For three years, Connor Rankin watched and learned from some of the best players in Tri-City Americans history.
Now, going into his fourth season, Rankin no longer has any coattails to ride. It’s his turn to be the go-to guy when the Americans open their 26th season tonight against the Spokane Chiefs at the Toyota Center.
“I love being under pressure like this,” said Rankin, who had 32 goals and 26 assists last season. “It’s nerve wracking, but it’s also exciting. Everyone dreams of leading a team to the finals and winning, and I have an opportunity to do that this year. I’m really looking forward to it. But I’m not the only guy here on the team. We have (Parker) Bowles and (Brian) Williams and those guys who can score. I’m not alone out there.”
He might not be alone, but he is the heir apparent in the scoring department.
“I think if you look at the numbers offensively, returning 30 goals, he’s our leader that way,” Tri-City coach Jim Hiller said. “He will get more ice time than he’s ever gotten. That’s tough, because then you have to play against other teams’ best players. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, but he’s ready for it. He’s had a good apprenticeship behind those guys. He’s going to lead us.”
Those guys — Kruise Reddick, Brendan Shinnimin, Adam Hughesman, Patrick Holland and Justin Feser — set the standard for Americans hockey for years to come.
“I was very lucky to have those guys in front of me and to be able to play with them for a few years,” said Rankin, who won’t turn 19 until Nov. 30. “What I’ve learned is the work ethic they have, the desire and determination to be the best, especially Shinnimin. He wouldn’t take anything less than being No. 1 on the ice. The confidence they played with, and their determination, they were outstanding.
“This is a role change for me. When we had those guys, your role isn’t as big. But this year, losing those guys, the role pops up. It’s tough, but now you have to shine out there. I haven’t done that since I was 14 years old — being that No. 1 guy. It will be different this year, but I’m looking forward to it.”
Reddick was the consummate leader, and Shinnimin, Hughesman, Holland and Feser all were 100-point scorers in their final seasons. Big skates to fill, for sure.
“He hasn’t had to take the stand to create for himself,” Hiller said. “If you look at Fes (Feser), you could say that about him too, until he got into Shinny’s role. Connor is sitting in the same position. He’s been behind guys. This year, he gets to step to the forefront. We expect him to have his best season ever.”
It’s something the Americans have been banking on for a few years.
In the 2009 WHL bantam draft, Tri-City general manager Bob Tory traded an extra third-round pick to Prince George to move up 12 spots — from 19th to seventh — to make sure he could get his hands on Rankin, a promising young forward from North Vancouver, British Columbia.
Since then, Rankin has been cultivated for this season, but he still has a couple of chinks in his armor that have to be hammered out.
“Consistency has always been his greatest challenge,” Hiller said. “This year more than ever, I think he understands that. Not having to play behind anyone and being the No. 1 center, it has to come every night because night after night we are going to need him.”
Rankin’s numbers have shown improvement each year, but he knows he can’t start this season in a slump like he did last year when he had 11 goals and eight assists at the Christmas break.
“I had a slow start last year. I was awful in the first half,” Rankin said. “But the last 35 games I thought I played really well, especially coming off that slump. I hope that carries over into the start of the year. I look at it as a positive that I could come up from that and do so well.”
Moving from wing to center at the end of his sophomore season may have played a part, but after a full year at the position he has found his niche and chemistry with Williams and Bowles.
“Last year, part of my success in the second half was playing with those two,” Rankin said. “They are easy to play with. They are both skilled, and it’s a lot easier to play the game if you have good linemates. Those two made the second half really easy for me. We just clicked.”
For Hiller, it’s an encouraging sign for things to come this season.
“We saw great steps in the second half last season,” Hiller said of Rankin. “He was gone to an NHL training camp (Pittsburgh Penguins) so we didn’t get a good look at him here in the preseason. (Tonight) we are for real, so we expect him to be on his game.”
While Williams will be on Rankin’s right tonight, the left wing still is up in the air. Bowles had shoulder surgery during the offseason and won’t return until mid-November.
“That’s a line we expect to score goals for us,” said Hiller, who still hadn’t decided on a left wing Friday afternoon. “We hope to have someone there who will stick.”
At 6-foot, 200 pounds, Rankin is a big force in the middle, while Williams and Bowles add speed and skill on the wings.
“Size helps and sometimes it doesn’t,” Rankin said. “Guys like Brian (Williams) don’t have the size (5-8, 175), but he has more skill than the rest of us put together.”
In addition to his size, Hiller said Rankin’s strength is his shot.
“He has an ability to shoot the puck,” Hiller said. “When he gets into dangerous areas, he can score because he has a great release. He needs to get in those areas more often. That requires some good linemates and a number of different things, but he has a special ability to shoot the puck and can be dangerous if he’s in the right spot.”
Despite Rankin’s qualities and the numbers he put up last season, he was passed over in June’s NHL draft. But minutes after the draft was over, the Penguins invited him to camp.
“I learned plenty of things,” Rankin said of the experience. “The skill level isn’t a whole lot greater, but the pace they go at, the execution and the determination that every player has is pretty high. They are there to do something. That’s the mindset you have to have on the ice. I hope to put that into the Americans’ style of play — a higher level of execution. I think we could have a lot of success.”
That kind of thinking has landed Rankin on the Americans’ leadership team. For the second season, he was named an alternate captain, along with defenseman Justin Hamonic. Mitch Topping is team captain.
“My first year was with Reddick, he was one of the best captains I’ve ever had,” Rankin said. “He showed me about being a team leader, and at 16 that was so helpful for me. I wouldn’t be where I am, honestly, if not for him. I want to do that with the younger players and have that leadership role. I really want to do that. All those guys helped me and I want to pass that along.”
— Annie Fowler: 582-1574; email@example.com; Twitter: tchicequeen