There appears to be an expectation among followers of the Vancouver Canucks that this upcoming off-season will present some vacancies throughout the team’s defence corps. Chris Tanev and Oscar Fantenberg are pending unrestricted free agents, while Troy Stecher is slated to become a restricted free agent at the end of the 2019-20 National Hockey League campaign.
Much discussion has revolved around the future of Tanev, Fantenbeg and Stecher in Vancouver with the common conclusion being that salary cap constraints will force difficult decisions with regards to their status as members of the team. This has been expedited by the recent expressions of interest from the 6’7’’ former Canucks defenceman Nikita Tryamkin about a potential return to the roster as well as the emergence of 2019 college free agent signing Brogan Rafferty as one of the Utica Comets’ best players this past season. Rafferty, in particular, was one of the Comets’ American Hockey League All-Star Game representatives in 2019-20, joining the team’s offensive leader, Reid Boucher, at the event.
The 24-year-old Rafferty was Utica’s most important blue liner in 2019-20. He was third among all AHL defencemen in league-wide scoring with seven goals and 45 points in 57 games, three points behind the lead held by Carolina Hurricanes prospect Jake Bean. Also of note was that he was four and six points ahead of former Canucks Adam Clendening and Derrick Pouliot, respectively, in the AHL scoring race. No other Utica defenceman was anywhere near as prolific as Rafferty this season; the second-highest scorer on the team among defenders this season was Olli Juolevi with two goals and 25 points in 45 games.
One of the most pressing questions concerns the potential for either Tryamkin or Rafferty to become adequate replacements for the possibly-outgoing defencemen. In a previous article, we looked at Nikita Tryamkin’s performance this season in the Kontinental Hockey League and offered a sample of recent footage. To provide an idea of the type of game that Rafferty plays, we have an opportunity today to examine his American Hockey League performance on March 4, 2020 against the Buffalo Sabres’ farm team, the Rochester Americans.
Brogan Rafferty is, in basic terms, a utility defenceman whose style is unspectacular and whose offensive game, while spirited, is prone to mistakes, is less about playmaking and is more about puck support off the rush. He utilizes body positioning and stick checking in his own zone to free the puck from the opponent in the corners and behind the net. Once the puck moves back up the ice, he does not hesitate to join the rush. However, he is not a puck rusher or a smooth-skating carrier, so one can not expect him to freewheel with the puck. He supports his teammates’ attack with offensive zone pinches and by providing them with an additional option down low when they make an aggressive push towards the opposition’s goal line.
Offensively, his vision is unlikely to make him a prolific contributor at the National Hockey League level. Upon retrieving the puck, he is not often immediate with his passes to teammates, hesitating and delaying his distribution attempt momentarily upon gaining possession. His passes to teammates are not always crisp nor quick, and he is much more successful making simpler plays to either his defence partner or a forward nearby. In the majority of cases upon gathering the puck in his own zone, he opts to lob the puck out of the zone in an effort to escape a potentially-dangerous defensive situation. He is not a creative or speedy distributor with the puck on his stick, hence his playmaking contributions may be limited in the NHL.
Nonetheless, he often joins the rush. This sometimes leads to positive outcomes, as he likes to carry the puck into the corners of the offensive zone before attempting to center it into the slot or passing to an open teammate along the perimeter to establish a sustained forecheck. Occasionally, he will connect with a teammate in the middle, although sometimes this is an errant maneuver that gives the opponent an opportunity to counter with an odd-man rush.
The offensive elements of Rafferty’s game are not executed with a particularly high rate of success. To compound this issue, he lacks a dangerous shot from the point and has only ever scored a handful of goals per season throughout his career. His seven goals this season with Utica was his highest single-season output dating back to his time in junior hockey.
In his own zone, Brogan Rafferty is more comfortable. He is fleet-footed enough not to allow the opponent to gain the inside of the ice, and he generally keeps the opposing attacker to the perimeter. Once the opponent takes the puck behind his own goal line, he is often present to provide pressure. He separates the carrier from the puck in this manner, using his stick to fight for possession or relying on a teammate to gather the loose puck afterward. He does not possess the physical attributes of Nikita Tryamkin, but plays a relatively stable, active game in his own zone.
At 6’2’’, 195 lbs, he is not a small defender, but he lacks a physical dimension.
He can also be beaten wide at the blue line if the opponent possesses enough speed. He can be caught flat-footed and requires some defensive support while defending against oncoming rushes. There are numerous moments in our footage in which he allows the opponent to fly past him with the puck, placing his teammates and especially his goaltender in a difficult position. Canucks fans are attuned to witnessing a high number of defensive lapses by the Canucks resulting in dangerous opportunities against. This trend is unlikely to change with Brogan Rafferty on the roster.
He played two games with the Canucks in 2018-19 and, if he does not secure a full-time position with the club, will certainly see some time next season as a call-up. One hopes that additional NHL experience can help to reinforce the reliable aspects of his game and mitigate his more dangerous tendencies. His play is, at the moment, still on the fringes of NHL quality.
He is an inexpensive replacement on the team’s blue line — his $700,000 AAV contract expires in 2021 —, but expectations must be kept in check. He is unlikely to improve the team’s defence corps in its immediate future.
If there is one fair objective for Rafferty next season, it might be to provide sufficient bottom-pairing play so that the organization may reallocate a higher degree of its payroll to the improvement of other aspects of its roster. The Canucks are on the cusp of becoming a playoff team and require upgrades on defence in order to become a legitimately-competitive squad. Despite this, the team also needs to consider, for example, re-signing Tyler Toffoli and conserving cap space to retain its youngest stars.
Brogan Rafferty will not change the look of the team’s defence, as he plays a style that is reminiscent of the type of game offered by the Canucks’ current defenders. He may be a sufficient seventh defenceman next season with some remaining potential to grow as a player.
Unlike Nikita Tryamkin, he will not provide the team with a change of pace on its back end. Based on the team’s current salary cap circumstances, however, there may be room for not one, but two fresh faces among the Canucks’ blue liners.