Anything less than making the Canucks out of training camp would be a disappointment.
This is the attitude that Utica Comets’ All-Star defenceman Brogan Rafferty is bringing next season.
The 24-year-old came in and shocked the American Hockey League this season. He was the top-scoring rookie defenceman with 45 points in 57 games. His transition to professional hockey was as seamless as a pair of Lululemon pants and he wants to make a similar jump this fall to crack the Vancouver Canucks roster out of training camp.
Brogan Rafferty won’t be your typical NHL rookie. He turns 25 at the end of May but believes that his age will be one of the things that will help him as he makes the jump to the best hockey league in the world.
“I think my age helps me. I’m not a 18-19 year old kid. On and off the ice, I think I can handle it more than your typical 18-19 year old rookie. Physically, I think I’m there. Obviously there’s some things everyone needs to work on all the time for overall strength. But I don’t have to add 10 to 15 pounds of muscle like a lot of rookies have to do. I think I’m as ready as I can be right now.”
Off the ice, maturity comes from learned experiences and lessons that were taught to him as he developed into a man.
This maturity is instantly noticeable when speaking with Brogan. Family and hockey are the two most important things in his life. He recently proposed to his fiancée Michelle and they are hoping to get married in the summer of 2021. The conversation I had with Brogan this week was such a breath of fresh air. After hearing all the disgusting things about former NHL player Brendan Leipsic it’s good to know that there are some registered good people in the hockey world.
That off-ice maturity was tested this season. Rafferty was tearing up the AHL throughout the season, he had 29 points in his first 31 games. The hot start had him leading the AHL in defencemen scoring at the time and it felt that no matter what he did in Utica, he wouldn’t get the call-up to the NHL.
The Canucks stayed unbelievably healthy on the right side of their defence corps. With only one missed game from a right-shot defenceman there was just never an opening for Rafferty.
That could have eaten up an AHL player who was producing at the rate that he was, just ask Reid Boucher.
The organization didn’t necessarily communicate the plan with Rafferty through this time. However, his maturity and understanding of the business did give him the attitude that you want to see from a prospect.
“There’s probably a reason that they wanted me to stay down in Utica. To play games and keep getting more confident. There’s no animosity on any of those decisions that were made. I was just really happy for the guys who got called up to have the opportunity to play. I wasn’t upset about any of those moves. I was just staying patient in Utica and just kind of working hard and hoping that my time would come eventually.”
So he went to work, trying to get better every day with the goal of being an NHLer just out of reach for the season. His work paid off, as this was the most explosive offensive season of his career.
The points that we saw this season came out of nowhere.
This season may have been the first year where his offence showed up on the scoresheet but growing up, he did play forward.
“I’m not the fastest player, that’s kind of why I switched to defence when I was a teenager. When I get a head of steam I can use my agility and my creativeness to open up space for other players and create plays.”
The creativeness that Rafferty talks about was one of the things that made Canucks fans take notice. His highlights were making their way to Canucks fans all season long whether they resulted in a goal or setting up a teammate for a tap-in.
— Chris Faber (@ChrisFaber39) March 15, 2020
The simple ways that he uses his body to keep the puck away from defenders was something you would see on a consistent basis. His spin move may not be at the level of Quinn Hughes, but it seems to shake defenders in a pinch and allow him to open up the ice for his teammates.
When asked about his offensive game, Rafferty mentioned that he is trying to keep the opposition off balance. Whether that be with where he moves around when in the offensive zone or how he likes to throw defenders off with his creativity. He wants to wreak havoc in the offensive zone
“Whatever causes me a lot of stress or confusion on the ice I try to do to the other team. That’s something that I like to do. Cause some confusion when we’re in the offensive zone.”
This next shift is a perfect example of the type of defenceman that Rafferty is. He takes control of the puck and finds his defence partner with some room to skate the puck up and make a pass out of the zone. From there you can see the defence is shading four of their players to the right side as the puck is brought in by the forward.
Rafferty realizes that there is open ice and he can skate into that space to control the puck, even if it is in front of the forward. He stays down low after making a pass to the forward at the point and when the puck is returned to him he finds his defence partner with a ton of open ice that sets up a scoring chance on a tipped shot.
Lots of good on this shift from Brogan Rafferty. pic.twitter.com/XpR1FyTmIO
— Chris Faber (@ChrisFaber39) May 9, 2020
This isn’t the clip that will be on highlight reels, but this is the type of shift that shows a bit about how Rafferty’s positional fluidity from the back end can generate a scoring chance.
When he is set up in the offensive zone he always seems to make the right pass. There is definitely more space at the AHL level but Rafferty rarely passes the puck to a teammate who is covered. Rafferty says that his passing and playmaking ability is the best part of his game and that’s what he thinks will help him excel at the NHL level.
Rafferty shines on the powerplay, his passing ability and awareness of open ice is the perfect combination. pic.twitter.com/1E7S8WGPOH
— Chris Faber (@ChrisFaber39) May 9, 2020
His timing and accuracy with those passes would make any Cleveland Browns quarterback jealous.
“When I make a pass to someone I want to put them in the best situation that they can be in with the puck. If I see someone with open ice and I know that they will have time with the puck on their stick, [a pass] will put them in a better situation to make the next play. I’ll make that play 90% of the time.”
It’s 2020 and any NHL team could always use more offensive-minded defencemen. One of the interesting topics that came up in our conversation was how committed he was to the defensive side of the game.
