How can the Carolina Hurricanes get the most out of Victor Rask?
That’s the $16 million question.
Since signing his six-year, $24 million contract extension in July of 2016 (of which four years and $16 million remain), Rask’s on-ice performance has been a mixed bag.
The rushed Jordan Staal injury replacement turned big-money organizational centerpiece got off to a torrent start in October of 2016. Through the first month of the season, the Swedish pivot had points in eight straight games to start the season. Even at the halfway mark of the ‘16-17 campaign, Rask was making his $4 million cap hit look like a steal, inspiring even more hope that the then 23-year-old former second-round draft pick could blossom into a dominant top-six offensive center for the long-haul.
It didn’t take long for things to unravel, though.
In the final 40 games of the season, Rask went into a shell. With just 13 points from mid-January to the close of the season, he saw his 60-point scoring pace plummet as he closed the year with just 45 points - a good number, but a disappointment given how his season started.
The 2017-18 campaign wasn’t any easier for him. It wasn’t easy for anyone, for that matter.
After a two-point effort, including a third-period go-ahead goal, in an opening night win over the Minnesota Wild, Rask tallied just nine points in his next 35 games. All told, from January 14, 2017 to December 30, 2017, Rask recorded just 24 total points in 76 games.
A notable uptick in his production down the stretch of last season (20 points in his last 35 games) didn’t do much to help his case entering the summer of 2018, one which promised to bring a wave of changes throughout the organization under new majority owner Tom Dundon.
Though, when the dust settled at the conclusion of a rumor-filled summer, Victor Rask was still a Hurricane. All the speculative “what will he get traded for?” questions turned into real-life “what player is he going to be moving forward?” questions.
“For myself, what I’m looking for this year is to rebound,” Rask said at media day in early September. “Not my best two years (2016-17, 2017-18), but I’m just trying to rebound and get back to my game.”
Just one week later, it was announced that his bid for a rebound season would be put on hold. A kitchen accident forced him to have surgery on the fourth and fifth fingers on his right hand.
Fast forward two months. After skating on his own for a few weeks, a yellow non-contact jersey-clad Rask participated in a portion of the team’s practice on Friday. It’s an important next step for the now 25-year-old center. He’s one step closer to returning and, hopefully, getting back to his game.
The expectation, now, is that Rask will return to NHL action in December. There appears to be a cushy potential landing spot in the middle of the month - a seven-game stretch wherein the Hurricanes play six games on home ice leading into the holiday break.
“We’re not going to rush it,” head coach Rod Brind’Amour said after Friday’s practice at PNC Arena. “We’ve already waited this long, so we’ll make sure he’s 100% and give him some time in games to get the rust off. Then, hopefully, he’ll be the player that we all expect him to be.”
The player that this team expects him to be is the player he was during the 2015-16 season - a confident offensive player who can use his size to his advantage, distribute the puck in the offensive zone, and utilize his under-rated shot to help this Canes team get back on track.
Right now, there’s a very apparent need for goal-scoring help. Beyond the trio of Micheal Ferland, Sebastian Aho, and Teuvo Teravainen, 5-on-5 offense has been impossible to come by on a consistent basis. That’s an area where Rask needs to be a difference maker.
Once he is able to “get the rust off”, who will he play with?
Andrei Svechnikov’s game has gotten better and better since the Western Conference road trip in early November. His ice time is increasing, as is his production. He seems to be taking the next step in what is still a very young rookie season. Will he graduate from the Lucas Wallmark-centered line and see time with Rask?
Less than a week ago, Martin Necas wrote in a Czech blog entry that the plan was for him to play on the wing of the Rask line start the season in Carolina. Obviously, that never came to fruition. It also adds more context to Necas’ puzzling usage with the big club before he was assigned to the Charlotte Checkers. Could Necas (who has been making significant progress in the AHL) return to the team next month and play alongside Rask?
In a perfect world, Rask’s return to the lineup would help create a desperately needed second scoring line and let the Jordan Staal line play the shutdown role without being at the expense of producing offense.
None of that can happen if Rask can’t get back to his game. He needs to be reliable. He needs to be consistent. He needs to be the impact player that earned the long-term extension.
If that happens, the Canes will get a gargantuan boost. This team starts to look a lot different with a player as talented as Rask in the lineup. He needs to prove that he is capable of carrying the load, though. Were his down seasons more about regression, injuries, or the deterioration and staleness that was the latter-half of the Ron Francis and Bill Peters regime?
Hopefully, this new era of Carolina Hurricanes hockey will be accompanied by a new and improved Victor Rask. For now, that’s just a hope. He has a lot of work to do in order to get back on track, and it will be entirely up to him to make that happen. The ball will be in his court.
“I just need to believe in myself,” Rask said in September. “I know I can play at this level. I’ve done it before. I just have to believe in my game and play it.”