By Curtis Zupke
ANAHEIM -- One of the questions the Anaheim Ducks had to answer this season was whether Rickard Rakell was ready for the role as third-line center. Two months into the season, Rakell wasn't so sure himself.
Rakell found himself in close competition with William Karlsson, whose dazzling start turned heads and made Rakell a scratch six times in the first 16 games. Rakell was reassigned to the American Hockey League in early December, and the two-game stint there was a turning point.
Rakell not only grabbed the third-line role but has proven he can be an effective two-way player who can be a difference-maker in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"I kind of got my confidence back and kind of figured out what kind of player I want to be and just do the things that I'm good at, like playing with puck control and protecting pucks and trying to make plays for my teammates," Rakell said.
"I didn't feel like I played to my potential in the beginning and was maybe playing the game too simple and not really doing anything. When I got back there, I felt I needed to do something and create more offense. Maybe take a little more risk but, at the same time, try and do more things."
Rakell said Karlsson's push motivated him, and Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau said it threw a challenge into the process, but the light went on for Rakell after the demotion.
"I think he said, 'Jeez, I want to be in the NHL rather than the American Hockey League,' and he came up, and he came up with a bang," Boudreau said.
Rakell, 21, isn't the kind of player who will produce big numbers although he is in the top 15 among rookie scorers. He had a two-goal, two-assist game Jan. 11, which tied the Ducks' rookie single-game point record.
Teammate and roommate Hampus Lindholm watched Rakell develop psychologically and on the ice.
"He's always been a good player, but he hasn't really made it to the big level, but I think now he's starting to realize that he can produce, even up here," Lindholm, a defenseman, said. "He's not shy about doing his moves and what he's does best out there. He just plays with confidence and it's fun to see."
Lindholm has helped Rakell acclimate off the ice. Lindholm labels himself a slightly better cook, and the two spend some of their down time watching the television show "Vikings."
At the rink, it helps that Rakell has Hart Trophy candidate Ryan Getzlaf and former Selke Trophy winner Ryan Kesler set an example of how to play center.
"The way that Getzlaf plays the game, I think everybody wants to play the game that way," Rakell said. "Just the way he handles the puck and he creates chances for us every game. I think that's really cool. That's kind of the player I want to be one day. And Kesler, how he always battles every game. He's so good in the [faceoff] circle. So I have a lot of things to look up to and learn from, so it's really helped me a lot."