During the ups and downs of a season, it’s hard for a player to remove himself from the situation and look at his performance objectively. Nearly six weeks removed from his first professional season, Rhett Rakhshani is now able to look back at his first pro campaign with that objective eye.
“It’s tough to grade my own performance,” Rakhshani said. “I look back and I was happy with a lot of what I did and what I accomplished personally. But there are still some things I could have done better. I’m always looking to improve.”
Rakhshani’s maturity might make it hard for some to believe he’s just one year removed from an impressive four-year stint at college hockey powerhouse Denver University. His numbers also resemble those of someone who has played in the league for a few seasons. The Huntington Beach, Calif. native led the Sound Tigers in goals (24), assists (38), points (62), power play goals (12) and shots on goal (152).
One of the biggest changes from college hockey to the professional ranks is increase in amount of games played. The Isles fourth round (100th overall) NHL Entry Draft Pick in 2006 appeared in 66 of the Sound Tigers 80 regular season games this year. Collegiate seasons last anywhere from 35-40 games and do not involve as much constant travel.
“I would say the greater amount of games was the toughest transition for me,” Rakhshani explained. “There were some days where you’d wake up and say ‘Who are we playing tonight?’ You just learn to find a way to get yourself prepared to play game in and game out. You’ve got to find ways to keep going because the grind can take its toll on you physically and mentally.”
Although his numbers were impressive, Rakhshani acknowledged that like many other players who are playing their first year professionally after college, he struggled midway through the season when his season would normally end. Rakhshani made his NHL debut on Dec. 13 in Nashville during a one-game call-up, then returned to the Isles for his home debut on Jan. 11. However, Rakhshani suffered an injury in that game, and didn’t record a goal from Dec. 13 until the Sound Tigers game at Manchester on Feb. 25.
“I think that tough stretch was a combination of both getting used to the schedule and the timing of my injury,” Rakhshani said. “I also think I started to press and got away from what I was doing to be successful.”
Perhaps its no coincidence that Rakhshani’s offensive resurgence later in the season came just as Jeremy Colliton was returned to the Sound Tigers by the Islanders. Colliton was bumped up to the Sound Tigers top line shortly after returning to the team on a PTO in late October. The Blackie, Alta. native served as center with Rakhshani on his right wing for the majority of the season, and the two also worked together on the power play.
“He was probably the guy I learned the most from,” Rakhshani said of Colliton. “He was actually at my first Islanders Prospect Camp and started this year on the fourth line but finally got bumped up to the top line. That was around the same time (Josh) Bailey joined us and everything just clicked from there.”
“I think what makes (Colliton) so good is that he’s simple and smart. He goes hard to the net too, which is a reason I was able to produce a lot. He’d be taking the beating in front of the net and taking cross checks to the back while I got some scoring chances. We’d talk a lot during games and in the locker room between periods on how we could adjust and improve.”
Colliton’s play alongside Rakhshani was just one aid in the 2011 All-Star forward’s growth this past season. Another part of that growth is contributed to veteran captain Mark Wotton.
“He’s an amazing guy…the best captain I could have asked for in my first season. Every game, he’d leave it all on the ice and work as hard as he could and make the sacrifices for the team.”
As much as Rakhshani was able to take away from his captain’s performance on the ice, what he took away from Wotton’s demeanor off the ice was just as important.
“He’s not too high, he’s not too low. He taught me to manage my emotions…every day, you need to handle yourself as a professional and that’s exactly what he is.”
Rakhshani certainly faced the test this season, ranging from highs of his first two professional hat tricks and an appearance at the 2011 AHL All-Star Game to the lows of a tough stretch for the Sound Tigers during January and February.
“That was a really hard time,” Rakhshani explained. “Every part of your job is harder when you’re losing. Momentum is a big part of hockey and it was really tough to get some of that back.”
The Sound Tigers and Rakhshani did pick things up over the final month of the season. The team earned points in 12 of its last 15 games and Rakhshani notched 14 goals and 13 assists in just 21 games, including his first two professional hat tricks.
“I think our strong finish came from a combination of things. The players that came in on ATO’s brought a lot of energy, and we were playing with nothing to lose which I think allowed us to be creative offensively. Everyone was loose and doing their own thing and we were able to do some good things to get the puck in the back of the net.”
Rakhshani focuses on the finish of the season as a sign of things to come for the Sound Tigers next year, who are returning much of their young talent for the 2011-12 season.
“As far as our core goes, I think we’ve gotten a year under our belts and we’ll be that much more confident. The Isles are in a similar spot, and I think training camp will be great this year because we’ll be looking to push each other. I’m definitely looking forward to it.”