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.
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.
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