Brendan Ranford has come a long way during his rookie season with the American Hockey League's Texas Stars.
After five seasons of junior hockey with the Kamloops Blazers in the Western Hockey League, Ranford, a forward originally drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010 but never signed by the club, signed a professional tryout contract with Texas prior to the start of the 2013-14 season.
He's now leading the AHL in goals during the Calder Cup Playoffs.
"Probably for the first 30 games [this year], it was a little bit new for him," second-year Texas coach Willie Desjardins said. "He was new to playing on a fourth line and maybe not logging as much ice time, so he had to make a bit of an adjustment there."
It was toward the end of his rookie season that Ranford truly began to find his groove, with 17 of his 33 regular-season points (12 goals, 21 assists) coming in March and April.
"Later in the year, it seemed like whatever line we threw him on took off and played well," Desjardins said. "He's just worked so hard and really has great instincts. He's a natural around the net, a real offensive player, and it's showing in his game."
For the Edmonton, Alberta native, the dedication that earned him a shot with the Stars in the first place has been a perfect fit for Desjardins' system.
"Willie [has] said that practice means so much, so we just go as hard as we can," Ranford said. "It's awesome that I got the opportunity to be with the Texas Stars and have the chance for my PTO to end up turning into an AHL contract. The way of being a better player, making the team at the start and getting the opportunity that I've gotten now, is just by working hard in practice."
That opportunity has Ranford playing a key role on a team expected to seriously contend for the Calder Cup after finishing first with 106 points in the regular season. It's also allowed the 5-foot-10 wing to play and learn alongside some of the Stars' top veteran talent, including Chris Mueller, Dustin Jeffrey and, most recently, 2013-14 AHL MVP Travis Morin.
"It's always good when you get to play with veteran players, and I think it's great when you get to play in the playoffs," Desjardins said. "It's just a different level and it really makes you step up your game. Our older players set a good example that it's not just about scoring, it's about working hard, and I think when [Brendan] sees those guys, he realizes how hard he has to work as well."
After a first-round victory over Oklahoma City, the Stars enter the weekend tied 2-2 in their Western Conference Semifinal series against the defending champion Grand Rapids Griffins.
Ranford continues to soak it all in, both from his environment and peers.
"It's been really good playing with Morin in the playoffs," Ranford said. "Throughout the season I played with Mueller and Jeffrey a lot, and those guys all have NHL experience. I try to replicate myself after them in how they conduct themselves off the ice, how hard they work in practice and how they are as people."
It seems to be working. Ranford has seven points in as many playoff games, including a five-game goal-scoring streak that ended Wednesday.
"It's tough to be good in the playoffs," Desjardins said. "The lines he's playing on are going to draw a lot of attention, so it's not easy trying to sneak under the radar. To his credit, he has still found a way to score."
Brendan, whose uncle Bill Ranford was the 1990 Conn Smythe Trophy winner with the Edmonton Oilers and is now the goaltending coach for the Los Angeles Kings, is quick to credit his team when asked about his individual success.
"Every team wants to have winners," he said. "I feel that our team is a very tight-knit group and we work really hard. The biggest thing is winning the Calder Cup, and I think we have a good shot at doing that. It's all about your team and how you are together; that's what goes a long way."
Ranford's emergence as an offensive weapon for the Stars has been embraced by the organization, from the coaching staff on down.
"It's a real change from the start of the year," Desjardins said. "We're playing him with [guys like] Morin and we're counting on him to be an offensive player for us, and I think he's doing that. We're excited about how well he's playing right now and what he's giving to our lineup.
"Grand Rapids has such a good team and so many veteran players that every shift is a hard shift. Hopefully, Brendan can keep going and finding a way [to score]."
Ranford's focus remains intent on helping the team that offered him a tryout less than a year ago, no matter what the capacity.
"I'm just trying to do whatever I can to help the team win games," Ranford said. "Is that by scoring? Maybe. Is it blocking shots, making big plays? Also key, but just doing the little things to help our team win … that's the main goal and everything else will take care of itself."