It is hard to go unnoticed when you stand 6-foot-1 and weigh 207 pounds. It is even harder when your team is largely considered the most potent threat in all of Canadian juniors. However, that’s exactly been the case for Portland Winterhawks defenseman Troy Rutkowski.
Last night in Vancouver the Winterhawks’ captain played in his 225th consecutive game, extending his franchise record Iron Man streak. The victory over the Giants added one more to Rutkowski’s franchise record 336 career games. Rutkowski passed current Boston Bruin defenseman, Andrew Ference, on February 6 on home ice at the Rose Garden.
The Garden has been a second home for the Edmonton native, who is in the midst of his 5th season with the Winterhawks. Usually, when scouts and hockey media eye a player who has played four or more years in the CHL a red flag goes up. For the most part these junior players lack a key component for what it takes to play in the NHL, but sometimes it takes a piece of coal longer to develop into a sparkling diamond.
Although he wasn’t even selected in the WHL Bantam Draft, the scrappy defenseman clawed his way onto the Portland Winterhawks in 2008. The 16-year-old played in 64 games tallying 15 points and a minus-22. The numbers may not have been abundant in his rookie campaign, but the fact that Rutkowski fought his way onto the team and played in 64 games was enough of a testament to his character.
Once he donned the Winterhawk sweater, the faithful player never took it off. During his sophomore season, Rutkowski missed just one game to participate in the Top Prospects Game, but played in the 71 others. After that Top Prospects Game, Rutkowski began his Iron Man streak that is ongoing. While his consecutive games streak added up, so did the points. The offensively potent defenseman scored 12 goals and had 31 assists to go along with 70 penalty minutes. This was the season Rutkowski broke onto the scene and perked the interest of scouts. His offensive abilities seemed endless from the blue line and his tough, scrappy side in the defensive zone began to develop as well.
Entering his third season with Portland, the maturity and leadership potential were the next skills to develop. Rutkowski earned a letter on his chest as an assistant captain and didn’t disappoint when awarded the opportunity. As the offensive game continues to show great promise, Rutkowski recorded a second straight double-digit goal, and 40-plus point season.
Scouts around the league began evaluating his skill-set as a first or second round talent, but claimed his inconsistency would damage his draft stock. The defensive game was still developing and the young Winterhawk was still developing physically considering he was just 18 years old at the time. One scout said at the time if Rutkowski dropped outside the top 45 picks he would push very hard for him. The Colorado Avalanche took advantage and scooped Rutkowski up in the fifth round, 137th overall.
Seemingly fitting for the bumpy road of Rutkowski’s career, the Avalanche failed to sign him and he was reentered in the draft the following year. One year older and another double-digit goal and 40-plus point season later the assistant captain was passed over in the draft and remained a Winterhawk for one more season.
Entering his last season with Portland, Rutkowski was named the 37th captain in franchise history, joining such players as current Philadelphia Flyer, Braydon Coburn, former Stanley Cup champion Adam Deadmarsh, current Nashville Predator, Paul Gaustad, and current Dallas Stars captain, Brenden Morrow. This year Rutkowski is 20 years old and will age-out of major junior hockey at the end of the 2012-2013 season. Unknown where he will play after this season, the Winterhawks’ captain is finishing his junior career strong, already setting career highs in goals and points in just 57 games. With 17 goals and 53 points, Rutkowski is tied for first among WHL defensemen in the goal column and second in total points.
Maybe even more impressive is the fact that he leads a team known for having the deepest defensive unit in the CHL. Joining Rutkowski on the blueline is Seth Jones, the number one rated prospect heading into the 2013 NHL Draft, Derrick Pouliot (PIT 8th overall ’12) and Tyler Wotherspoon (CGY 57th overall ’11). Quite possibly the reason why Rutkowski has never received the media he deserved has been because of the copious talent surrounding him. In his time with Portland he has played with Joe Morrow (PIT 23rd overall ’11), William Wrenn (SJS 43rd overall ’09), Taylor Aronson (NSH 78th overall ’10), Brett Ponich (STL 48th overall ’09), and former Philadelphia Flyers’ prospect Luca Sbisa (PHI 19th overall ’08).
