Rickard Rakell was missing from action to start the season for a number of reasons.
First, Rakell needed to get healthy after being sidelined with complications following an appendectomy. Then, Rakell, a restricted free agent this past summer, had to come to terms on a new deal with the Ducks. That wasn’t resolved until days after the season began when Rakell inked a six-year, $22.8-million deal. And still yet Rakell needed to get his work visa in order to get back to playing in North America. All told, it took until Nov. 1 for Rakell to finally enter the lineup as Anaheim was set to play their 10th game of the campaign.
Missing 10 games early in the season could be the death of a productive year for some players. They’re entering play late, missing training camp, exhibition and game action and attempting to get going after a longer layoff than the rest of the league. Getting up to speed can take a few games and keeping that pace up can be even harder.
For Rakell, however, the delayed start to his campaign hasn’t slowed him one iota. In fact, with the season winding down, Rakell has already reached new goal-scoring heights, posting 32 markers, and his 47 points are the most he’s registered in his brief professional career. If he keeps this up to end the season, he’s set to finish with 35 goals and 51 points, which is all the more remarkable when you consider he’ll have played in 71 games, at most.
To say Rakell is surprised by his production wouldn’t be accurate, but he certainly doesn’t recall another year quite like this. Not only is this the highest goal total of his three-year NHL tenure, but it’s the single-best goal-scoring season he’s had in his entire career, professional or otherwise. It actually happens to be the first time he’s cracked the 30-goal mark, period. He flirted with it in major junior, scored 28 for the Plymouth Whalers in 2011-12, but he’s only seen two 20-plus goal campaigns since.
So, what has made this goal-scoring outburst possible?
Asked about changes he’s made to his game, Rakell can’t come up with any. His off-season training remained the same, his off-ice habits haven’t been altered and he hasn’t changed his approach to shooting the puck. His lightning quick release, which is incredible to watch in action, is the same as it has always been. Rakell can pinpoint one possible explanation for his increased lamp-lighting, though.
“Playing more on the wing this year gives me different looks and more opportunities to score,” Rakell explained. “It gives me more of a chance to find rebounds and have the puck closer to the net. It’s obviously easier to score from there.”
The uptick in scoring opportunities can be seen by the rise, however marginal, in his underlying numbers. At 5-on-5, Rakell has had more individual scoring chances for per 60 minutes than he had the year prior and his average shooting position is nearly two feet closer than it was in 2015-16. He’s right about rebounds, too. He’s gotten more second-chance opportunities this season, and he’s also firing more pucks while the Ducks are on the rush. It also doesn't hurt he's scoring on more than 19 percent of his shots.
When he was playing down the middle, Rakell said, he had to be more aware of the opposition’s opportunities as much as he did his own scoring chances. And Ryan Getzlaf, who Rakell counts as a mentor, understands why the 23-year-old has had more chances to make things happen offensively since moving out of the middle.
“A lot of times as a center, you have to play low,” Getzlaf said. “You get out of our zone late, you get into their zone late, those kind of things. As a winger, it’s your responsibility to push the pace of the game and get in there on the forecheck and get opportunities. They have their job, too, but it does definitely present a few more opportunities.”
Rakell playing on the wing isn’t exactly a brand new look, however. He moved to the wing alongside Getzlaf and Corey Perry during the 2015-16 campaign under coach Bruce Boudreau. The experiment paid off — before this season, one might have considered 2015-16 as Rakell’s breakout — and Randy Carlyle kept Rakell on the wing when taking over the bench from Boudreau. Keeping Rakell there made all the sense in the world, too, when you consider the Ducks’ lineup.
Down the middle, Getzlaf is a lock as the team’s No. 1 center. Behind him on the depth chart is Ryan Kesler, who is having one of the best campaigns of his career. In the off-season, the Ducks went out and added more depth down the middle with the acquisition of veteran Antoine Vermette, and Anaheim already had Nate Thompson as the pivot for the fourth line. This is to say that even if Carlyle saw the chance for Rakell to move to the middle, it wasn’t likely he was going to be cracking the top-six. And to put a player with Rakell’s ability in the bottom-six is to ignore what he can provide when he’s skating big minutes.
Getzlaf thinks there’s more to Rakell’s improvement than his move to wing, though. There’s a natural progression players go through, and Getzlaf described Rakell’s season as the next step in his development. Part of that comes from understanding when and how to attack, something that comes with age and experience.
“I think he's learned where and when to make his moves, those kind of things,” Getzlaf said. “Early in his career, I thought he did a little more one-on-one hockey at the bluelines and stuff that either lands you on the bench or leaves you digging the puck out of the net. He’s done a great job progressing, and now he’s making his plays down low in their zone.”
Rakell finding his offensive flourish this season stands to pay dividends, too. Already, the Ducks have made a remarkable climb up the Pacific Division to end the campaign, and Rakell has been no small part of that. Over the past month, Rakell has eight goals and 13 points and, as the post-season nears, his line with Getzlaf and Eaves is one of the league’s hottest.
Depth is what wins in the playoffs, and Getzlaf pointed to Rakell as one of the emergent players who can be the second, third or fourth wave of attack that helps push the Ducks to success in the post-season. And Rakell certainly doesn’t see why that can’t be the case.
“I’m starting to feel real comfortable,” Rakell said. “I feel like I can contribute every night.”
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