The Oklahoma City Barons are loaded with relatively high NHL draft picks, and a lot of them are bigger forwards. The 2010 trio of Tyler Pitlick, Curtis Hamilton and Ryan Martindale were all exceptional junior age players, and represented the second tier of rebuild hopefuls. Two years into the professional careers of that group, things have gone badly awry; Martindale leads them with 14 AHL points after being consigned to the ECHL last season.
Instead, one of those itty-bitty forwards the Oilers took a flyer on a few years back leads the pack.
The 2009 Draft
Toni Rajala was an interesting selection back in 2009. The Oilers got two strong prospects with their first two selections – Magnus Paajarvi at 10th overall and Anton Lander at 40th – and then went walkabout with their next three picks, drafting huge high school defenceman Troy Hesketh (rightfully gone from the system now), 6’5” enforcer Cameron Abney, and 6’5” overage defenceman Kyle Bigos (the lone player of the three of any real interest today, though as of this writing he remains unsigned).
Having filled the size quota with that trio, the Oilers spent the 101st pick on tiny Toni Rajala and the 133rd pick on goaltender Olivier Roy. Both were sound picks of the ‘let’s ignore need and grab the best player left’ variety.
Then, as now, the Oilers were seen as small and skilled –the key players had names like Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano – so the fact that Rajala was the lone player picked under 6’ wasn’t a major surprise.
Then & Since Then
Rajala’s primary claim to fame was a huge U-18 tournament, one where he’d topped Alex Ovechkin’s scoring record with 19 points in six games. Here’s what Red Line Report’s Kyle Woodlief had to say about that:
Toni Rajala may be both tiny and mostly a perimeter player, but in the last several major international tourneys, he has managed (with a huge assist from Mikael Granlund) to waltz in off the perimeter often enough to score about three different ways every game. His ultra-high skill level and goal scoring prowess simply can’t be ignored.
Rajala came over to the WHL immediately, scoring just over a point-per-game for Brandon and adding a plus-31 rating. Then he went back to Finland for two years, where he posted underwhelming scoring totals – the one thing a small forward absolutely cannot do – and became a mostly forgotten prospect.
Rajala started the year in the ECHL, and he laid waste to ‘AA’ puck, scoring 18 goals and 38 points in 29 games with Stockton. This earned him a November recall, where he played on depth lines and looked good (five games, one goal, one assists, 12 shots) but not good enough to stay (playing his last game on November 30).
He was brought back up in January, and he’s been a fixture ever since. Lowetide wrote about his remarkable shooting rates yesterday; the full post is here but I’m going to quote the shots/game chart he included in that write-up:
- Hall: 3.19
- Rajala: 3.16
- Eberle: 2.74
- Nugent-Hopkins: 2.63
- Paajarvi: 2.26
- Hartikainen: 2.00
Of course, the kids were mostly playing in a tougher league (the AHL, lockout edition) but even so that’s a very, very impressive showing. And it’s been noticed.
The biggest surprise in the entire Oilers organization has to be Toni Rajala. He has 16-28-44 in 45 GP with OKC and is +17
— Bob Stauffer (@Bob_Stauffer) April 21, 2013
Rajala’s putting up points with more regularity than Mark Arcobello, the rightfully impressive Yale grad who played his way into a job between Hall and Eberle at points during the lockout. He’s also been picking up points more regularly than one-time NHL goal-scoring champion Jonathan Cheechoo. Put simply: he’s played his way into contention for NHL work.
That NHL work may not come with Edmonton, and given Rajala’s size (listed at 5’10”, 163 pounds) the Oilers aren’t likely to get much in trade, either. And it may well turn out that Rajala can’t translate his offensive performance to the majors, and simply tops out as a great minor-leaguer.
But in terms of results, he’s getting the job done. And that’s something that makes him stand out from that 2010 trio, something that differentiates him from the walkabout phase of the 2009 Draft.
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