Backhand, forehand. The puck slides through Adam Lowry’s skates as if he were a pylon.
Backhand, forehand once again. Tyler Meyers’ six foot seven inch frame makes for a splendid pylon.
All of a sudden, Rickard Rakell finds himself all alone in front of the Winnipeg net, and elects to make a centering pass that sets up linemate Corey Perry for a glorious chance at goal.
For two seconds Rakell has two National Hockey League defensemen and the collective breath of the Honda Center on a string.
The confidence and ease by which he controls a tiny black disk allows a brief moment of wonder to the thousands gathered on a Sunday night. A fist-fight may draw more rancorous applause, but such a display of stickhandling leaves a youngster with a new move to practice in the driveway.
Rakell’s Talent Coming To Fruition
Does the Rakell from 2014-2015 attempt that play? Largely delegated to a third line role, the 22-year old Swede didn’t always have the creative license nor linemates as talented to even contemplate such a puckhandling frenzy. NHL players below the age of 23 usually don’t, unless they happen to be cut from the same cloth as a Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid. Coaches want young players to understand defensive responsibility first before trying fancy stick-work. For better or worse, that’s the way it’s always been.
Rakell has always been a talented player. That’s why the Anaheim Ducks made him the final selection of the first round in the 2011 Entry Draft.
The player we’re witnessing in the 2015-16 season may be even better than the Anaheim brass had envisioned on June 24th, 2011. After all, how many 30th picks are playing on their club’s first line? I’ll wait.
The fit isn’t the cleanest. Rakell, a natural center, finds himself on the left wing for the first time in his NHL career. As a right-handed shot, he’s on his backhand more often than not in the offensive zone.
Yet, he’s found a way to create a heap of offense. With 18 points through 35 games, it’s safe to say that he’ll eclipse the 31 points he put up in 71 games of the ’14-15 campaign.
The native of Sundbyberg, Rakell isn’t the first player to look good skating beside Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. After all, even Patrick Maroon has looked competent with those two. That’s no knock on Maroon, but he’s not even in the same universe as Rakell in terms of pure talent.
And that’s what makes Rakell so different from previous left wingers on the first line. Not only can he keep up with Perry and Getzlaf, he can actually elevate them in the process.
The flash of stickhandling brilliance we saw from Rakell on Sunday night is just the tip of the iceberg; an expert at protecting the puck behind the net, he seamlessly combines strength deep in the offensive zone with some serious creativity. His shot generation stats have spiked across the board, indicating that he’s taken a step forward in his development.
It might be too early to say whether or not Rakell will be a career first-liner. As a 22-year old, he’s already making those NHL players who are longer in the tooth look silly. He’s been a much-needed breath of fresh air for the first line after what felt like decades of Maroon whiffing on empty net chances.
Rakell had an entire building in the palm of his hand for a blink of time on Sunday night. That blink of time may turn into a career of capturing imaginations if he continues to play with the same fearless creativity he’s shown in ’15-16.