Depth seems to be on the side of the Toronto Maple Leafs so far for the 2017-18 season. So much so that players like Miro Aaltonen, Kerby Rychel and Kasperi Kapanen are starting the year outside of the NHL, while Eric Fehr and Dominic Moore will be battling for a spot as the team’s fourth-line center.
While the team had to make some tough decision out of camp – with their depth being a good problem to have – one of their prospects is playing on a regular basis in the Ontario Hockey League and dominating the opposition. Say hello to Eemeli Rasanen.
Meet Eemeli Rasanen
At 6-foot-7 and nearly 210 pounds, he was almost a no-doubter for the Maple Leafs as they took to the podium in the second round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft for the 59th overall pick. The 18-year-old native of Joensuu, Finland, was coming off his first season in the OHL with the Kingston Frontenacs when the Leafs took him.
He had an outstanding year with six goals and 39 points in 66 regular season games before notching another five points in 11 postseason games.
On top of that, he earned a silver medal with Team Finland at the U18 World Junior Championships which made for quite the successful year for the young defenceman.
While he was ranked all over the map, some had him slotted in as high as 32nd on their draft rankings lists, but he ultimately slid deeper into the second round.
One of the holes the Leafs needed to fill after the 2016-17 season was on the blue line. They did that by signing both Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman, but wanted to fill the pipeline as well behind guys like Travis Dermott who is playing at the AHL level.
Enter Rasanen – a player the Leafs had their eye on at the 2017 NHL Combine in Buffalo. The Leafs were among 16 teams that interviewed the big defenceman and ultimately liked what they heard.
Rasanen: Physicality is the North American Way
When it came to shifting his game to North America, it wasn’t a hard decision for the big Finn.
“I like the North American style of play better,” he said at this summer’s combine. “It’s more physical and faster and that’s how I want to play.”
The all-around, skilled defenceman is something the Leafs have been missing for a number of years. While Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are offensive-minded puck movers, they haven’t had a big physical guy who has offensive upside like that of Rasanen.
Still, the 18-year-old would much rather play the physical side of the game. His offensive skill is just a bonus to what he provides on the defensive end. He plays a strong game along the boards and isn’t afraid to go up against the biggest players on opposing clubs.
He’s delivered a number of crushing blows, but still has the hockey IQ and presence of mind to find the outlet when he’s relied on to move the puck up the ice. His style of play is reminiscent of Buffalo’s Rasmus Ristolainen, and fits the North American style of game to a tee.
“[Ristolainen] is actually my favourite defenceman,” he said. “I look up to him a lot. I love the way he plays – the physicality. He plays big minutes, penalty kill, power play, everything. That’s how I want to play too. Skating for sure… I think that’s my biggest issue.”
And if that’s Rasanen’s biggest issue, that’s something the Leafs’ organization can work on. As for the size and strength, that’s a gift. The shot and hockey IQ, those are a bonus. The Leafs actually have quite a solid defensive prospect within their midst and his play so far this season only supports their interest in the big Finn.
A Stud for the Frontenacs
Standing on the blue line for the Frontenacs, Rasanen dons an ‘A’ on his jersey – a testament to what he means to the club. While his defensive game speaks for itself, offensively he’s stepped up in a big way for Kingston through their first six games.
He has three goals and eight points in six games so far this season – including a four-point performance against the London Knights back on September 29. The defenceman finished the game with two goals, two assists, a plus-three rating to go along with four penalty minutes. His team also walked away with a 5-0 shutout win in London.
While his pace has slowed down slightly, he still ranks fifth among OHL defensemen in points and has helped his team to a 5-1-0 start to the 2017-18 season.
With that in mind, Rasanen is still a couple of years away from breaking into the NHL and cracking the Leafs lineup. However, his play with Kingston shouldn’t go unnoticed and fans of the Maple Leafs should keep an eye on this kid as the season progresses.
Andrew is in his 8th year reporting for The Hockey Writers covering the Toronto Maple Leafs. He began his broadcasting with CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada team as well as being part of their coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. He’s the former play-by-play voice of the London Jr. Knights for Rogers TV and currently hosts the Sticks in the 6ix podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes.