CRANBERRY — Rickard Rakell seems more than a little mystified by it all.
A lot of people who have watched him work for the first month-plus of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ season probably are, too.
Rakell, who mans the right side on the No. 2 line, alongside Evgeni Malkin and Reilly Smith, has played a pretty consistently responsible 200-foot game, has generally done everything asked of him.
Except to score goals.
Or even one of them.
After going 0-for-October, Rakell made it through the first half of November without having to expend any energy celebrating a goal he scored.
“It’s obviously frustrating,” he said after practice at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex Wednesday. “You want to feel part of the team’s success, and you can say that I’m doing other things well, but at the same time, I just want to feel like I’m doing something more for this team. You can always say, ‘Oh, you played good,’ but it’s not great. I don’t want to be good. I want to be great. Score goals and make things happen out there.”
Considering that he has put up 20 or more goals five times in the NHL and that, at 30, he should be in the prime of his career, that doesn’t seem like an unreasonable ask.
“I know I have it in me,” said Rakell, who scored 28 times in 2022-23. “I’m not a worse hockey player than I was last year.”
And make no mistake, he was a pretty fair one in 2022-23, when he put up 28 goals and 32 assists in 82 games.
Rakell scored those goals on 243 shots, an average of 2.96 per game that is only nominally higher than his average of 2.79 so far in 2023-24.
That means he averaged a goal on every 8.68 shots last season. If they were going in at that rate now, he’d enter the Pittsburgh Penguins’ game against New Jersey Thursday at 7:08 p.m. at PPG Paints Arena with four or five.
Which would be four or five more than he actually has.
Rakell pointed out that while the volume of his shots hasn’t changed much, the areas of the ice where he’s getting them has. He feels he hasn’t been spending as much time hovering near the opposing crease, that he has been getting more shots off the rush and from longer distances than he has in the past.
Rectifying that, he believes, could be a key to having his goal-scoring touch return.
“I’m getting my looks,” Rakell said. “It’s just not the looks that I’m used to getting. I just feel like, being around the net more, and for us to maybe get some extended zone time, where I can find my spot in front of the net and find rebounds and tip in pucks (would help). I just feel like I haven’t done that — I haven’t been able to do that — as much as I have in the past, for whatever reason.”
His shots total is, by far, the highest among the Penguins who have yet to score a goal this season. Defenseman Ryan Graves, whose game stresses playing well in his own end, is second with 26.
A few timely goals from Rakell might have helped with damage-control when the Pittsburgh Penguins stumbled to a 3-6 start, but they’ve managed to win their past five games despite his continued inability to score.
“It helps with us still playing good and winning hockey games,” Rakell said. “It would be way worse if we didn’t.”
This is Rakell’s 12th season in the NHL, so it’s not the first time he’s endured an extended stretch during which he couldn’t beat an opposing goaltender. This, though, might be the most perplexing — and exasperating — slump he’s experienced.
“I don’t know when (another dry spell) lasted this long,” he said. “I’ve had stretches (in the past) when I felt like I couldn’t even get a shot on net, but now, it’s like I’m beating myself.”
Regardless, Rakell insists his focus is fixed on the future, not anything that did — or did not — transpire during the first 14 games this season.
“I’m just trying to not look back, at what’s already been,” he said. “I’m just trying to look forward.”