Sometimes, you get surprised

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.

2012-13

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.

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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  • Reg Dunlop

    Yes, the oil have a surplus of small forwards. And, yes some are very highly paid(Eberle). If a kid like Rajala can be 1/2 the contributor of Eberle at 1/6 the cost and if trading Ebs can bring back 1 or 2 pieces that improve our team… something to consider.

  • Yes he might be an NHL player but not with the Oilers… who are smallish upfront as it is.

    He can go to a team that has size , but can accomodate a skilled small guy.

    Comparing him to Conacher [Ottawa via Tampa],
    he is 20 lbs heavier , even though he is same height. Keep in mind that last year Conacher
    @ Norfolk, had 80 points and 115 minutes in penalties…. this is not your average shorty here.

  • OilClog

    Now that OKC finally has some sort of continuity to their lineup, it should be interesting to see how they do in the playoffs. Danis is playing lights out right and everybody seems to contributing offensively. Even Eager and Hordichuk had assists yesterday. The Barons are playing well going into the playoffs.

    As far as Rajala goes, he’s been a pleasant surprise. Obviously he doesn’t fill a real need for the Oilers right now but it’s not like his trade value is all that high and you can never have too many skilled players in the organization. If we shed some skill to add size this summer, having a guy like Rajala in the minors ready to come up in the case of injuries to somebody in our top 6 is better than bringing up some plugger to play on a scoring line.

  • OilClog

    He will probably have a very financially rewarding pro career in Europe – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

    He’s not going to hang around in the AHL for three or four years.

    • 24% body fat

      From what I heard Martindale is more of a project. But, I don’t necessarily disagree. What I would prefer is to see Pitlick brought up for a game or two. His point totals are weak, but I’d like to see how his energy game translates to the show.

  • OilClog

    RNH out with a shoulder injury ………..finally the Oilers are going to do something to help the poor lad out. This should have been addressed long ago and leaving it till now only ensures that he will go the entire summer without being able to work out. Bad Planning on the part of the Oilers.

    Here we come Sasha Barkov……….not sure who will cover RNH’s minutes, lets pray it is not Horcoff, or Smithson.

    Time to give some youth an opportunity to showcase their games, from OKC.

    • OilClog

      Looks like Lander gets 2nd C position and Gagner jumps up to the 1st line.

      Call up Rajala. Why not? OKC is in the playoffs and their last game of the reg. season is today. Give him a taste on the fourth.

      Barkov may be on his way here. Still 5 games to go, but it doesn’t look optimal for the Oil.

    • DSF

      You mean the “decent 3rd liners” that are available in the offseason every year?

      And that will likely be in abundance this offseason as teams pare their payrolls to get under a lower cap?

      • OilClog

        Disagree.. decent 3rd liners are not available every offseason.That’s when they’re paid well above they’re actually value, and handicapping teams. The best 3rd liners are always found within the Organization itself.

        If Moroz turns out to be a decent 3rd liner that comes up through the organization, that is far and away more valuable in the long run then picking up an overpaid 3rd liner in the offseason.

        Until the kid has grown up and graduated from the WHL maybe the negativity should be held back.

    • paul wodehouse

      None. Barring injury and a spot opening up, this is why he should continue to build in the AHL.

      With a couple years of solid performance under his belt, then the argument can be made that he can step in.

      Until then, inserting him in the lineup is about as prudent as signing a player to a big contract after one stellar year.

  • Sterling Archer

    Maybe Rajala is Omark ver. 2.0 with a better attitude?

    I wouldn’t mind oilers hanging on to Rajala for at least another year..and since Oilers are missing the playoffs this season why not call him up for a “cup of coffee”

    Sure he’s small, and this team has a ton of small forwards..but he might be the next Cory Conacher, any team would be happy to have that guy on their team no matter what the current team need is, other small forwards can be moved out one day if it’s needed.

  • Sterling Archer

    With proper communication with the player, this is a good case study to watch how the organization handles this prospect. The choices:

    – Accelerate the prospect and have him as a semi-regular on the Oilers. Would likely mean little playing time, and when he does, on the third or fourth line.

    – Trade the prospect at this early stage, likely not acquiring much back.

    – Continue to season in AHL for 2-3 years. Call-ups to the Oilers occur when offensive players are injured, and not when Smyth, Petrell, or Horcoff have a boo-boo.

    The third route is the proper handling of a prospect. Don’t ruin the kid by having him “pay his dues” on the third/fourth line, and don’t sell low when he is at a possible inflection point.

    The third option is the meaning of true development.

    • Lummeropenet

      Great avatar. Awesome show.

      Temper expectations, yes. Ignore the possibility that it can happen? No.

      @Lummeropenet

      Bingo. He is a certain type of player, that will be deemed a failure if he is asked to play a different type of game.

      If Martin St. Louis (which is one of the biggest POS in the NHL, but beside the point) were asked to plug in and play Lucic’s game, everyone would’ve said he was a useless tit.

  • 24% body fat

    Is Rajala our next Omark? Another highly skilled but small forward that plays great in the lower leagues of the world but have a hard time in the NHL? Another player that completely polarizes the fans in opinion and worth? He might be, but at least he doesn’t appear to have any sense of entitlement and that’s a good thing.

    One thing’s for sure, kid’s gotta bulk up quite a bit. 163 needs to go to high 180s and preferably mid 190s. Even Omark’s got 10 pounds on him.

  • paul wodehouse

    …you’ve threatened Sterling Archer…told him to [go away] and asked him for an apology?

    …is there anything else y’need Overpaid Wild?

    are you brothers or sisters ?