Toni Rajala: No Good Solution

Jonathan Willis
August 24 2013 12:56PM

Toni Rajala’s departure from the Oilers’ organization yesterday didn’t quite come out of left field, given the rumours circulating beforehand that he was interested in going back to Europe, but all the same it was a significant blow to a prospect system almost entirely lacking good forwards at the minor league level.

There are different ways of looking at what Rajala’s departure means, and most of them are negative.

For one, it already makes a mediocre 2009 Draft look worse. The Oilers found a real player in Magnus Paajarvi at 10th overall (since cashed in for another real player, David Perron). Four years out, Rajala was one of three guys contributing at the AHL level, and the only one scoring – the others are defensive specialist Anton Lander and backup goalie Olivier Roy. One pick (Troy Hesketh) is already a clear bust and two others look to be well on their way: Cameron Abney, who can’t crack the Oilers’ AHL lineup, and Kyle Bigos who is on a one-year AHL contract with the Worcester Sharks.

For another, the Oilers’ list of forward prospects at the AHL level is getting scary. Looking at last season’s team, for example, Edmonton retains the rights to exactly one player who scored more than 20 points in AAA last season – 25 year-old Mark Arcobello. Anton Lander picked up 20 points in 47 games, Ryan Martindale had 14 points in 41 games, and Tyler Pitlick had 10 points in 44 games. Nobody else cracked double digits. In terms of young forwards with proven AHL scoring, the Oilers’ list on Friday morning was one name long. Now there isn’t a list.

My View

The Oilers have lots of good young scoring forwards in the NHL, but successful teams have a steady stream of good young forwards coming up from the minors. The Oilers don’t: their forward prospect group is flat-out terrible outside the NHL. Edmonton has one young impact AHL forward in the system – and given Anton Lander’s scoring struggles, I’m using the “impact” descriptor loosely. They simply aren’t a deep enough to team to blithely send away players who were point-per-game AHL’ers at the age of 21.

Superficially, this is an inexplicable move. Is there more going on beneath the surface? I think so.

Craig MacTavish isn’t purging the system of everybody under 6’ – keen observers will recall the signing of Andrew Miller, a player the Oilers’ Twitter account originally listed at 5’8” before hastily changing that to 5’10”. In a summer where a bunch of depth players were cleared out, 5’9”, 165 pound Mark Arcobello landed another contract. So that’s not it – and those who want to see all the small skilled prospects purged from the system had better keep their knives sharp because MacTavish has added those kinds of players and will doubtless continue to add those kinds of players when it makes sense to do so.

This was a Rajala-specific move. Rajala, at age 22, was in great shape to push for NHL playing time – he’d forced his way up the roster and given his AHL performance and the lack of other Oilers options he was bound to get at least a cameo. If he couldn’t force his way into Edmonton, there are other teams in the league that might notice a guy ripping up the American League. He didn’t do that; instead he wanted to go back to Europe.

So the Oilers had a choice: they could have retained his rights and loaned him out, or cut him loose. Likely, there were behind the scenes factors that informed that choice, but it isn’t necessary to resort to those as explanation. It could be that the primary reason the Oilers made the choice they did was because they couldn’t think of a scenario where a guy unwilling to finish his entry-level deal in Oklahoma would show enough in Europe to earn a one-way contract. The question with Rajala isn’t scoring; it’s his ability to translate his game to the NHL – and the best way to answer that question would have been to have him try and force his way into the majors next season. Big years in Finland or Sweden or the KHL aren’t likely to change that.

It’s an unfortunate move for the Oilers; they can’t really afford to lose any of their good young forward prospects. But Rajala’s the one who made the decision to put his pursuit of an NHL roster spot on hold, and from the moment that decision was made the Oilers were in an untenable position. There was no good solution to that problem.

Recently around the Nation Network

Roberto Luongo finally gave Vancouver fans the first real insight into his thoughts on everything that's happened in the Canucks' net this summer, and Cam Charron has the transcript of parts one and two of his interview with TSN up at Canucks Army. Luongo's comments on the divorce between him and Vancouver made me laugh:

Well I used that analogy all the time. That's what it felt like and I accepted it. I had moved on, personally. I mean, the only problem is that she didn't, and she wanted me back.

