The Vancouver Canucks have inked defenseman Jack Rathbone to his entry-level contract and while it’s certainly not unusual for a team to sign a prospect who has been on the ascent since being drafted, Rathbone’s signing is interesting for two other reasons: When it happened, and what the Ivy League’s decision to scrap athletics until at least Jan. 1 means for the hockey world.
Rathbone is a super-talented blueliner who put up a sizzling 31 points in 28 games for Harvard this season, leading the Crimson defense in offense. His hockey IQ is high and the kid plays with an edge – and Vancouver got him as a steal, selecting him in the fourth round of the 2017 draft.
Not surprisingly, the Canucks approached Rathbone about signing his first pro contract as soon as the college season ended abruptly in March.
Now, Rathbone was only a sophomore this year, so he didn’t have to sign his rookie deal just yet. And in fact, he wasn’t originally intending on doing so. But with Harvard not planning on practising or playing games in 2020-21 until Jan. 1 due to Covid-19, Rathbone had to reconsider his options.
“Jack’s plan was to stay at Harvard for the coming season,” agent Jerry Buckley told me. “But with the uncertainty of the schedule and what could happen with Harvard hockey and college hockey, it was a concern. It definitely impacted his decision to ultimately sign.”
This wasn’t the only factor in Rathbone signing, but the youngster did have to weigh such pros and cons.
While Harvard’s hockey team plays in the ECAC, it is also part of the Ivy League of schools, which decided to cancel all fall sports and curtail the start of winter sports, such as hockey. The ECAC has six Ivies in its midst: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Dartmouth and Brown.
The lure of playing for one of these schools is that along with high-level hockey, the student-athletes also get the opportunity to earn a degree from some of the most hallowed universities in America (and given hockey’s sky-high graduation rate, pretty much all of them do). While insiders believe other conferences such as Hockey East are hoping to forge ahead with the 2020-21 season as close to normal as possible, the Ivies will be behind – for the very good reason of ‘better safe than sorry.’
The situation seems to be a bit different for college players outside of the Ivies. I’ve heard of several players already who have turned down their rookie deals from the NHL teams that drafted them, but all of them played in either Hockey East or non-Ivy ECAC schools.
The timing of Rathbone’s contract is also significant. As part of the new NHL collective bargaining agreement, Rathbone beat today’s July 15 deadline that allows his contract to technically start in 2019-20, meaning he gets to burn a season of his three-year deal without even playing a game.
“That was a pressure point which led to his decision right now,” Buckley said. “As opposed to waiting until the fall and seeing what the college landscape looks like.”
The obvious benefit here is that Rathbone is one year closer to his second NHL contract, where he could be in for a nice raise if he continues to develop the way he has in the past few seasons. On the other hand, he won’t be eligible for any offer sheets when his rookie deal expires (current Canucks rookie Quinn Hughes is in the same boat, contract-wise), which impacts his leverage.
None of us know what college hockey is going to look like in 2020-21 and any optimism or pessimism can shift from one day to the next. And if you’re tired of hearing how Covid-19 has thrown a wrench into sports (not to mention society at large), then you can at least take this away from the Rathbone news: The Canucks just locked down an exciting prospect who is going to do everything possible to make the NHL as soon as he can.