The Tri-City Americans have been high on Connor Rankin since his bantam days with the North Shore Winter Club in Vancouver, British Columbia.
They traded an extra third-round draft pick to Prince George to move up the draft ladder from 19th to seventh, where general manager Bob Tory selected the talented forward in the first round of the 2009 Western Hockey League bantam draft.
“Picks in the top 10 are significantly better than the bottom 10,” Tory said. “If you can move into the top 10, you should try and do it. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to do it a couple of times. We really liked his work ethic, and his compete level is very high. That is something we value, and we thought we had to make a move to get him.”
Rankin, 18, has turned out to be everything Tory had imagined.
In 65 games this season, he has 27 goals and 24 assists, and ranks third in team scoring with 51 points. He also has a plus-10 rating and just 30 penalty minutes in playing a key part of the second line with Brian Williams and Parker Bowles.
“The start of the year was a little slow for me, but since the big trip out east (in October), I’ve picked it up,” said Rankin, who has eight goals in his last nine games and points in seven of his last nine. “It’s amazing how much confidence affects your game, and who you play with.”
Tonight, Rankin will lead the Americans against Kootenay in their only meeting with the Ice this season.
Tri-City (39-24-1-2, 81 points) is fourth in the Western Conference standings, one point ahead of Spokane, while Kootenay (33-31-2-0, 68 points) clings to eighth place in the East with a six-point lead over Lethbridge. The Ice has won seven of its last 10 games.
The 6-foot, 195-pound Rankin had 18 goals and 21 assists in 62 games last season, but with Brendan Shinnimin, Adam Hughesman and Patrick Holland doing the lion’s share of the scoring, he didn’t have to be a point-a-night player.
“Those three guys put up over 100 points apiece, and (Justin) Feser is doing that this year,” Rankin said. “It takes more than one guy to score goals. Everyone has their specific role, and mine has changed this year.”
Coach Jim Hiller moved Rankin from wing to center at the end of the last year. He has stayed with the position this season.
“We experimented with him at center last year, and moving him from wing allows him to carry the puck more and use his skill,” Hiller said. “He had a great start after Christmas and upped the level of his game. He was flat for a while, but the second half of February, he upped his game in all areas of the ice.
“That line has really clicked. They have been together 3 1/2 months, and they complement each other well.”
To improve his game, Rankin put on 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason. He is one of the Americans’ most physical players — without dropping the gloves.
“In the second half, we have seen him be more physical than in his last two years,” Hiller said. “He has shown an all-around game. He competes hard and is good without the puck.”
During his first two seasons with the Americans, Rankin impressed Tory and Hiller enough that they made him an alternate captain this season along with Jesse Mychan, Mitch Topping and Zach Yuen. Feser is team captain.
“He is a big part of our team moving forward,” Tory said. “We are lucky to be able to transfer that culture from year to year, to bring the young guys in and let them know what it’s like to pull that jersey on. It’s important to carry tradition on.”
Though Rankin is 18, a late birthday (Nov. 30) puts him in this year’s NHL draft class. A few teams have talked to him during the season.
“The extra year helps experience-wise,” Rankin said. “To see guys like Shinnimin and Holland get deals, it’s important to have a good finish to the season. It’s a surreal feeling to talk to NHL scouts. Hopefully there will be more as we get closer to the draft (June 30).”