Click the link above to read more, or check out some of my recent stuff:

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 DSF
August 24 2013, 02:29PM
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I believe you'll see more and more European draft picks return home when they face the prospect of playing in the AHL.

The KHL is a growing force, with teams from Finland, Croatia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic recently joining the league.

The way NHL 2 way contracts are structured with very little money on the AHL side, many players who can't see a clear, quick path to the NHL will simply opt out like Rajala and Hartikainen.

The two Russians the Oilers drafted in 2013 are very big risks to do the same.

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#2 Stack Pad Save
August 24 2013, 03:33PM
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@Klima's Mullet

What erosion of depth are your worried about? Are there so many players leaving North America to play hockey in the KHL that the hockey is now 2nd tier and you are not getting the best possible entertainment for dollar value in hockey from the NHL?

Teemu Hartikienen, Linus Omark will never play in the NHL, they are not good enough. They lack the top end scoring to replace the guys on the Oilers top 6 and they lack the ability to play well in limited time on ice roles.

Toni Rajala will most likely be simular, he may make it to the NHL with another team, but not likely in the near future. So why are Oilers fans so worried that their is a complete erosion of hockey talent from North America over 3 guys leaving the Oilers to make more money for themselves in Europe?

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#3 DSF
August 24 2013, 05:33PM
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michael wrote:

How man Russians currently play in the NHL vs 15 years ago? I think there may be 20 Russians. Not Latvians or Ukrainians or Belarussians. Versus how many played in the NHL in say 2000?.Someone look it up because I would think in 2013-14 it is going to be a whole lot less.Just sayin the KHL is a factor. And more so if they expand to places in the former Eastern Bloc.

Here's the breakdown from last season:

Canada - 484

U.S. - 220

Sweden - 63

Czech - 44

Finland - 30

Russia - 29

Russians playing in the league over the last 10 years:

12/13 - 29

11/12 -31

10/11 - 33

09/10 - 34

08/09 - 36

07/08 - 34

06/07 - 44

05/06 - 49

Lockout

03/04 - 65

02/03 - 63

So, the number of Russians in the NHL has dropped by half over the past decade and, as the KHL grows in power and scope, I would expect that number to keep falling..

And the number of Finns, Swedes, Czechs and Slovaks is also dropping as the KHL offers them more opportunities closer to home.

Don Cherry must be thrilled.

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#4 Reg Dunlop
August 24 2013, 05:41PM
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In the last 6 amateur drafts the oil have selected 30 forwards. 3 first over-alls and Ebs contribute, a small handful(very small) are true prospects and the remaining 24 are likely going to be good citizens, family men, maybe one will become a secret agent, but no NHL calibre players on this list. Does this not constitute a failing grade for our scouting staff? How about the coaching staff in OKC? How about those responsible at the top; Lowe or Olczyk or Carriere or Sillinger? Is this situation an act of God or is someone at fault? Our forward prospect depth at the AHL level is inexcusable.

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#5 lucky
August 24 2013, 01:15PM
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Good analogy by Luongo. Never cared much for him but he's growing on me. The game lacks personalities now, guys are all vanilla, full of all the same two-bit cliches. Good on him and wish him well.

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#7 Captain Obvious
August 24 2013, 05:43PM
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Omark and Rajala are better than whichever useless players will play on the fourth line this year.

These kinds of decisions are the difference between winning and losing.

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#8 michael
August 24 2013, 02:09PM
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Waste. TR probably came to same conclusion that a lot of pundits on OilersNation have said regarding TR. Size will be an issue going forward. But the main issue will be who is ahead of him on the depth chart. If I were TR and saw that I would run back to Europe also. Like a lot of smaller, skilled forwards he'll do fine on the big ice. He'll probably get a bigger paycheck when all is said and done.

