Oklahoma City Barons winger Toni Rajala is having a good season. Scratch that, a great season. Rajala has averaged nearly one point per game (45 points in 46 games) and, so far, has 15 points in 12 games in the Calder Cup playoffs. He is a big reason that the Barons are in the Western Conference finals against the Grand Rapids Griffins.
First, let’s start with Rajala’s meteoric rise to a top talent on a Calder Cup contender. Rajala wasn’t a much sought prospect when he entered the draft in 2009. He fell down the board to the 101st pick to the Edmonton Oilers. Rajala’s career really took off when he joined the Brandon Wheat Kings in 2009, when he scored 63 points in 60 games for the WHL club. He struggled after he went back home to Finland, but soon found his footing when he came back stateside to play for the Stockton Thunder, where he started this season. After a good start with the Thunder, Rajala was promoted to the Barons and has been a cog on this contender.
Now, the big club in Alberta needs some help, but do the Oilers really need another young player with untapped potential? As it stands, the Oilers already have a plethora of young talented players, but short on an explosive veteran. Sure the Oilers had Shawn Horcuff and Ryan Smyth, but they didn’t really push the younger guys to play to their potential. Before MacTavish calls up some players from the barons, he needs to try and make a big signing because another young player isn’t going to push this team into the postseason.
If MacTavish fails in his pursuit for a veteran, then by all means he should take a look at Rajala. Rajala is an older rookie at age 22 and has experience playing with and against some talented players in SM-liiga. So, it is conceivable that Rajala would maybe have a leg up on some of next year’s rookie class.
Rajala is a smart hockey player and is as quick as they come, but his defensive skills need fine tuning. The Oilers struggled mightily last season on defense, allowing the opponents to shoot 40+ times a game, so, defense is a huge need right now. Right now, Rajala’s defense isn’t ready for the NHL level yet, but every other skill is ready.
Rajala is also an undersized player and has to be creative during games as a result. Oklahoma City Barons coach Todd Nelson said of Rajala’s size and creativity,
“He’s a very creative skill player. Let’s face it he’s not a very big guy so he relies on his creativity. He has deceiving speed. And he makes smart plays with the puck.”
Standing in at 163 pounds, Rajala needs to gain some weight to scrap with NHL players. He will have a hard time pushing through checks, so, gaining some muscle is an absolute necessity. Rajala said of his need to get stronger,
“Of course I need to get stronger, but it’s not something you can do when the season is on. That’s what I’ll work on hard this summer. I’m still a young player. I don’t want to get in too much of a hurry. And I still need to keep that burst.”
Although he is undersized, many other players have succeeded despite their stature. Martin St. Louis and Brian Gionta are both perfect examples that you can be an elite NHLer despite being small in stature. Rajala has a definite chance to join that list.
In a perfect world, Rajala would join the Oilers next season and be a definite difference maker, but another season of seasoning with the Barons is probably the best bet for him at this point. Although Rajala had great numbers with the Barons, he still hasn’t played a full season in the AHL and it is probably for the best that he stay an extra season in the AHL and work on his defensive skills and perfect his all around game.
There is a danger of bringing up a player much too soon and never playing up to potential and never getting there. Rajala is a player with obvious talent, so, the Oilers front office need to be sure when to bring him up and, right now, he shouldn’t. He’s almost there, but just to err on the side of caution, keep him in Oklahoma City for another season.
Right now, there is not an immediate rush to bring Rajala up to Edmonton. The Oilers have enough youngsters on the team and Rajala is still a young player with plenty of time left to play. Hopefully, Rajala will turn out like another Finn that turned out to be a solid player for the Oilers.