Lost along the way

Jonathan Willis
August 18 2014 09:12AM

Toni Rajala was this close to being a success story.

The 2009 fourth round draft pick passed hurdle after hurdle, and then left before even really challenging the final one.

NHL Equivalencies

Toni Rajala

Age League GP G A PTS NHL82
17 SM-liiga 21 2 3 5 8
18 WHL 60 26 37 63 22
19 SM-liiga 44 9 13 22 16
20 SM-liiga 51 16 13 29 19
21 AHL 46 17 28 45 43
22 SHL 37 13 17 30 40

The key number here is the “NHL82”, which is the expected offence over 82 games based on historical averages (I’ve split the difference between Gabriel Desjardins’ older equivalencies and Rob Vollman’s newer ones).

Drafting

91-Paajarvi-2

The 2009 Draft was an up-and-down one for Edmonton. The Oilers made two picks out of Sweden to start the draft, with Magnus Paajarvi and Anton Lander still the only players to appear in an NHL game.

A big chunk of the explanation for that was the Oilers decision to chase toughness over skill with their next three picks. High school defenceman Troy Hesketh flamed out at the USHL level, enforcer Cameron Abney couldn’t beat Central Leaguer Erick Lizon for AHL minutes, and overage BCHL’er Kyle Bigos is currently playing in the ECHL.

After the walkabout, Edmonton drafted pure skill in Rajala. Rajala was a point-per-game guy in Finland’s under-20 league, but really stood out for a ridiculous performance at the U-18’s, posting 10 goals and 19 points in just six games.

Development

Todd Nelson2

Rajala came to North America after the draft, and had a pretty decent debut with the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings. But it was only for one season, and then he went back to Finland, posted okay but unspectacular numbers and generally looked like a swing and a miss.

And then he came back to North America. Expectations were pretty close to nonexistent; it was a lockout year and Rajala found himself in the ECHL.

He was dominant at the lower level. In 29 games he scored 18 goals and added 20 assists. He got a five-game cameo in the AHL during the lockout, then made the jump full-time once Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and the rest left OKC.

He was great there, too. Once the stars left for the majors, nobody was a more effective scorer on the farm. Mark Arcobello and Teemu Hartikainen were close; highly-touted guys like Tyler Pitlick and Curtis Hamilton weren’t even in the range.

And then he was gone

There’s never been any real explanation of Rajala’s departure from the organization. Stauffer’s second tweet is highly suggestive, and from context (the Oilers’ signing of Andrew Miller, their re-signing of Mark Arcobello) it isn’t hard to guess that Rajala was the one pushing the breakup.

I’d argue that the drafting here was pretty good. I think the development system worked too, getting the player to the cusp of the NHL in a single year on the farm. But sometimes it doesn’t matter; despite the best efforts of an organization

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

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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 Stack Pad Save
August 18 2014, 09:16AM
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Could have been the next Linus.

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#2 Rama Lama
August 18 2014, 09:19AM
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I think it's safe to say, drafting highly skilled small players is a total waste of time.

They can score all the points they want, but very few GM's in the league will reward them with NHL minutes.

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#3 IM80
August 18 2014, 09:25AM
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I really like Nelson, but have been skeptical a bit of his ability to develop NHLers (still early to really assess this, who has he actually developed?).....this is a good example of Nelson's positive contribution though....

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#4 IM80
August 18 2014, 09:27AM
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Rama Lama wrote:

I think it's safe to say, drafting highly skilled small players is a total waste of time.

They can score all the points they want, but very few GM's in the league will reward them with NHL minutes.

"stone hands" Marchant was skilled at one time......anyone else miss his awful breakaways?

but i agree with you, many GMs when given the choice will choose the bigger players....

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#5 jeremy
August 18 2014, 09:28AM
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Rama Lama wrote:

I think it's safe to say, drafting highly skilled small players is a total waste of time.

They can score all the points they want, but very few GM's in the league will reward them with NHL minutes.

Yep I guess Eberle, Giroux, Kane, Duchene, Crosby, Richards, St Louis, never got NHL minutes sure would not like to waste my time drafting those guys.