The issue for me is that we now are seeing a trend in the Oilers farm system. The European players are being pushed aside in favor of the big boys from the WHL.There is definitely a changing of the guard at the AHL level. The Oilers have only 2 real European prospects worth their salt and they are Klefbom and Lander. I wonder what kind of chance a guy like Yakimov or Slepeshev have going forward?

The Oilers seem intent on filling their bottom 6 with veteran NA Ahler's. Jonesuu is more likely a AHL starter than a 3rd line guy here.

If I am a skilled guy and I look at the Oilers top 6 I say to myself. Self Am I better than the 3 number 1 picks the Oilers have in their top 6? Probably not. Do I have a shot at the other 3 spots. Slim and none.

TR you did the right thing moving on. Look out for number 1 I say. TH hope you enjoy the winters in Russia because at least you won't be worrying about the tornado season in OKC.

BTW what was the final average attendance numbers for the OKC Barons last year? OKC als added a NASL soccer franchise for next season I believe. More competition for the dollar.

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#9 Captain Obvious
August 24 2013, 02:30PM
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This analysis doesn't go deep enough. While it is true that on the surface this was caused by Rajala preferring to play in Europe to the AHL, the real question is why he has the preference. On this score a trend is emerging.

Europeans are not willing to play in the AHL for the chance to make the Oilers. The most likely reason for this is that these players don't believe the Oilers will ever give them a chance.

So while it is true that "the best way to answer that question would have been to have him try and force his way into the majors next season,| that is entirely moot if he believes it would be impossible for him to force his way onto the team.

The real question is why do none of Omark, Haartikainen, or Rajala believe that they would get a fair chance from the Oilers. If it was one guy you could blame the player but now it's 100% of the players in this situation. It's time to blame the Oilers.

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#10 Fresh Mess
August 24 2013, 02:40PM
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For me this makes the MPS trade look even worse. Nothing against Perron. You are right, the prospect pool at forward for the Oilers is abysmal (and when I say abysmal I don't mean unendingly deep).

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#11 michael
August 24 2013, 03:16PM
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Te KHL expansion into other European markets will really put the screws to the NHL and its ability to lure the best over to NA. 10 years from now its is going to be a big problem. As DSF says. Book it.

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#12 Stack Pad Save
August 24 2013, 03:23PM
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I am not worried about Toni Rajala leaving. I see this as Linus Omark 2.0 and there is still no evidence that any other team is lining up to have Omark play for their NHL team.

The real problem I see here is drafting and organizational depth and Willis hit on the mark with this article. So, realizing the lack of quality forward depth in the organization the blame for this lands directly at Tambellini's feet. I just how much of this blame should also go on Stu McGregor as he is responsible for finding the prospects?

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#13 Cutterov
August 24 2013, 04:26PM
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Everyone is talking about how we turned Paarjavii into Perron when in reality we could have just drafted Perron not once but twice in the 07 draft.. Alex Plante at 15 overall... The scouts at that time were a bright crew... If you can't skate you can't play it's that simple... It's picks like that is a reason why our org was so depleted that we are still feeling the effects... How did Kevin Plunergas have a job and get another gig...

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#14 Stack Pad Save
August 24 2013, 03:27PM
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michael wrote:

Te KHL expansion into other European markets will really put the screws to the NHL and its ability to lure the best over to NA. 10 years from now its is going to be a big problem. As DSF says. Book it.

Besides Kovalchuk, who else is the best that is going to be lured to Russia to play hockey? The KHL can not even lure Ovechkin, Malkin or Datsyuk, who are arguable all better or at least as good as Kovalchuk. The KHL is not a threat to the NHL. NHL teams need to start looking at the KHL as an alternative to the AHL for developing their younger talent, just as they do with the Swedish in the SEL.

