Adjustment to new lines, evolving game make Rickard Rakell valuable

Rickard Rakell's mostly-seamless adjustment to new line combinations has paid off for both him and the Anaheim Ducks. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

TORONTO -- Watching Rickard Rakell deftly navigate through traffic with his soft hands and creative vision in this his breakthrough NHL season, one wonders how he went just 30th overall in the 2011 draft.

The answer is just another chapter in the Anaheim Ducks' draft mythology.

Consider the events of that Friday evening in St. Paul, Minnesota, five years ago when Anaheim held the No. 22 overall pick. The Ducks had targeted Stefan Noesen, and when he went No. 21 overall to Ottawa they shifted gears.

"That's when we moved back,'' Ducks GM Bob Murray recalled this week.

Murray traded the pick to Toronto in exchange for the Maple Leafs' No. 30 and No. 39 overall picks. Toronto drafted Tyler Biggs at No. 22, while the Ducks took Rakell at No. 30 and John Gibson at No. 39.

That's how the top franchises in this league stay on top, with days like that.

"Gibson we definitely thought was somebody we could get at that point in the second round," Murray said. "We targeted him. Rackell was one of a couple of guys we hoped we could get at 30. Anybody who plays as a 17-year-old in the world juniors, and does OK, he's got something. We liked him.''

That 2011 draft also netted the Ducks center William Karlsson (now with the Columbus Blue Jackets) in the second round and defenseman Josh Manson in the sixth round. (Ironically the Ducks now have Noesen too, from the Bobby Ryan trade with Ottawa. Noesen, Rakell's teammate in Plymouth in the Ontario Hockey League, suffered some serious injuries the past few years but looks like he's turning the corner now in San Diego of the American Hockey League.)

As for Rakell? All he remembers was the relief of finally being taken on that Friday night.

"I just remember it being a long day," Rakell said Thursday with a laugh. "It was really long. I was the last pick that night. I was actually kind of surprised that Anaheim picked me. At the end of the day, I'm super happy I ended up with the Ducks and grateful for every opportunity I've had.''

His former OHL coach in Plymouth, Mike Vellucci, was just as relieved when Anaheim took Rakell.

"I was begging teams to take Rickard in the first round,'' Vellucci, now assistant GM and director of hockey operations for the Carolina Hurricanes, said over the phone Thursday. "It was touch-and-go. I remember a lot of people gave the Ducks grief for taking him that high. Not anymore.''

Vellucci had Rakell for three years in Plymouth and knew better than anyone the kind of two-way star the native of Sollentuna, Sweden, would have the chance to be in the NHL.

"First off, he's just a great, quality person," Vellucci said. "That's the biggest thing that stands out, he's just such a solid person and great teammate. Everybody loved playing with him. Hockey-wise, he always had the offensive talent, but he was so good defensively, he was a coach's dream that way. I was trying to get him to think a little more offense, because he's so responsible defensively, that sometimes he sacrificed his offensive skill. It's hard for a coach to say that.''

Because most times, coaches are trying to get young, gifted forwards to learn how to play in their own end, not the other way around.

"I would say with 99.9 percent of the guys you are, but with him, he was such a responsible player defensively," Vellucci said. "But his skill was high-end, and every once in a while he would show it; we were trying to get him to show it a little bit more.

"But his offensive skill, I've been watching him this year, it's really shined, he's taken it to another level. I knew it would get there once he got comfortable with his surroundings.''

There's a reason, perhaps, that Rakell feels so comfortable in his own end.

"I played defense until I was like 14," Rakell said. "I was a stay-at-home defenseman. I liked to throw big hits.''

He smiled as he was saying that. And his smile grew wider when asked why he decided to switch to forward.

"I didn't like that I didn't have a lot of scoring chances," he said. "I wanted more scoring chances. I wanted the puck more. It's not fun to stand on the blue line and wait for it.''

Rakell's decision to leave his native Sweden at such a young age to play Canadian major junior turned out to be a wise one. His agent, Peter Wallen of Octagon, credits Vellucci for helping Rakell adjust to the North American game, in the first year spending extra time with him after practice to go over the nuances of the different style over here.

"Mike Vellucci had a big impact on Rickard,'' Wallen said Thursday over the phone.

"For sure, it was a totally different game for me," Rakell said in echoing his agent's comment about Vellucci. "It was really good for me to play that style and to learn.''

With 19 goals and 21 assists in his second full NHL season, the 22-year-old is coming of age. Those numbers should grow in the next few years.

"He's really taken a big step this season," an opposing Western Conference GM said via text message. "Looks like he's physically stronger this year. Their team had a tough time scoring early so he was given a chance to play on the top two lines with good players. He scored early so he has been playing with a lot of confidence. He has a quick release and has an accurate shot.''

Credit Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau for betting that Rakell was ready for a bigger role, partnering him right from the start of training camp with Corey Perry. The two have played much of the season together.

Rakell's ability to live up to that role has allowed Boudreau splitting up Perry and center Ryan Getzlaf to actually work, which many people never thought would happen.

"It definitely helped," Perry said of Rakell's ability to handle the gig. "I played with Racks all throughout training camp, Getzy and I were split right from the start. I think him getting that experience and knowing it might be a real possibility throughout the year, it helped him get comfortable early. And he's really flourished, he's come into his own.''

And that evolution has afforded Boudreau the luxury of rolling three dangerous lines when he has his full complement of players, with Rakell, Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler down the middle. Scary.

It also means he can put Perry back with Getzlaf at any point, which Boudreau has done recently. Now, he's got options as the playoffs approach in terms of adjusting lines on a whim.

"I can go either way now," Boudreau said of Rakell or Getzlaf pairing with Perry. "We can change it during the course of the game, either way. If teams are trying to match up against us, it makes it a lot tougher for them.''

All of which is possible because of Rakell's evolution this season.

"Leaps and bounds," Boudreau said of Rakell's growth as a player. "When he's on, he's really good, really good. He's still a little inconsistent, but that again will come with experience.''

Rakell is averaging around 16 minutes a game, up from around 12:30 last season.

"I mean, it's been a fun year," said Rakell, who could become a restricted free agent on July 1. "I'm just happy with all the opportunities I've had to play on the power play, play a lot of minutes, and just trying to take advantage of it.''

That long wait on draft night five years ago was certainly worth it.