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#6 IM80
August 18 2014, 09:31AM
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jeremy wrote:

Yep I guess Eberle, Giroux, Kane, Duchene, Crosby, Richards, St Louis, never got NHL minutes sure would not like to waste my time drafting those guys.

it's very easy to cherry pick 7 examples of guys after they are established in the nhl.

and you included Crosby in your post....that's how we know we can't take you seriously.....the guy was clearly a franchise changing player...

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#7 OilDieHard
August 18 2014, 09:31AM
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too bad really....i'd have liked to see what Rajala could have done at the NHL level?

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#9 freelancer
August 18 2014, 09:41AM
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You can't just say drafting smaller skill players is a waste of time. We've seen the "success" of drafting big physical players too. With a lot of lower picks it becomes a crapshoot on if they will ever transition to the NHL. Just have to trust your scouting, and if that isn't working than bring in a new staff.

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#10 Rama Lama
August 18 2014, 09:44AM
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jeremy wrote:

Yep I guess Eberle, Giroux, Kane, Duchene, Crosby, Richards, St Louis, never got NHL minutes sure would not like to waste my time drafting those guys.

Yea, I would have to say Rajala ( 5"7" and 160) is a wee bit smaller that the players you listed...........nugget!

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#11 Will
August 18 2014, 10:27AM
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Rama Lama wrote:

Yea, I would have to say Rajala ( 5"7" and 160) is a wee bit smaller that the players you listed...........nugget!

Maybe you went a bit too far with waste of time, as two small skilled forwards have a chance to make big impacts on their teams this year: Mark Arcobello for the Oilers, and Johnny Gaudrea for the Flames.

I think size will remain King for sometime, but every team loves having that small draft selection that everyone else passed on for exactly that reason.

As it usually goes with the Oilers, there will be a goat, and there will be a player or two that no one saw coming. Last year no one saw Perron, Gordon, or Hendricks playing the way they did. This year I am betting on Arco.

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#12 DieHard
August 18 2014, 10:48AM
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Rajala needs to be a top 6 forward to be effective. Not a lot of room on most NHL teams including the Oilers. I think Rajala realized this and determined Europe as his place to play and make a living.

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#13 ubermiguel
August 18 2014, 11:00AM
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I'm starting to be suspicious of guys whose draft position improves due to great performances at high profile tournaments. It seems they're often playing out of their heads at the right time and get rewarded for it but can't back it up; call it the "Pisani Effect".

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#14 jeremy
August 18 2014, 11:13AM
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Rama Lama wrote:

Yea, I would have to say Rajala ( 5"7" and 160) is a wee bit smaller that the players you listed...........nugget!

Well elite pro prospects has him listed at 5-10 and 178, Hockey futures had him at 5-10 and 163 and just about everywhere else has him 5-10 from 160 - 180 but yeah I guess he is 5-7 and 160 because you said so, good try though maybe do some research before you try to run your mouth. Once again it was not me who threw out such a dumb comment that drafting small skill is a waste of time

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#15 jeremy
August 18 2014, 11:20AM
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IM80 wrote:

it's very easy to cherry pick 7 examples of guys after they are established in the nhl.

and you included Crosby in your post....that's how we know we can't take you seriously.....the guy was clearly a franchise changing player...

Well that is good that you cannot take my post seriously because I cannot even understand what the point of you spouting off is, good try though. What was said was that drafting small forwards were a waste of time, EVERY ONE of the guys I listed are small skilled forwards - all listed at 5-11 or under, which is small if you are saying Rajala at 5-10 is small.

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#16 godot10
August 18 2014, 11:32AM
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IM80 wrote:

I really like Nelson, but have been skeptical a bit of his ability to develop NHLers (still early to really assess this, who has he actually developed?).....this is a good example of Nelson's positive contribution though....