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#15 Stack Pad Save
August 24 2013, 03:45PM
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@Klima's Mullet

I agree, in my opinion, players good enough for the NHL will come to the NHL because they will have a chance to earn top dollar and get all the guarantee's and rights that come with earning money in North America. The NHL will start to use the KHL as a feeder league. Look we took Anton Belov and Grebeshkov back out of the KHL this year. That means in terms of talen swapping we have gotten rid of 2 Oilers that were not going to make in the NHL for the Oilers and exchanged them for 2 players that may have a better chance of making it in the NHL. The cause for concern for me is the lack of forward depth for the Oilers currently. Seriously lack of depth and the Oilers have been the organizations calling card and problem for the last couple of decades.

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#16 Woogie63
August 24 2013, 04:42PM
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Should the Oilers kiss and make up with Omark?

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#17 Rama Lama
August 24 2013, 08:41PM
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DSF wrote:

I believe you'll see more and more European draft picks return home when they face the prospect of playing in the AHL.

The KHL is a growing force, with teams from Finland, Croatia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic recently joining the league.

The way NHL 2 way contracts are structured with very little money on the AHL side, many players who can't see a clear, quick path to the NHL will simply opt out like Rajala and Hartikainen.

The two Russians the Oilers drafted in 2013 are very big risks to do the same.

Maybe this will have a negative outlook on NHL drafting European/Russian players in latter rounds?

If this is what will happen with guys not guaranteed to play in the NHL in their draft year.........it seem pointless drafting them. I can see a day where drafting outside of the NHL become too risky for NHL teams.

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#18 Oiler Al
August 24 2013, 10:05PM
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If you start ignoring Euro players say beyond the second round, you end up with players like Hamilton, Plante, Pouliot .

I think the problem might be with Oilers Euro scouting staff.... Detroit is not adverse to signing guys from across the pond.

Matter of fact the problem could be right the hall, with the name MacGregor on the door.

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#19 Spydyr
August 24 2013, 02:39PM
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Stop drafting players outside the last two rounds who have very little chance to play in the NHL. .Easy eh.

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#20 Klima's Mullet
August 24 2013, 03:29PM
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DSF wrote:

I believe you'll see more and more European draft picks return home when they face the prospect of playing in the AHL.

The KHL is a growing force, with teams from Finland, Croatia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic recently joining the league.

The way NHL 2 way contracts are structured with very little money on the AHL side, many players who can't see a clear, quick path to the NHL will simply opt out like Rajala and Hartikainen.

The two Russians the Oilers drafted in 2013 are very big risks to do the same.

You hit the nail on the head...i wonder what changes will be made in the future to combat this erosion to the depth of North American hockey. The salary cap reaching new heights will help but how much?

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#21 madjam
August 24 2013, 10:19PM
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Our top six seems set for many years to come . The other slight players unlikely to be a staple with main club unless as a defensive specialist . None of them are that either , and not skilled enough to beat out top six . Why hold on to them , when they should be developing defence and role players on AHL squad with size and grit to better service current roster . That probably includes Arcobello , Miller and others as well . okay for the odd callup , but how long and many of these types are really necessary to begin with . The fewer the better I would think .

Do we not get an extra year of eligibility with European players staying at home a year ? Seems like a good way to develop them cheaply if that be the case .

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#22 michael
August 24 2013, 05:15PM
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How man Russians currently play in the NHL vs 15 years ago? I think there may be 20 Russians. Not Latvians or Ukrainians or Belarussians. Versus how many played in the NHL in say 2000?.Someone look it up because I would think in 2013-14 it is going to be a whole lot less.Just sayin the KHL is a factor. And more so if they expand to places in the former Eastern Bloc.

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#23 michael
August 24 2013, 05:19PM
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2000-01 vs 2012-13

50 vs 29 Russians which is 42% decrease in the amount of Russian playing in the NHL.

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#24 toprightcorner
August 24 2013, 01:05PM
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It is unfortunate, but can understand releasing him instead of loaning him out. He is not the type of player that is worth waiting for and trade value is minimal for a guy playing pro in north America then going to Europe, too much risk for a tea,. I was hoping that MacT would have traded him a month ago but obviously he didn't have a taker or thought he could increase his value with a strong start to the AHL season. If someone does not fit in your plans, best to trade him asap because those who wait too long usually have it backfire

Hopefully this opening of a contract spot will allow for a few more quality prospects in trades or signings.