One could easily see why other highly lauded Winterhawks may have outshined Rutkowski, with seven current or former teammates having been drafted in the first three rounds of the NHL draft. That doesn’t even include Seth Jones, who has scouts oozing over his once-in-a-generation talent. Yet, throughout the transitions and acquisitions to replace the graduated players, Rutkowski has matured into an on-ice general with the ability to display his complete skill set on a nightly basis.
Rutkowski may not be the most vibrant rose to come out of The Garden, but he is one of the most battle-tested and NHL-ready players that will be a free agent come season’s end. Teams should be lining up to interview and examine this young blueliner come summertime.
I see Rutkowski being a poor man’s Justin Schultz. Schultz was originally drafted 43rd overall in 2008 by the Anaheim Ducks before heading to the University of Wisconsin. After going unsigned after the draft, Schultz put up nearly identical numbers each season with the Badgers as Rutkowski did with Portland. I should mention that Schultz accumulated that amount of points in roughly 30 less games per season. However, many would argue that the talent level in the WHL is more competitive than the WCHA conference.
After three years at Wisconsin, Schultz waded into the free agent market and was regarded as the second-most sought after defenseman behind current Minnesota Wild blueliner Ryan Suter (NSH 7th overall ’03). Now, I don’t expect Rutkowski to receive the same attention coming out of Portland, but he is a reliable player on the back-end and is, in my opinion, a Swiss army knife. He can do any role or duty required of him. He is a team player who thinks about the name on the front of the jersey instead of the one on the back. That may be an overused cliché but it holds true for this one-team player who epitomizes the essence of a role player.
The Philadelphia Flyers missed the boat on Justin Schultz a year ago, but they get a second chance this time around. Rutkowski’s name may not sparkle as much as Schultz, but nothing has ever sparkled about this kid. Yet, when you think about the true character of the Flyers, a player like Rutkowski fits perfectly. He has been overlooked and underestimated his entire career. He brings a gritty, blue-collar work ethic to the back-end, while flashing the ability to take over offensively when he feels the need. I can absolutely see Troy Rutkowski staying with one franchise his entire career and quickly endearing himself with a loyal fan base.
Rutkowski’s teammate, Taylor Leier (PHI 117th overall ’12) has flourished playing for a loaded team poised to make a Memorial Cup run. The fourth-round selection last summer was coming off a solid rookie campaign, scoring 13 goals and adding 24 assists. He is a third line energy forward this year for Portland because they are loaded with firepower on the first two lines. Leier played valuable minutes in the top six when Portland’s big three went to Russia for the WJC. Through 50 games this year the left-winger has 22 goals and 20 assists. The Saskatoon native is developing into a legitimate prospect with only the sky being his limit next year once he can step into a more prominent offensive role. He will most likely have returning rookie studs, Nicolas Petan and Oliver Bjorkstrand, to help shoulder the burden of Portland’s offense. But, before next season enters Leier’s mind, a Memorial Cup victory in his hometown would be a wonderful memory.
The name Rychel has become quite synonymous with the Windsor Spitfires. Warren Rychel played in the NHL in the 1990’s but most recently took over as the Spitfires’ general manager. Rychel accepted the position in 2006 and is currently still at the helm. One of the young prospects that the general manager brought in to continue Windsor’s winning ways was his own son, Kerby. The younger Rychel has been flying up draft boards with his recent play, including being the reigning OHL’s player of the week fresh off a 10 point performance in just three games.
The highlight of the week was a six-point night in a 9-4 drubbing over Peterborough. Rychel added his 30th goal of the season in that game, as well as five assists. On the season the Tecumseh, Ontario native has 32 goals and 34 assists in 54 games played. Playing his third season in the OHL, Rychel has built off of a stellar sophomore campaign, in which he scored 41 times and finished with 74 points. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound left-winger was ranked 18th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting in their midterm rankings. The Rychel name once shone in the NHL before setting up camp in Windsor. If Kerby can continue his outstanding play, including his current seven game point streak, I could see his name coming off the board in the first round of the 2013 NHL Draft.