The 2020 NHL Entry Draft is just over a week away.
The Vancouver Canucks don’t have a pick until the third round. As they prepare for the draft, we’re evaluating the top 10 prospects in their system. Today, at No. 6, is Brogan Rafferty.
The Canucks have hit home runs in the first round in recent years, but a top 10 list means checking out more than the players who are almost certain to make it — which usually happens with first-rounders — as the best teams find players on the edges of the draft.
Is Rafferty one of those guys? A high-upside signing 18 months ago after he finished his collegiate career at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., he’s showed off his skating and offensive talents in his short time in pro hockey.
But he’s also already 25. He’s just about the player he’s always going to be.
(Prospect No. 6)
Height: 6-2. Weight: 192 pounds.
Draft year: Collegiate free agent, 2019.
Current team: Utica Comets (AHL).
Outlook: Third-pairing defenceman.
Rafferty’s skating is the first thing that stands out when you watch him play. Then it’s his ability to distribute the puck, to create offence for both himself and his teammates.
Signing him as a free agent in 2019 was a clear move by the organization to fill a weakness in the prospect pool, even if his age meant he wasn’t going to develop much more.
The Canucks needed puck-moving defencemen. And even if he didn’t make the ultimate step up to the big club, he’d likely make New York’s Utica Comets better, playing a style of game closer to what coach Travis Green wants the Canucks to play, helping the other prospects on their way to The Show.
When you talk to scouts and analysts who have seen Rafferty perform for the Comets, the way he’s described reminds you of a point guard in basketball, a guy who is tasked with organizing the game for the team in possession, of bringing the ball up the court.
Or in this case, of course, the puck up the ice.
“It’s a great analogy,” agreed Ryan Johnson, the Comets’ general manager and the Canucks’ senior director of player development. “He’s a guy who knows you don’t have to make that blind pass every time up the court. Beating that extra man, hitting that hole, you’re managing when those opportunities arise.
“Brogan’s got a swagger to him, he’s got a confidence, the offence he gave us, the way he can walk the line, run the power play,” he added.
And, yes, he’s pulled out the occasional highlight-reel play, like the goal he scored in January against the Hartford Wolfpack: He deked through the Hartford zone, getting in one-on-one with the goalie, then flipping the puck past the netminder.
Rafferty’s come a long way in just one year in sorting out how to use his talents in the AHL, a league where everyone is much closer to the NHL than most of the competition Rafferty came up against in his NCAA days.
“He learned about getting a sense of the score, clock management, not being a riverboat gambler, picking your spots to take risks,” Johnson said.
One of the bonuses Rafferty was handed in signing with the Canucks — the latest in scout Jonathan Bates’s NCAA free-agency finds, a line that stretches to Chris Tanev — was the chance to play in the final two NHL games of the 2018-19 season, earning a big-league paycheque for a week.
The standout memory of his NHL debut sums up his biggest challenge: defending against NHL attackers. Now, his first NHL game, against the Nashville Predators in the penultimate contest of the 2018-19 season, came without him having even skated in a single practice with his new team. He had a hard time dealing with the pace of opposing attackers, of keeping a safe defensive gap.
The second game, against the St. Louis Blues, saw an improved performance at both ends of the ice, including some glimpses of the offensive swagger he showed off time-and-again in 2019-20 with the Comets.
“He worked hard on understanding the D-zone, defending zone entries, how to use space,” Johnson said. “All coachable things. They all were things he worked on all year. He likes to watch himself, he likes to watch his shifts, he’s eager to sit in with (coaches) Trent Cull or Gary Agnew and review video.”
Rafferty put up 45 points in 57 games in 2019-20, a rate that Canucks Army’s Jeremy Davis called midseason “almost what we’d expect from a borderline NHL defenceman playing in the AHL.” In other words, he’s got scoring talent like a player who might have already made The Show — but is similarly in that category for a reason.
Rafferty was an all-star in his rookie AHL season. Johnson believes he’ll be an all-star again. Of course, the real goal is to make the next step and become an NHL regular.
Davis’s analysis of Rafferty’s scoring performance up to January showed a player whose list of comparables was more heavily filled by players who flamed out as NHLers — like former Canucks minor-leaguers Justin Kurtz and Brett Skinner — than by guys who had long, quality careers, like Kevin Bieksa.
As it stands, he’s a borderline NHLer, which is fine, but the Canucks would love it if he turns out to be more.
2020 TOP 10 CANUCKS PROSPECTS
No. 10: Toni Utunen.
No. 9: Aidan McDonough.
No. 8: Jett Woo.
No. 7: Kole Lind.
No. 6: Brogan Rafferty.
No. 5: Tomorrow.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020