Hockey

How Will Rickard Rakell Impact a Playoff-Run?

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When the dust cleared on trade deadline day, the Pittsburgh Penguins were able to add two players to a team that is sitting in third place in the National Hockey League’s (NHL) tight Metropolitan Division. They added defenseman Nathan Beaulieu from the Winnipeg Jets for a conditional seventh-round pick and on the other traded Zach Aston-Reese, Dominik Simon, a goalie prospect named Calle Clang and a 2022 second-round draft pick to the Anaheim Ducks for Rickard Rakell.

At a press conference that took place after the deadline, Pittsburgh’s general manager, Ron Hextall described why he decided to deal four assets to distant Anaheim for Rakell. The six-foot-one Swedish right-winger scored 30 goals four seasons ago, but his offensive numbers have been deteriorating in recent years despite him retaining the ability to score a highlight-reel goal.

We felt like our secondary scoring has been a little bit of an issue, it [has come] to light lately, but whenever you can add to it [you do so]. We think Rickard adds a lot to our group in terms of the skill part of the game and really makes us, certainly in our top 9 and our top 12 a lot deeper.

Penguins General Manager Ron Hextall

This season, Pittsburgh’s captain Sidney Crosby has led the team with 70 points this season, while Jake Guentzel‘s 65 points and 31 goals are a close second. However, Guentzel leads all Penguins in goal-scoring, by far with 31 this season, which is more than double what the newcomer, ‘Slick Rick’ has this year. Well, at 6’1 and 195 pounds he is a huge upgrade in terms of size over both Guentzel and Bryan Rust, but what if one of those guys gets injured at this late point in the season?

Last season, any hopes that Pittsburgh had of pursuing the Stanley Cup were crushed when one-time Hart Trophy-winning center (The Award given to the NHL’s Most Valuable Player), Evgeni Malkin suffered a knee injury that made him miss the first half of the current season. From this standpoint, it was smart for this depleted offensive team to add a winger like Rakell who knows what it takes to score 30 in this league. In addition, Rakell does not play soft in front of the opposing team’s net. The evidence supporting this is that Rakell screened the goaltender on two of his linemate Malkin’s point-shots that lit the lamp during Pittsburgh’s recent win on Mar. 27 over Detroit. However, it is time to dive deep into Rickard Rakell’s career which started back in 2014…

A Deep Dive into Rakell’s NHL Career

Rickard Rakell was drafted 30th overall in the first round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. The Swedish first-round pick impressed his NHL founders by scoring 106 points in 100 games of Ontario Hockey League (OHL) action from 2011 to 2013, which saw him lifted up to the big show for the 2013-14 season. However, Rakell mustered just four assists in his first 18 NHL games and did not root himself in the league until 2014-15 when he scored nine goals and 22 assists in 71 games for the Californian team.

Two years later, the silky-smooth dangler enjoyed his breakout season in the NHL. Four years ago, at the age of 24, Rakell scored a career-high 69 points in 77 games with the Anaheim Ducks, which included the nearly identical goals and assist totals of 34 and 35.

Now, what about Rakell’s success during the Stanley Cup Playoffs? It was the same year that Rakell broke out with a career-high in all offensive categories that his veteran Anaheim Ducks team led by captain Ryan Getzlaf would reach the Western Conference Finals. During this run, Rakell was no passenger because as a 24-year-old, ‘Slick Rick’ scored seven goals and added six assists, for a total of 13 points in 15 games.

Anaheim Ducks Offseason
GLENDALE, ARIZONA – JANUARY 26: Ryan Getzlaf #15 of the Anaheim Ducks warms up before the NHL game against the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on January 26, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

After scoring 69 points during the 2017-18 season, Rakell’s point total dropped severely down to just 43 points during 2018-19. The Swede’s regular-season numbers have kept declining over the last three seasons, having gotten to the point where Rakell had 28 points last season and a minus-14 rating, which is an exaggerated downturn since Rakell played in 52 of last season’s truncated 56-game schedule.