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#25 Rama Lama
August 24 2013, 02:14PM
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I hope that the reason he was let go is because the Oilers knew it was best for the player.

I believe that they never, ever had any intentions of bringing yet another small players into the equation into the big club. The only logical reason seems that he would only garner a fourth or fifth rounder and the Oilers are clearly not interested in those??

I'm glad that this move even stumps the professional writers.........it's hard to understand all around.

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#26 Hayek
August 24 2013, 03:33PM
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Trade for Tomas Tatar from the Red Wings organization please.

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#27 Klima's Mullet
August 24 2013, 03:34PM
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Stack Pad Save wrote:

Besides Kovalchuk, who else is the best that is going to be lured to Russia to play hockey? The KHL can not even lure Ovechkin, Malkin or Datsyuk, who are arguable all better or at least as good as Kovalchuk. The KHL is not a threat to the NHL. NHL teams need to start looking at the KHL as an alternative to the AHL for developing their younger talent, just as they do with the Swedish in the SEL.

This is good insight, I just wonder how easy it will be to cooperate with the KHL. A lot of huge money and egos in their ownership group...

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#28 Klima's Mullet
August 24 2013, 03:38PM
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Stack Pad Save wrote:

What erosion of depth are your worried about? Are there so many players leaving North America to play hockey in the KHL that the hockey is now 2nd tier and you are not getting the best possible entertainment for dollar value in hockey from the NHL?

Teemu Hartikienen, Linus Omark will never play in the NHL, they are not good enough. They lack the top end scoring to replace the guys on the Oilers top 6 and they lack the ability to play well in limited time on ice roles.

Toni Rajala will most likely be simular, he may make it to the NHL with another team, but not likely in the near future. So why are Oilers fans so worried that their is a complete erosion of hockey talent from North America over 3 guys leaving the Oilers to make more money for themselves in Europe?

You make an interesting point. I don't think it's "complete" erosion but any time assets are lost it has to be a concern.

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#29 michael
August 24 2013, 09:24PM
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Says something that the number of Europeans playing in the NHL has decreased markedly. Home cooking in the SELKHL,Swiss league and the German league is giving more and more players options as to where they play. The money in the KHL is almost on par with the NHL. When the NHL expands again it will be not like the last time it expanded. The glut of players that were available during the last expansion has gone to the way side.

The one area that I think the Oilers have given themselves a leg up in is NCAA and CIS free agents. With Bob Green in charge of that area I think we will see more and more players from those 2 leagues being drafted or signed by NHL teams. I think the growth of NCAA hockey has given the NHL a home grown market with which to draw from.

European players will still be drafted. But I think money will no longer be the driving factor in where players decide to play. Guys like Tony Rajala and Th and Linus Omark will stay home. Sure we will see a handful of players still deciding that the Stanley Cup is the be all and end all. The dreams will continue for some. Others will dream of other glories.

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#30 madjam
August 24 2013, 11:14PM
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madjam wrote:

Our top six seems set for many years to come . The other slight players unlikely to be a staple with main club unless as a defensive specialist . None of them are that either , and not skilled enough to beat out top six . Why hold on to them , when they should be developing defence and role players on AHL squad with size and grit to better service current roster . That probably includes Arcobello , Miller and others as well . okay for the odd callup , but how long and many of these types are really necessary to begin with . The fewer the better I would think .

Do we not get an extra year of eligibility with European players staying at home a year ? Seems like a good way to develop them cheaply if that be the case .

In no way shape or form is our top six set with Sammy Snowpants in it . Imposter madjam , I've had enough .

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#31 jake
August 25 2013, 06:34AM
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Interesing Rajala was the first to sign from the 2009 draft..like a couple of months later. He wasn't drafted out of CHL so I am curious as to why he didn't give his shot at North American hockey earlier in the past 2 years ( I think he had military obligations soon after draft year though). Instead he comes over after the Oilers drafted their 3rd #1 overall, where all 3 are scoring forwards. Reasons for everything I guess.

