KEARNEY — The Tri-City Storm is relying on 16-year-old defenseman Ruben Rafkin to make an immediate impact this season.
The Storm signed the Turku, Finland, native to a tender agreement in January after extensive scouting and deliberation. The agreement requires Rafkin to play in at least 35 of the Storm’s 62 regular-season games this season.
Through the team’s first five contests, Rafkin has displayed glimpse of his potential. He’s appeared in four games and played regular shifts on the second and third lines.
Rafkin even showed his offensive abilities when he netted his first USHL goal Friday against Des Moines.
“I think he’s exactly what we hoped he’d be,” coach Anthony Noreen said. “He’s a competitor. He’s eager to get better, he wants to learn, he works at his craft, he plays a lot harder and with more order than most 16-year-olds could at this level. He’s going to be a really good defenseman for us.”
The Storm are a plus-4 when Rafkin is on the ice, which ranks fourth on this year’s team.
This is Rafkin’s third year playing in the United States. Rafkin, a University of Denver commit, spent the last two years at South Kent School in Connecticut in the United States Premier Hockey League.
He posted 10 goals and 34 assists in 47 games with the midget program and one goal and three assists with the under-16 team in 2017-18.
Rafkin, who attends Kearney High, believes he’s made a smooth transition to the USHL and Kearney. He said the biggest adjustment has been overcoming the speed of the USHL game.
“I’d describe myself as an offensive defenseman,” he said. “I like to play hard. If you haven’t seen me play, come watch.”
As he plays his first season in the United States’ top junior hockey league, improving his speed and refining his skills are points of emphasis for the 5-foot-11, 183-pound defenseman, Rafkin said.
“I think anytime you get a 16-year-old, especially at that position, to come in and not be a detriment to the team is a surprise,” Noreen said. “There’s no hiding defensemen at this level. And seeing how much better he’s gotten since he’s been here is the thing that’s most impressed me.”
The Storm (5-0) play three-games in three days this weekend. They travel to Des Moines for a contest at 7:05 p.m. Friday, before squaring off against the Buccaneers at 7:05 p.m. Saturday at the Viaero Center. The Storm wrap up the weekend with a home game against Omaha at 5:05 p.m. Sunday.