Todd Nelson's development record over 4 years in OKC

NHL Players 1) Rehabilitated failed prospect Colin McDonald into an NHL player. 2) Jeff Petry 3) Justin Schultz 4) Magnus Paajarvi 5) Martin Marincin

Players on the cusp of being in the NHL 1) Lander 2) Klefbom 3) Arcobello 4) Fedun 5) Tyler Pitlick

Low round draft picks to the cusp of NHL. 1) Hartikainen 2) Omark 3) Rajala

Other 1) Taylor Chorney was a -20 AHL defensemen prior to Nelson, breakeven under Nelson 2) Alex Plante was an AHL All-Star Nelson before injuries caught up with him.

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#17 pfranson
August 18 2014, 11:36AM
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As a Barons SSH, I followed Toni quite closely. Night after night he was, without a doubt, the fastest skater on the ice. I mean, explosively, scary fast. On a breakaway, he would be in front of the goalie before any of his pursuers would make it to the blue line.

Last year, I followed him on the HV71 website. Until he got hurt, every game had a highlight video with his name on it. Really pretty moves, and a lot of PERFECT passes for assists.

Personally, he is just a nice kid. Bump into him after a game or at an SSH event, he would take the time to really talk to you.

Why did he opt out? Could be a number of things. I know the tornado that almost hit our arena in 2013 scared the bejeezus out of him. He was looking at spending at least part of another season in OKC, and it could be that he felt (like you guys do) that his size was always going to be a limiting factor in the NHL. I also got the impression that he missed Finland (or the ability to go home on breaks). Teemu and Antti certainly had his ear and probably told him it might be time to look east.

At any rate, I miss the kid.

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#18 Harry
August 18 2014, 11:41AM
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Hello JW,

Why couldnt the Oilers trade RaJala like they did with Hartikienen? Seems they could of got at least a 6 or 7 th for him no?

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#19 pfranson
August 18 2014, 11:45AM
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By the way, the penalty shot at 2:40 into the video above is insane!

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#20 IM80
August 18 2014, 11:47AM
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godot10 wrote:

Todd Nelson's development record over 4 years in OKC

NHL Players 1) Rehabilitated failed prospect Colin McDonald into an NHL player. 2) Jeff Petry 3) Justin Schultz 4) Magnus Paajarvi 5) Martin Marincin

Players on the cusp of being in the NHL 1) Lander 2) Klefbom 3) Arcobello 4) Fedun 5) Tyler Pitlick

Low round draft picks to the cusp of NHL. 1) Hartikainen 2) Omark 3) Rajala

Other 1) Taylor Chorney was a -20 AHL defensemen prior to Nelson, breakeven under Nelson 2) Alex Plante was an AHL All-Star Nelson before injuries caught up with him.

Thanks for the research. Much appreciated. Can't argue some of those.

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#21 ubermiguel
August 18 2014, 11:50AM
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pfranson wrote:

As a Barons SSH, I followed Toni quite closely. Night after night he was, without a doubt, the fastest skater on the ice. I mean, explosively, scary fast. On a breakaway, he would be in front of the goalie before any of his pursuers would make it to the blue line.

Last year, I followed him on the HV71 website. Until he got hurt, every game had a highlight video with his name on it. Really pretty moves, and a lot of PERFECT passes for assists.

Personally, he is just a nice kid. Bump into him after a game or at an SSH event, he would take the time to really talk to you.

Why did he opt out? Could be a number of things. I know the tornado that almost hit our arena in 2013 scared the bejeezus out of him. He was looking at spending at least part of another season in OKC, and it could be that he felt (like you guys do) that his size was always going to be a limiting factor in the NHL. I also got the impression that he missed Finland (or the ability to go home on breaks). Teemu and Antti certainly had his ear and probably told him it might be time to look east.

At any rate, I miss the kid.

I love the first person report from OKC, thanks for taking the time to post! I guess for some guys home calls you more than a shot at the NHL.

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#22 pfranson
August 18 2014, 12:01PM
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ubermiguel wrote:

I love the first person report from OKC, thanks for taking the time to post! I guess for some guys home calls you more than a shot at the NHL.

