbone almost immediately slid off most prospect-radars when he chose to return to high school hockey for his Draft+1 season instead of moving on to the USHL — a decision that might seem strange from a developmental perspective, but that made all the sense in the world to Rathbone as a human being.

His brother Teddy, eight years old at the time, was making major progress in an integrated classroom and taking leaps and bounds with his speech therapy. Jack simply did not want to leave his family for the sake of hockey development during a period of time when Teddy, who has autism, was making such crucial developmental strides of his own.

As Jack told the Boston Herald, “[Teddy]’s a big piece of my life, and I’m going to be honest, it would be tough to leave him for seven months out of the year at this stage. He’s probably my best friend. So being able to stay home, being able to complete my four years at Dexter — they took a financial risk on me and my sister, we wouldn’t be able to afford an education there — being able to finish my four years and getting my diploma, that means a lot to me and my family.”

So, yeah, right from his draft day, Rathbone was already an exceptional person, and it was tough not to fall in love with him on a quote like that alone. But all involved also had to acknowledge that another year at the high school level ran the risk of his game stagnating and plateauing, and would at the very least leave him with some catching up to do within his own draft class.

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Then, after another 30 points in 17 games for Dexter Southfield in 2017/18, Rathbone joined the Harvard Crimson for the 2018/19 season — and caught up astonishingly quickly.

As a freshman, Rathbone got off to a respectable start of 15 points through his first 26 NCAA games — enough to remind prospect-watchers of his existence, but not exactly worth writing home about quite yet.

Seven points in his final seven games placed Rathbone second overall in scoring for ECAC rookies and earned him a spot on the ECAC Hockey All-Rookie Team.

And now, finally, people were starting to take real notice of Jack Rathbone.

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He returned to Harvard for a sophomore 2019/20 campaign that can only be described as dominant. With Adam Fox out of the way, Rathbone exploded for 31 points in 28 games, making him the ECAC’s highest-scoring blueliner and eighth highest-scorer, period. His 24 assists ranked third in the league and, after his season was ended abruptly by the pandemic, he was awarded with a spot on the All-ECAC First Team and the AHCA All-American First Team.

Of course, raw point totals were not the only reason that, by this point, Rathbone was being discussed as a premium big-league prospect.

Always a strength of his game, Rathbone’s skating ability steadily improved throughout his time in college, and it was already well over and above the NHL average before he left Harvard. Whether he has the puck or not, Rathbone can be counted on to get to where he needs to go astonishingly quickly and smoothly. And when he does have the puck, he’s got a real heads-up style of movement that makes him a nightmare for opposing defenders on the rush — and a boon to his team’s transition game. Whether he’s skating the puck out or bombing it up to a forward, he’s a veritable breakout machine.

Rathbone is not, however, just a pretty set of skates. His wrist shot is a notable weapon in his arsenal, and his on-ice vision is elite, resulting in some extremely proficient playmaking.

In other words, Rathbone is offensively effective in exactly the way that tends to translate well to higher levels of play — but then, we’ve already seen plenty of evidence of that.

Defensively, Rathbone is no slouch. His size will always be held against him, but that’s where his intelligence really shines. Rathbone’s positioning is sound, his stick is always active, and he’s able to use his superior skating effectively to pressure opponents on the rush. His heads-up style aids him in his own end and helps him get into passing and shooting lanes whenever necessary.

Will he ever clear the crease or thump a guy in the corner? Probably not. But don’t let that fool you into thinking he’s defensively suspect. Rathbone has adapted to his own strengths well enough that he’ll never hurt his team at five-on-five.

But why are we even speaking speculatively here? We know that Rathbone can defend at the professional level, because he’s already done it, and done it well.

After a brief little “will he, won’t he” saga in the summer of 2020, Rathbone signed an ELC with the Canucks and joined them for training camp in January 2021. Afterward, he was placed on the taxi squad, and there he sat…and sat, missing out on games for more than a month before he was finally demoted to the Utica Comets in late February.

As always, Rathbone made up for lost time, picking up three assists in his pro debut and not slowing down much from there. All told, Rathbone racked up two goals and nine points in his eight games for the Comets, and he had coach Trent Cull absolutely raving about his performance.

“Jack walks the line in the o-zone as good as anyone I’ve seen in this league,” Cull told our own Chris Faber, “He’s such a good student, he wants to learn, and he’s just a really good kid. Then you see how he snaps pucks and has that ability to move it and do it at a really good level. It’s something that’s a blessing. Every coach loves that, you love when a guy can snap and move pucks because that means you’re not spending time in your D zone.”

That’s heady praise, and it wasn’t all that surprising when Rathbone was recalled to the Canucks in May, nor when he stuck around for the rest of the regular season thereafter.

Rathbone scored his first NHL goal in his second game, en route to three points in eight games. Predictably, it was a beauty, and an employment of Rathbone’s lethal wrister.

At even strength, his fancy stats looked just okay, but they were actually quite impressive given the context of the COVID-ravaged blueline around him at the time — and it’s worth noting that he was still on the ice for more goals for (6) than against (5).

Were his minutes sheltered? Somewhat, but not to any real extent, and certainly not in any way worthy of concern.

What that all adds up to is a player that was probably ready to step right out of the NCAA and into the NHL, and who is certainly ready for full-time NHL duty as of 2021/22. Rathbone should already be capable of playing reasonable minutes and reasonable matchups at five-on-five, greatly improve the Canucks’ transition game, and maybe even start cashing in on the power play if he gets the chance.

Though he didn’t win the top spot on our list, it’s probably fair to say that no prospect in the system stands as much a chance of improving the Canucks’ performance as a team than Rathbone.

And the Rathbone era starts…now.