Kerby Rychel finding his rhythm with AHL Marlies

Author: Kristen Shilton, TSN Toronto Maple Leafs Reporter
Date: Jan 27, 2017

TORONTO – Seven months after he landed with Toronto, Kerby Rychel is starting to find his way.

Acquired by the Maple Leafs from the Columbus Blue Jackets on June 25 for defenceman Scott Harrington and a conditional fifth-round pick, Rychel’s addition got lost in the considerable shadow cast by Austin Matthews’ first-overall selection the day before. A former first-round pick himself, Rychel was selected by Columbus at No. 19 in 2013 after an excellent OHL career.

He came to Toronto’s camp hoping to crack their NHL roster, but was among the final cuts reassigned to the American Hockey League’s Marlies. The 22-year-old winger didn’t click right away, putting up only six points in his first 17 games.

It took a back-to-back at home in early December for Rychel to finally look like his game was coming together. He has 20 points in the 21 games since, including seven assists over three games last weekend, to sit fourth on the team in scoring.

“It’s always a difficult transition when you go to a new team, I’ve been through it myself,” said Marlies captain Andrew Campbell added. “When [Rychel’s] mind is right and he’s dialed in and he’s ready to go, he can be a very good player for us. It’s just a matter of making sure he’s mentally ready to go.”

Rychel has played on every line for the Marlies this season, all the while searching for consistent offence. It’s been a pattern for him since turning pro — the scoring touch that came so easily as a teenager hasn’t quite translated at the next level.

In the OHL, he had two 40-plus goal campaigns and tallied 264 points in four seasons with the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors, Windsor Spitfires and Guelph Storm. That production has slowed, with Rychel collecting 12 goals and 33 points in 51 games with the AHL’s Springfield Falcons in 2014-15, and six goals and 27 points last in 37 games last season with the Lake Erie Monsters.

“He’s an interesting player who I think has made some progress. But some games he’s not visible enough,” said one scout, who projects Rychel as a third-line player in the NHL. “I think he’s still trying to find himself, but he’s got to bring a sense of energy and compete and be hard to play against. Sometimes I think maybe he doesn’t know who he is.”

Columbus wasn’t the place he’d figure that out. By Rychel’s second year in the organization, he was being pushed down their depth chart, leading to a short, contemptuous marriage. Tensions boiled over between the Blue Jackets and Rychel’s team – which includes his father, Warren (a former NHL player), and agent Kurt Overhardt – in September 2015 when he was slated to open the Blue Jackets’ annual prospects tournament as a bottom-six forward. Overhardt ultimately requested a trade.

Rychel recorded two goals and 10 assists in 37 NHL games with Columbus before being shipped out, but not before he won a Calder Cup as part of last season’s Monsters.

“It was a good learning experience and I met a lot of friends there,” Rychel said. “[With Lake Erie], we all bonded together. On paper I don’t think we had the best team but we all played for each other and worked hard and it was amazing. I’ll never forget it.”

At 6-foot-1 and 213 pounds, Rychel is a contrast to Toronto’s stable of smaller, speedy wingers. He’s comfortable with the physical side of the game, with good forechecking abilities and net-front presence. The Maple Leafs had interest in drafting Rychel in 2013, but he was off the board by the time they took centre Frederik Gauthier at No. 21.

“The Maple Leafs were one of the teams I talked to a few times,” Rychel said. “It’s funny how things work out now that I’m here. It’s been going alright. I think I can obviously produce more offensively, but I come to the rink every day trying my hardest to get better in all areas.”

Getting in a rhythm on both sides of the puck has been a challenge. At minus-15 this season, well below the rest of the Marlies’ forwards, it’s clear improving his defensive game will continue to be a point of emphasis.

“In junior you’re always thinking about points, but once you get to this level they’re harder to come by and you have to contribute in other ways,” Rychel said. “I think my play away from the puck [has progressed most], but it’s a work in progress. People at this level expect you to be good defensively. If you’re not, you’re not going to play.”

“Kerby’s been trying to find his way, trying to develop his confidence,” added Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe said. “He’s finding his way back to being the dynamic player he was coming out of junior. We’ve seen it in spurts.”

While not a powerful one-on-one player, Rychel’s work along the boards and down low can create space on the ice when he’s paired with one (like Kasperi Kapanen). It’s similar to the role that Zach Hyman and Connor Brown have filled on the Maple Leafs’ roster this season. 

“He’s been great to play with,” said frequent linemate Colin Greening. “He and I are really interchangeable on the forecheck. He’s a hard-nosed guy. He’s great in front of the net. He’s overpowering there. I throw the puck on net and he does the rest.”

Rychel’s growing confidence has come at a perfect time for the Marlies, who lost Kapanen, their second leading scorer, to a lower-body injury on Jan 14. Kapanen was spotted at the MasterCard Centre late last week on crutches with a boot on his left foot. 

“Kerby came with a very open mind about his time here,” Campbell said. “He’s happy to be here, he’s happy to be playing and to finally be getting himself in a groove again.”

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