Several NHL prognosticators believe the Carolina Hurricanes are a top-line center away from being a playoff team.
Victor Rask might consider that an affront – or forolampa, in Swedish.
At 24, Rask is entering his fourth NHL season. He has scored 20-plus goals before in a season, is a dependable playmaker, sound defensively and has good size at 6-2 and 200 pounds.
Asked if he could develop into a top-line center man, the Swede replied, “Yeah, for sure. I want to be a very good player, so that’s something that I strive for, to become.”
Jordan Staal is unarguably the Canes’ best checking center. He’s their biggest, strongest player and a load for any opposing forward.
Rask appeared on the cusp of becoming an elite offensive center in 2015-16, putting together a 21-goal, 27-assist season. That earned him a six-year, $24 million contract extension – a sizable investment and commitment by the Hurricanes.
But Rask had shoulder surgery after that season, disrupting his offseason workouts, and never hit a consistent stride in 2016-17. He took a step back, not forward, in a season when he served as an alternate captain for the first time.
“I didn’t think I played too good last season,” Rask said. “I started off good, then had a little slump, then I came back again I thought.”
The good: eight goals and seven assists in the first 17 games.
The slump: 14 consecutive games without a point beginning in mid-January as the Canes went 4-9-1.
Some of Rask’s numbers and other metrics dipped last season. He had 16 goals. His faceoff percentage dropped below 50 percent.
The Canes need a lot more from No. 49. They’ll need it this season to end an eight-year playoff drought that is the longest in the NHL.
General manager Ron Francis believes Rask has it in him.
“A big part of that is being able to understand the game, and he certainly has great hockey sense and understands it a lot,” Francis said. “The second thing is the work ethic, to make yourself better each year, and Victor has always had that drive and passion to make himself better.
“He went home a couple of summers ago and wanted to get stronger and came back stronger. This summer he went home and wanted to work on his leg strength and maybe try to improve his skating. So he has the potential to get to where he wants to get to, absolutely.”
Rask headed to the 2017 World Championship after last season, competing for Sweden with Canes teammates Elias Lindholm and Joakim Nordstrom, and then-teammate Eddie Lack. He centered a line with wingers Gabriel Landeskog of the Colorado Avalanche and Lindholm.
“I thought Victor was outstanding at the World Championship,” Canes coach Bill Peters said. “That line was a very good one.”
And Sweden too good. The Swedes won the gold medal and then staged a raucous celebration celebration once back in Stockhom, the players donning golden helmets as they took the stage.
As Rask said, “To win a gold medal and World Championship is huge for our country.”
Rask did take a short break from hockey. He went to Spain to celebrate his father’s 50th birthday. There was Lack’s wedding to attend in Greece.
Francis noted that one summer Rask’s parents had to “drag him on vacation” because he didn’t want to interrupt his training. He said while Rask was playing junior hockey for the Calgary Hitmen in the Western Hockey League, the coaches said he was a nonstop worker.
“He’s very determined and competitive,” Francis said. “He may not show that outwardly but certainly inside he has the fire to be one of the best.”
Some answers on Rask should come this season – good, bad or indifferent.
Peters said he expects Rask to be one of the team’s top six forwards in terms of production. He’ll have good wingers, Peters said. The opportunity will be there.
“We haven’t seen the best of him yet,” Peters said.
There was speculation in the offseason the Canes might have interest in trading for Avs center Matt Duchene to be their top-line guy, although Francis has quashed talk about Duchene.
The Canes’ Sebastian Aho might be an elite center in time, but Peters said the Finnish forward needs at least another year on the wing in the NHL.
For now, it’s up to Rask to deliver. There’s pressure on him to perform.
“Last year he was coming back from shoulder surgery, but everyone saw the year before how good he was when he scored the 21 goals,” Lindholm said. “He can be that guy, be that top-line center. Hopefully he can take a step like everyone else this season, and we can be in the playoffs.”