One reason why Rakell’s numbers have been on the downswing can be explained like this. Over the last three seasons, Rakell has played on an aging Anaheim Ducks team. After the 2018-19 season where the Ducks would miss the playoffs for the first time in seven years, Anaheim chose not to re-sign their alternate captain, Corey Perry. Perry was a key player on every Ducks team from 2006-2018, which equated to at least ten playoff appearances. That’s one reason why the Ducks over the last three years, have not been what they used to be.

This year Rakell has played on a Ducks second line centered by a 21-year-old named Trevor Zegras and which also includes decent scoring winger Sonny Milano. So far, the Ducks are sitting in seventh place in the Pacific division and do not look playoff-bound but in terms of why Rakell was mediocre this season, do his linemates back in Anaheim deserve any blame? Before he got traded, Rakell was playing alongside Zegras, who has had a great first full season in the NHL. The young gun has churned out 47 points in 60 games and based on that, it’s plausible to say that Rakell should have scored more because a slick young center was passing to him. All in all, the Penguins made a smart move by trading for Rakell because their team needed some supplemental scoring as well, and here is how Rakell could impact what is turning out to be an air-tight race to the top of the Metropolitan Division.

How this Trade Impacts the Metro Division

The reason that Rakell has already made the Penguins better is that his new linemate, the elite second-line center named Malkin now can play with a guy who has not scored a lot in recent years, but who still remembers how to put the puck in the net. Rakell assisted on two of Gino’s three goals against the Detroit Red Wings two games ago in addition to notching the last goal of that 11-2 win on a great wrist shot. Rakell’s snipe in that game opened the Swede’s account as a Penguin, but since his team will likely make the playoffs for the 16th straight year and since this could be Crosby or Malkin’s last cup run based on their health, the pressure is on the Penguins’ supporting cast to put them over the top.

PITTSBURGH, PA – APRIL 14: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins gets ready for a second period face off while playing the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game Two of the Eastern Conference First Round during the 2017 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on April 14, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Let’s analyze how well Rakell has done in his first five games with Pittsburgh. During this span, the Penguins have faced three non-playoff teams (Columbus, Detroit, and Buffalo) in addition to the New York Rangers who sit in second place in the Metropolitan Division and the Penguins are just one point behind. So, let’s set Rakell’s single-game stats against the Rangers, aside for the moment and weigh his performances against the Blue Jackets, Sabres, and Red Wings. In these three games, the Swede averaged 16 minutes of ice time and had two shots, while the only goal that he has scored was the last goal in a massive blowout win. However, notwithstanding the lack of meaning behind that goal, Rakell did show off just how great his wrist shot is.

Now, part of the reason that the Penguins’ front office decided to deal away two solid forwards and a high draft pick for Rakell is the winger’s scoring pedigree. Despite his lack of production during last year’s wacky COVID-shortened season, the 28-year-old Swede has picked the pace back up this season. It’s also very important to point out that, that playing with one of the greatest offensive centers in the game, makes the likelihood of a player, who’s scored 30 goals before, reclaiming his scoring touch, very strong.

It’s even more important to note that Rakell’s new linemate has been on a tear lately. After ending a seven-game pointless streak on Mar. 19 against Arizona, Malkin has rattled off ten points in his last ten games. At the end of the day, to truly help the Penguins inch towards becoming real Stanley Cup contenders this Spring, the new guy needs to step his game up two notches. In the playoffs, Rakell has 19 points in 46 career games and that is only marginally more productive proportionately than teammate Bryan Rust, who was a key player on the Pens’ most recent Cup-winning teams.

When it comes playoff time, Rust and Rakell’s playoff track records suggest they may not score as much as they do in the regular season. For ‘Slick Rick,’ who has struggled in recent years to score goals, there will never be a better opportunity than playing on the same line as Evgeni Malkin, a former Hart trophy-winner. A coach I interviewed once told me that his dad always said, ‘There’s always going to be someone better-looking than you, or more talented, but there’s never any excuse to get outworked.’ These words are spoken by an accomplished college soccer coach and even though they didn’t come from a professional coach, they ring true, nonetheless. Bryan Rust has always been the hardest worker on the team but can a “skill-guy” like Rakell remodel himself as a two-way player? That is the question he needs to ask himself.

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