Twelve months ago, Evan Rankin was playing in the ECHL – a league where the minimum salary is $425 per week.
Last week, he stepped on the ice at First Niagara Center on a line with Cody Hodgson and Marcus Foligno – two players who would be top six forwards in the NHL if not for the lockout.
When the Rochester Americans signed Rankin to a tryout contract in Nov. 2011, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound forward was expected to be little more than a placeholder. The Buffalo Sabres were being crushed by injuries and with most of their NHL-ready American Hockey League players in Buffalo, they needed a guy to fill out the Amerks' roster.
It didn't take long for the Michigan native to show the Amerks he was capable of playing in the AHL. He scored 12 points in 13 games before being injured on a blind-side hit during a game against Oklahoma City on Dec. 27. He returned in late February. Shortly after, the Amerks signed him to an AHL contract and he finished the season with 29 points in 35 games.
Rankin, 26, never returned to the ECHL.
“There were a few times I thought about leaving the game I love,” the Amerks' winger said. “I basically couldn't financially support myself. But God blessed me with this situation and I haven't looked back.”
When Rankin re-signed with the Amerks over the summer, he knew there was a possibility the NHL would be locked out. And while nobody wanted a lockout, it was impossible for him to not see an impending work stoppage as an opportunity.
“When I found out the lockout was going to happen, I knew I wasn't going to start in the NHL, so I was partially excited to be able to play against the top talent,” he said. “This is the top league right now in the U.S. Having that type of talent around you, it makes every day that much more exciting.
“Obviously, everyone wants the lockout to end and I do too, but having the top talent here makes you better and makes everything more meaningful.”
But the lockout cuts both way. Yes, it gives players on AHL contracts a chance to play on the same sheet as some of the NHL's most talented young players. It also robs AHL players of jobs.
Rankin wanted nothing to do with the latter.
The AHL is a wild league, these days. With the increase in talent, teams score like it's 1981 and leads disappear like Teller. On Oct. 20, the Amerks trailed 4-1 on the road against the Hershey Bears. The top line of Hodgson, prospect Luke Adam and AHL vet Mark Mancari was sputtering so coach Ron Rolston decided to try something new: Hodgson, Foligno and Rankin.
“We were down and decided to mix things up,” Rolston said following the Amerks' win at First Niagara Center. “It really had some good chemistry and we kept it.”
Rankin scored a goal in the Amerks' 8-7 comeback win. Foligno finished the night with four points and Hodgson with three.
Three days later, Rankin took the ice at the home of the Buffalo Sabres with Hodgson and Foligno – two players who would have been there on a nightly basis if not for the lockout. At first, it felt like a game of “which one of these things doesn't belong.”
Until he scooped up a puck and rung the post with a wrist shot from just outside the circle - a sound, no doubt, heard by the Sabres' brass in attendance.
“He really compliments us well,” Hodgson said after practice Wednesday. “He has so much speed he backs up the defenseman and goes hard to the net. Those are all intangibles and it's the hard way to play the game, but it's really effective.”
Rankin later assisted on a Hodgson goal in the 3-1 win over Hamilton. In eight games this year, he has six points.
In every sport, there are players who come from what seems like out of nowhere to have success. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book about it. He called them “outliers.” Maybe Rankin is one. He was undrafted after a mediocre college career and was never even close to being considered a prospect while in the ECHL.
He may be 26, but if he's playing with two NHL players and holding his own against the likes of Flyers top prospect Sean Couturier, who is currently playing for the Adirondack Phantoms or New Jersey prospect Adam Henrique or Capitals goalie Braden Holtby or Detroit prospect Gustav Nyquist or Toronto prospect Nazem Kadri.....
How could he not be a prospect?
Follow Matthew Coller on Twitter @matthewwgr
Photo Courtesy of www.sweetesthockeyonearth.com ...follow them on Twitter @sweetesthockey