I think the home call thing was probably pretty low on the reason list. He was making something like $70k here in OKC with the (again, with the size) somewhat muted possibility of hitting the NHL jackpot. He made something like $600k in Sweden, and I think he's over $2M in the KHL for next season.

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#26 ubermiguel
August 18 2014, 01:08PM
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pfranson wrote:

I think the home call thing was probably pretty low on the reason list. He was making something like $70k here in OKC with the (again, with the size) somewhat muted possibility of hitting the NHL jackpot. He made something like $600k in Sweden, and I think he's over $2M in the KHL for next season.

Hard to argue a 40x raise.

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#27 Oilers G- Nations Poet Laureate
August 18 2014, 03:08PM
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IM80 wrote:

"stone hands" Marchant was skilled at one time......anyone else miss his awful breakaways?

but i agree with you, many GMs when given the choice will choose the bigger players....

IIRC Toddy Marchant scored 20 goals his last season in Oiler silks.

I too USED to call him "Stone Hands Marchant", but I find it hard to call a 20 goal man "Stone Hands".

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#28 Dinsdale Pirhanna
August 18 2014, 03:09PM
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Hey Jon,

I like skilled players too, but when I look at NHL rosters, the smallest 5 guys look like giants compared to Rajala.

Datsyuk and Zetterberg were bigger than him before they found the 25 lbs of weight gain which gave them lengthy careers.

Even now as size becomes less of an issue every year, there is still a point where unless you are Patrick Kane or better why give a limited position to a seriously disadvantaged player when there are so many others as good and bring more aspects?

I think Rajala was smart enough to see it and get on with his hockey life and fancy car driving.

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#29 Quicksilver ballet
August 18 2014, 04:13PM
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Solid career decision by Toni. If he's going to reach his potential, and return to the NHL some day. It'll have to be in an organization that knows how to develop/add to what he already has. Management here is still celebrating what they were able to accomplish as players decades ago. He's not the first or the last to say thanks, but no thanks to the Oiler hockey experience.

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#30 seanjohn667
August 18 2014, 08:34PM
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Sounds like he may have been a victim of politics and wrong team, wrong time. He was clearly better than Pitlick and Hamilton, but the organization, in fear of looking incompetent (again), really wants these higher picks to work out, so they get the sugar time. This, coupled with the organization striking with so many small danglers (including Gagner), he just didn't have much of a chance.

If you are a small dangler, today, you have to be very, very special. Datsyuk special. And, I agree with this. In Hockey, like almost all sports, size is an advantage. It just, simply, is.

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#31 Joy S. Lee
August 20 2014, 10:19AM
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Quicksilver ballet wrote:

Solid career decision by Toni. If he's going to reach his potential, and return to the NHL some day. It'll have to be in an organization that knows how to develop/add to what he already has. Management here is still celebrating what they were able to accomplish as players decades ago. He's not the first or the last to say thanks, but no thanks to the Oiler hockey experience.

Wow. Are you capable of seeing ANYTHING in a positive light? No wonder everyone taunts you, but then, I think you like that.

Maybe the organization was doing Rajala a favor, did you ever think of that? As someone said, he's making $2M a season in the KHL. Compared to $60k in OKC, I think I'd take that, too. But in your efforts to torch the Edmonton Oilers, you completely glossed over that possibility, and went straight for the throat. This kid might actually be really appreciative of what the Oilers did for him... I think I would if it were me. And it's not the only case of them doing it. Seems to me the Oilers show a high degree of consideration towards the players in their system. Yes, the high-profile disagreements happened, which I'm sure you'll point to, but sometimes those can't be avoided, despite the organization.

I know my rant won't change you; but good grief, allow me to point out that when grief is all that you are looking for... it is sure to be what you'll find. Facts and bluntness and examining the issues are important, for sure. Seeing all perspectives can benefit. But finding zero silver linings in anything, and bringing everyone down so consistently... There's an art to it, I'm sure, perhaps the master can share it with us - if anyone really wanted to know. Oh, uh, problem is, I don't think anyone else does want to roll around in the muck the way that you do, perhaps they would rather think more productively.

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