Hockey prospecting is a funny business. Players from all over the globe can be claimed by teams in the National Hockey League, and play years in other parts of the globe until they call said pro team home. As a fan of all other professional sports, it’s confusing. As a fan of hockey, it’s a juicy wrinkle to the sport that emphasizes the global nature of it all.
The Edmonton Oilers, no stranger to a good/sour prospect, have leaned less heavily on their nurturing of prospects and more so on drafting high end talent able to play in the moment. And perhaps this is a double-edged sword. Perhaps Tambellini and company approached things differently in the later rounds because the need wasn’t so great. That sounds stupid, but given the current state of prospects already playing pro hockey, it wouldn’t surprise me if this subconsciously took place. DISCLAIMER: I’m not passing judgement on the Oilers’ scouts, just making an opinionated guesstimate of the situation.
As a Barons writer, of course my time is spent watching developing prospects in the AHL. In the three years of existence as the farm club of the Edmonton Oilers, it appears that OKC has groomed maybe two players for the big time. Defenseman, Jeff Petry was the first. After 41 games in 2010-11, his days as a farm hand ended, and he’d earn a promotion to the big club. Teemu Hartikainen is likely the second. And his story is nearly two and a half years in the making, in which he’s fixed, tweaked, and changed portions of his game that have now nudged him more towards being a full time NHLer. Sandwiched between those two should have been Linus Omark, but that ship has sailed.
Some could make a case for Chris VandeVelde or Colten Teubert, but I’m not willing to qualify them for several reasons, and they still aren’t the best Oilers prospect on the Barons roster this year. That title goes to Toni Rajala.
And this season has been bizarre for Toni Rajala. In camp he was good. In preseason he was good. He clearly had some skills that AHL/NHL clubs are looking for, and although raw, his performances were strong. So the Barons sent him to Stockton. And he’s torn up the scoresheet in that league prior to his recent recall to Oklahoma City with the NHL harvesting the AHL roster.
Rajala, turning 22 this March, is a left-handed winger who can play both right and left. He’s wiry, small, but pistol whip dangerous. And he can play with just about anyone. Recently he lined up with Anton Lander and Magnus Paajarvi and scored. Prior to that he played a few games deeper in the lineup with Marc Arcobello. He produced chances.
I hesitate to compare him to Linus Omark, but he does remind me a bit of that fellow in several regards. First, he’s dangerous when carrying the puck alone. Omark’s one knock at times was that he handled the puck far too much on his own. He sort of dialed it back just a bit, and that actually worked in his favor. But there were times where he single-handily produced a scoring chance from one end to the other. I’ve only seen that happen a few times in Oklahoma City (Hartikainen and Omark both come to mind). Toni Rajala can do that. Second, he has a creative gene. The prospects that stand out in the AHL, at least on the offensive side of the puck, tend to do things no one else does. Rajala does swooping shootout moves, slices sideways in front of the net, he’s unafraid to shoot the puck, can skate at full throttle, stop on a dime, and cut the other direction. He’s fun to watch. Third, he plays intelligent hockey for a rookie. Winger prospects usually are all over the map in terms of consistency. And Rajala isn’t going to playing mind-bending defense, but at least he’s steadily learned how to tone down the over-aggressiveness just enough to not leave his team hanging when the puck rushes the other direction.
The coaching staff in Oklahoma City likes him as well. The early re-assignment to Stockton was really about age more than anything else for Rajala. Tyler Pitlick and Curtis Hamilton needed more AHL minutes as they are a year further into their ELC. Otherwise, there’s no doubt that Rajala makes the Barons lineup out of camp and for the duration of the American League season.
“He’s played well since he came back his second stint,” said Oklahoma City coach Todd Nelson. “He’s fun to watch. He does a lot of creative things. He finished (well) on his goal tonight. He had other chances. He hit the post. He’s one of our skilled players.”
“He’s certainly a player that I think is going to play in the NHL one day, in my opinion,” Thunder Coach Matt Thomas said of Rajala, who was selected by the Oilers in the fourth round of the 2009 NHL entry draft. “I haven’t seen too many players as electrifying as him at times. The funny thing is I don’t even know if any of his goals were overly electrifying. He can just shoot the puck.”
So the common thread for Rajala is creative scoring. That’s huge for the Oilers.
The problem for Rajala is where he might fit in with the Oilers one day. Consider him a long-term project in the same mode as Teemu Hartikainen. Like Harski, he can play left and right. And doesn’t seemed bothered by the crossover from game-to-game. Perhaps you squeeze him into a Ryan Smyth spot one day. Or maybe Lennart Petrell or Ales Hemsky. But don’t expect him to squeeze in there anytime soon. He’s a long term project that will probably burn through his entire ELC before being fully ready. But he’s well on his way, and quickly stepping over prospects that were drafted later.
I like Rajala a lot. When he touches the puck you pay attention. With more fine tuning, a bit of encouragement, and good old fashioned time, he’ll be a solid player. Perhaps in the NHL. In the meantime, HE’S a prospect worth watching on the farm.