ON THE HORIZON – Rhett Rakhshani, F, Bridgeport (AHL)

Washington Capitals forward Joel Ward’s ascension onto the National Hockey League scene could definitely be looked at as an unconventional one. In spite of beginning his hockey career nearly 15 years ago as a member of the Owen Sound Attack in the Ontario Hockey League, it was a resurgence a few years later playing roller hockey at Hot Skates in nearby Lynbrook that paved a pathway back to the NHL and onto a four-year, $12 million contract in the nation’s capital.

For New York Islanders prospect Rhett Rakhshani, his route to the NHL hopes to follow a similar path as Ward. Yet, it was his love to flow freely in his hometown of Huntington Beach, California on roller skates as a five-year old that gave him the impetus to make the transition onto the ice just a few short years later.

“I attribute all my success on the ice to starting out as a roller hockey player,” said the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Rakhshani. “Roller hockey allowed me to be creative offensively. It also made me a better puck handler.”

At age nine, Rakhshani seamlessly transitioned his game from the hardwood (or blacktop) to the ice. One year later, thanks to the help of local ice hockey coach Jeff Turcotte, Rakhshani found himself playing competitive ice hockey for the California Wave in both Westminster and Lakewood, California.

“Thanks to Jeff, I was in the right opportunity at the right time,” said Rakhshani. “It was a great break for me, and I immediately fell in love with the game.”

Rakhshani played seven years for the Wave, moving up from peewee to Midget AAA. In his final season in Midgets, the 16-year-old Rakhshani’s offensive prowess was in full display. He tallied 121 points in 56 games, scoring 54 goals and assisting on 67 others.

That summer, the Rakhshani clan convened in Southern California and decided to fast track Rhett’s progress with a move to the Midwest to play competitive high school hockey.

“My mom and I moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Ann Arbor, (Michigan),” said Rakhshani. “It was definitely a sacrifice on the family, but it was also a very good experience for me.

“I was playing against a much higher level of competition.”

In his two seasons in Ann Arbor, Rakhshani scored 43 goals and added 49 assists in 122 games. As a junior, he was named as one of his team’s assistant captains. As a senior, he finished with the fourth highest point total on his team.

Furthermore, Rakhshani’s senior season also included an invite to the IIHF World Championships, where he helped Team USA win the title.

“It was a great thrill to represent Team USA,” said Rakhshani. “It was quite a challenge competing against the World’s best.”

With an eye towards attending a four-year institution to further his hockey play, Rakhshani narrowed his collegiate choices to three – Wisconsin, Colorado College and Denver.

His choice was made simple after a visit with University of Denver head coach George Gwozdecky.

“When I first spoke to coach G, he made everything seem very comfortable,” said Rakhshani, who earlier in the summer was selected by the Islanders in the fourth round (100th overall) of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. “The style of play fit mine, and I loved the entire coaching staff.

“It was also the closest D-1 school to my home.”

As a freshman, Rakhshani quickly became acclimated to Gwozdecky’s rapid style. In turn, the 18th year head coach became enamored with the puck handling displays of the former roller hockey standout.

“The great advantage of growing up and playing roller hockey is the ability to make unique plays with the puck,” said Gwozdecky, a seven-time NCAA hockey championship coach. “And with Rhett, similar to when I coached (current Los Angeles King farm-hand) Gabe Gauthier here at Denver, his ability to maintain control on a slick roller hockey surface allows his hands to be much quicker than those players who grew up playing on a clean sheet of ice.”

Rakhshani accumulated 36 points – 10 goals and 26 assists – in his first 40 games as a Pioneer.

He followed his freshman season, by scoring 28 and 37 points, respectively, over his sophomore and junior seasons. As a junior, Rakhshani was named to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s All Academic Team, along with being named as a Third Team All Star.

Instead of opting to turn pro following his junior season, Rakhshani returned to college and broke out offensively. He scored 21 goals and added 29 assists in 41 games, and was named a WCHA First Team All Star. He was also named by his teammates as the Pioneers’ primary captain.

While his scoring output drew attention throughout the country, it was his leadership skills that Gwozdecky most admired.

“When we pick captains here at Denver, I usually let the entire team choose. I make the final decision.” said Gwozdecky. “With Rhett, his personality and intelligence makes others want to be around him.

“He is and will always be one of those guys that lives a great lifestyle. He is admired for his on-ice skills, but more-so, he attracts good people around him.”

After graduating Denver with honors, Rakhshani signed his three-year entry level contract on Long Island in the spring of 2010 and quickly made a brief appearance in Bridgeport – the Islanders’ top AHL affiliate. He had two assists in five games as a Sound Tiger.

He returned to Bridgeport in the fall, and despite the team’s overall struggles, Rakhshani netted a franchise rookie-record 24 goals and 62 points in 66 games. He earned a brief two-game call-up to the Island, but was held scoreless.

“The two games playing on Long Island was a little sample size,” said Rakhshani. “ But I knew that I had the skill set to play on that level.”

With hopes of breaking the NHL camp this past fall, Rakhshani suffered a concussion in the team’s first rookie game against Boston. On the mend for a couple of weeks, Rakhshani returned to the ice in a preseason tilt at Calgary in late September. Unfortunately, his clean bill of health would only last two periods, as he suffered a left knee injury. He would be sidelined for the next two months.

“I have had a lot of time to rest from both my concussion and my knee injury,” said Rakhshani. “My main objective is to get my timing back.”

Rakhshani returned to action in late November, playing alongside Tyler McNeely and all-star Casey Cizikas in Bridgeport. His hard-nosed play and overall scoring touch has jumpstarted the Sound Tigers, as they have yet to lose in the 2012 calendar year. They have won eight straight, and sit tied for second place with Adirondack and Albany in the Northeast Division. They stand two points behind division leader Connecticut.

“Rhett is a natural goal scorer,” said first-year Sound Tigers head coach Brent Thompson. “He has been a key to our power play as of late.

“We lean on him to score.”

Rakhshani has scored nine goals and added 12 assists in 24 games for the Sound Tigers.

Still, Rakhshani’s focus is towards a full-time promotion to the show.

“I want to play in the NHL right now,” said Rakhshani, who models his game after Philadelphia Flyers winger Danny Briere and Calgary Flames winger Mike Camalleri, based on their explosive burst in spite of their diminutive size. “I don’t think I have had all that I can eat in the AHL, but I think I am good enough to play in the NHL. Sooner rather than later …”

Gwozdecky also believes his former forward’s opportunity is soon approaching.

“To me, when he is able to maintain his physical health, Rhett will be a strong contributor in the NHL,” said Gwozdecky. “I could see him scoring 20-to-25 goals on the next level and be a top-8 forward.”

Is Rakhshani deserving of earning top-nine minutes for an NHL team currently tied with Columbus and Minnesota for second-to-last in the league in goals for? Is Rakhshani’s scoring touch in the ‘A’ attractive enough to pry away a young blue-liner from a team who not only sits alone in the NHL cellar in goals for, but also plays their home games just miles away from the calm air of Huntington Beach?

Only time will tell.