I referred to him as an offensive defenceman at one point in the conversation and though he said it was fine that I did so, he wanted to be known as a two-way defenceman. Throughout the season, he was consistently looking to improve that part of his game as every defenceman should.
A lot of box score scouts will say that this is the weak part of his game.
After hours and hours of video, it was tough to find a full game where he was poor defensively. The thing that I kept seeing was a player who is constantly surveying the ice and knowing where he and his stick need to be to break up any potential scoring chances.
Here’s an example of Rafferty in the defensive zone.
Great defensive positioning is something that Brogan Rafferty takes pride in. This shift is a great example of that. He follows it up with a breakout pass to set up a 2-on-1. pic.twitter.com/6umYm0aO7I
— Chris Faber (@ChrisFaber39) May 9, 2020
He stops the rush and forces the puck to be dumped in after the player gained the blue line. He then gets his body between the man and the puck on the boards. The puck comes loose and he looks to move up the ice, once he realizes that his team has lost possession, he cuts into the passing lane and gets his stick in the way to disrupt the pass intended for the front of the net. He finishes off this shift by collecting the loose puck and making a quick breakout pass to set up a 2-on-1 for his teammates.
The box score scouts won’t see this type of play.
I asked Rafferty what he thought about the people that say his defence is a weak point.
That’s where I got my favourite quote from him:
“So, I think part of the reason why some people may look at my defensive game as a liability is because there’s really no room for that argument on the offensive side of my game this year. They don’t have an argument for the offensive side so they try to find something on the defensive side that they don’t like. I think I’m a well-rounded defenceman and I take pride in my defensive game. I continue to work on it every year and I think every season that goes by I’ve adjusted, watched video, asked the coaching staff and other players what I need to do to get better on the defensive side of the puck. Every year I see progression so I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.”
This is it chief.
That’s what you want to hear from a guy who has been working his tail off to get to the NHL and is doing everything the right way.
Defending against the opposition is one thing, but one of the most essential defensive plays is getting the puck out of your zone once you obtain possession. Rafferty can do this in two ways. Clearly, his passing is the first and best option.
The other option is skating the puck out. He does this when an opening is available or when open ice is about to be obtainable.
An example of this and a great all-around shift is in this next clip.
He defends the 2-on-1 and then realizes that the forward group is about to make a change. He gets the puck in deep so that his teammates can get a clean change. Because he knows his teammates have just changed, he knows that if he loses the puck on the deke attempt he has four teammates behind him to cover the counter-attack.
“Usually when our team is changing, the other team is changing too. I like to occasionally carry the puck up ice. I think that’s also one of the strengths that I have. I don’t want the other team to get set up in their forecheck. I’d rather have the puck in their end instead of having to break the puck out in my own end, so that’s kind of the philosophy in my mind behind that. I think that’s kind of the flow of the game nowadays.”
One of the things that Rafferty heard this season was that his game lacked physicality. He did go in for a big open ice hit during a game on January 15th against the Belleville Senators that sidelined him for nine days but managed to bounce back just in time to participate in the AHL All-Star Game.
Rafferty is aware of the level of physicality that he brought this season. He believes in positioning and an active stick more than simply launching your body into an opponent.
“Being physical all the time as a defenceman is a hard job to do and for me, I kind of made the adjustment that if I wanted to remain healthy for the entire season I needed to be smarter defensively and not always go for the big hit, or try to get into the mix in the corners. I was using my stick and being in the right position to intercept passes instead of like blowing up guys with hits. As long as the puck ends up on your stick it doesn’t matter how you do it from my point of view.”
Rafferty went on to say that he’s not scared of contact but knows that there are different ways to retrieve the puck.
“I can get physical if I want to and the time is right. It’s kind of a thing where you have to balance out how physical you want to be with how smart you want to be. I could be a little bit meaner around the paint in our zone. But that’s something I’ve noticed on video and that I talked with the staff in Utica about just improving my game in the aspect. I think I have a pretty good sense of where to be in certain situations on the ice so I don’t really need the physicality as much as some other defencemen rely on.”
Maturity, raw offensive ability and a commitment to the defensive side.
Three key ingredients that when mixed together create the recipe for a top prospect.
This coming season is the year for Brogan Rafferty to make the NHL. He will need to have a good training camp, but now this year is different because he has earned attention with what he did in Utica this year.
He’s confident in himself because that’s who believes in Brogan Rafferty the most — himself.
So what are his goals for training camp?
“Obviously I want to make the team. I think that anything less than making the [Canucks] out of camp would be a disappointment to me. I don’t like to blame others for my failures or letdowns so if I don’t make the team out of camp, it’s gonna be my fault. But yeah, that’s my goal, show up and work hard and keep working towards being in the lineup more often and just kind of go from there.”
This was the season where Brogan Rafferty showed up.
"Hey Vancouver, I bet you'll like that one!!"
DAMN RIGHT WE WILL
What a move from Brogan Rafferty as he scores a beautiful shorthanded goal. pic.twitter.com/CY6Rat72K8
— Chris Faber (@ChrisFaber39) January 16, 2020
He took a huge leap to being an NHL player. He will have to follow up on his AHL season with a big camp. There is uncertainty on the Canucks right side with Chris Tanev and Troy Stecher on expiring contracts it opens up a spot for Rafferty to step up to the plate.
If he’s able to ride last season’s momentum into camp, the only thing I expect Jim Benning to say is “that was a home run.”