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#32 Quicksilver ballet
August 25 2013, 09:10AM
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Could be time to reduce rosters across the board. How important is that 4th line in todays NHL anyways.

How about gameday rosters looking something like this....

3 lines, along with a specialty player as your 10th forward. That 10th forward could be a possible injury replacement, or a pk/pp specialist. What do most 4th lines get in todays NHL, 5 to 7 mins a night, that should easily be distributed over the first 3 lines.

Use the existing 6 d'men format that is currently being used, along with 2 goaltenders.

For the most part, that 11th /12th forward (60 players league wide) is usually of AHL caliber anyways.

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#33 Thumby
August 25 2013, 10:46AM
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When you look at the dearth of talent the oilers have had in the forward ranks over the last 7 years, its no wonder we have no F depth on the farm...all the #1's picks had to go right onto the big club leaving only 2nd's & lower to pay in OKC. And we all know the probability of these making the show is low.(DSF could probably show the exact % if we asked nicely!)

We should be moving up in the standings going forward, and the lower 1st round picks we'll be getting over the next few years should translate into some bonafide forward prospects for OKC to develop. Hopefully, these prospect forwards will be over 6' and play tough so we can get a few gritty players into the mix.

I think we've got a lot of decent D prospects so I think the Oilers will likely focus of Forwards going forward (pardon the pun).

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#34 Mike Modano's Dog
August 25 2013, 12:17PM
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Arghh - I'm really hating the Oilers' moves, and I'm starting to hate the Oilers now, too!

We get rid of Steve Tambellini who was building our team the HARD way - with patience despite a fan base's natural knee-jerk reaction for 'bold moves'. I'm not saying he was perfect, but he sure in hell didn't hurt the team's direction it was headed in LONG-TERM.

Fire him, for MacTavish's 'bold moves' election promise:

Delete Paajarvi for another skilled, not big, winger (the only thing this team has any depth in currently), and waste an extra 2nd rounder, which grows on trees and we clearly don't need. Oh, did I mention he has a concussion history on a team without any protection for it's small players that can't fight (note: all top 9 forwards)? Delete Hartikainen Delete Rajala ...both for nothing.

Wow - I'm sure they weren't 'North American guys' anyhow, and didn't match Lowe's and MacTavish's vision of getting players like themselves only on this team. I'm sure we will find something not to like about those guys anyhow. Good riddance right - the Oilers are better off and all that good stuff, right? ;)

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#35 michael
August 25 2013, 11:34AM
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The chances right now of a guy coming in and breaking into the top 6 are none. Arcobello has a shot at the 4th line center position. Maybe. Lander is probably a 30-70 at making this years team. Training camp is going to see a deluge of free agent try outs. It will be interesting to see who comes into training camp. Lots of vets without jobs. A trend likely to continue as teams look to shed salary. The 1 million dollar 4 th line guy is going to be gone for the next couple of years until the new TV contracts are signed. once that is done the NHL average salary is going to balloon. The minimum salary should have been locked down in the CBA.

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#36 K_Mart
August 25 2013, 11:52AM
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If I were MacT I would have told Rajala he had a decent chance to make the fourth line and an even better chance to at least get a cameo when injuries occur.

But maybe Rajala is learning from Omark's mistakes... No matter how you perform (even if you put up 27pts in 51 GMs) you will continue to be a call up becaus you are small and the oilers already have lots of small skill, for some reason they'd rather have Eager and Brown.

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#37 CaptainLander
August 26 2013, 09:40AM
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Klima's Mullet wrote:

You hit the nail on the head...i wonder what changes will be made in the future to combat this erosion to the depth of North American hockey. The salary cap reaching new heights will help but how much?

I wonder if NHL teams will ever look at having affiliate teams in Europe where European born players can still play under a guidance of the NHL team that drafted them but still be able to live in Europe? This may weaken Ahl teams but would also give the NHL a foothold in Europe to battle the KHL.

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