TORONTO — Most often, athletes avoid vulnerability or personal honesty when dealing with the media. In an age where a “no comment” can earn boos from the fans, as Jordan Kyrou learned in St. Louis on Thursday, athletes and coaches almost unflinchingly spin to the positive or cliches. Yet Pittsburgh Penguins winger Rickard Rakell veered to genuine honesty Friday in Toronto.
Rakell was a full participant in the Penguins practice at the Ford Centre, his first full-contact practice since leaving the Penguins lineup on Nov. 21 with an upper-body injury.
However, Rakell’s season did not start well. Like the team, he slumped, but his worsened and then took an even bigger turn for the worse with the injury.
Rakell has just four points, all assists, in 17 games.
“I was in a pretty dark place when everything went down, but I think I’ve got some time now to process this,” Rakell admitted. “And for me, it’s just trying to look at this as a fresh start and new opportunities out there and just try to play my game.”
Things were not going well, and were headed down the wrong path. The Penguins winger was a participant but not on the scoresheet. Linemates Evgeni Malkin and Reilly Smith racked up the points, but Rakell did not.
Slump became frustration.
It’s not the first time Rakell has been through this. In the first 20 games of the COVID season of 2020-21, Rakell had one goal and seven assists in the first 20 games, including just four points in his first 13 games.
In 2018-19, Rakell had just three goals in his first 23 games. That season, he rallied to score 18 goals and 43 points in 69 games. In the COVID-shortened season, he regrouped for nine goals and 28 points in 52 games.
He’s shed the slumps before.
“Just try to play more freely, and trust my instincts, and just try to have fun with playing,” said Rakell. “(Don’t) get too much into my own head and (try) to have fun playing. And I think if you ask anybody in life how they’re playing or what they’re thinking about when they’re playing at their best, everyone says that they’re not thinking. They’re just playing. So I feel like that (will be) my mindset when I start playing again.”
His return could not be a more advantageous time for the Penguins. Bryan Rust is out of the lineup for a few weeks or more with an upper-body injury, and the bottom-six crew is in tatters without Noel Acciari and Matt Nieto.
Though the return is not official, the Penguins did waive Vinnie Hinostroza Friday. Coach Mike Sullivan didn’t commit to Rakell being in the lineup Saturday when the Penguins face the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena. Still, he acknowledged what we all saw–Rakell looked pretty good in practice.
The team will evaluate Rakell on Saturday, but Rakell looked like a player ready to go. He was at full speed in practice, swooping into the slot to shoot pucks, displaying the on-his-toes edge of a player ready to rejoin the team.
Without Rust, Sidney Crosby could use another scoring winger. Drew O’Connor has filled in on the line, and his greatest attributes have been puck retrieval and the forecheck. With respect to the hard-skating O’Connor, he has just two goals this season and appears to be more at home with Lars Eller and Radim Zohorna on the third line.
Rakell is a pure top-six forward, and the Penguins could use one against the deeply talented Toronto Maple Leafs.
“It’s probably a little different. I think (Rakell) likes (to) use time and space to slow things down a little bit when he has (the puck),” Crosby said. “He’s a really good one-on-one player … (Bryan Rust) tends to beat guys with speed. I think ‘Racks’ you probably stick handles around or through guys. So I think other than that, they’re pretty similar.”
Rakell began the year with Sidney Crosby, but coaches flipped Rust to the top line and Rakell to Evgeni Malkin’s line for most of the first 17 games.
Despite the struggles of injury and rehab, there might be a spiffy silver lining to Rakell’s injury. He was able to step away from his game rather than grinding the gears, looking for solutions. He was able to breathe instead of gripping the stick into sawdust and coal.
If history is any indication, Rakell knows how to find his game in the second half of the season, too.