Defenseman Tarmo Reunanen is a player that might become a part of the New York Rangers’ ongoing rebuild. The Finn debuted with the Blueshirts in the 2019-20 preseason, but wasn’t NHL ready yet.
Reunanen himself is ready to prove otherwise. Let’s see what the young blueliner is all about.
Born on March 1, 1998, Reunanen grew up idolizing players like Saku Koivu and Petteri Nummelin — both former NHLers and also icons of the Finnish club TPS Turku. To this day, Reunanen wears jersey No. 11, just like Koivu.
At age nine, Reunanen joined TPS — as a goaltender. He played in that role for a while before switching to defense. He soon developed his game and played several solid seasons for the TPS juniors.
Reunanen Suffers an Early Setback
In 2015, Reunanen’s career suffered a major setback. The young defenseman had to go through two back surgeries. He wasn’t able to train fully during the summers of 2015 and 2016. “As unfortunate as it was, I fell behind of other players of my age group that time,” Reunanen told me recently.
“Luckily, that’s history now. I was so happy to have great summers in the two years that followed, 2018 especially.”
The Rangers discovered the puck-moving, offensive defenseman and drafted the left-hand shot in the fourth round of the 2016 NHL draft (98th overall). Reunanen played the following season with TPS, earning his Liiga debut (he spent most of the season on loan in TUTO Hockey of the second tier, though).
In 2017, Reunanen joined the Rangers’ development camp. The experience boosted his hopes and dreams but it was just a visit — he returned to Finland. In the 2017-18 season, Reunanen played for TPS in the Liiga and in the U20s. Hockey was good. Then something happened.
“TPS told me that they had no plans for me, and I could do whatever I wanted,” Reunanen recalls. “I respect it that they told me their opinions face to face, but I was still a little puzzled. I worked hard and played well, but suddenly my role just diminished. But I do realize hockey is a business. I don’t have to know everything.”
Another Liiga club, Lukko Rauma, came to the rescue. Reunanen joined the team in January 2018 and spent the remainder of the season there. The next season saw his breakthrough — he played 58 games with Lukko, scoring six goals and 25 points.
Video: Reunanen scores his first Liiga goal
After a successful regular season, Reunanen added a goal and five points in the 2018 playoffs.
Reunanen Signs First NHL Contract, Makes Rangers Debut
In January 2019, Reunanen signed a two-year extension with Lukko. The club’s Sports Director Kalle Sahlstedt was delighted. “Reunanen is a talented player and has taken big steps in Rauma. He has trained really hard, so he can clock big minutes. He’s humble in a good way and is always eager to learn,” Sahlstedt said in a club statement at the time.
Reunanen put pen to paper again five months later — on June 5, 2019, he formally became a Ranger after signing an entry-level contract. He traveled to New York again and participated in the development camp.
This time it was more than just a visit. He played for the Rangers in the Traverse City tournament and also made the training camp of the Rangers’ NHL team. On Sept. 20, 2019, he played his first proper Rangers game in a preseason contest against the New Jersey Devils. He clocked 21:47 on ice, including shifts on the power play and penalty killing.
He was proud to wear the famous Rangers colors. “It felt very good, of course. But to be honest, I’ve rarely been this nervous in a game,” he told me afterward. “There’s still a lot of room for improvement. The game wasn’t as fast as I expected but technically, the players here are top-notch. Everything is so different than in Finland and Europe.”
Reunanen may seem well-mannered and soft-spoken but make no mistake: he is highly competitive. “A spot on the NHL team is my one and only goal. Not for a second have I thought about the AHL or Liiga,” he said during the camp.
After the Devils game, Reunanen practiced with the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack for a while. He got another preseason chance with the Rangers — in a game against the New York Islanders in Bridgeport, Connecticut — but didn’t make the NHL team after all. Back to Finland he went.
Pointwise, the 2019-20 season in the Liiga was a disappointment. Reunanen scored 19 points (including five goals) for Lukko in 51 games before the remainder of the season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. His point production didn’t improve but his plus-minus rating skyrocketed from minus-2 to plus-17.
Young Rangers: Reunanen and Kaapo Kakko
Rangers rookie Kaapo Kakko has his roots in TPS Turku, just like Reunanen. The twosome enjoyed their time in the 2019 training camp.
“We spent the whole time as roommates,” said Reunanen. “Everyone can see how good a player Kaapo is. But not everybody knows that he is a super person, too. He’s a real team player. Whatever he does, he wants to win. He loves hockey so much. He takes the sport seriously — but always with a twinkle in his eye.”
Kakko’s struggles with the English language and American culture are well-documented. He welcomed Reunanen’s company. “With Tarmo, it’s great to get a chance to speak Finnish,” Kakko said. “Days roll by more nicely when you don’t have to binge-watch shows by yourself.” There’s that twinkle.
The preseason performances were underwhelming, but Kakko was a shoo-in for the NHL team. When the season was paused in March, he had 10 goals and 23 points in 66 games.
Will Reunanen Be a Ranger in 2020-21?
Reunanen is an ambitious, skilled defenseman with good hockey sense. At six feet, he’s not the biggest guy but that is not too high an obstacle in today’s NHL. It’s all but obvious he could hold his own in the world’s best league, but will he ever be a difference-maker in the NHL?
On this season’s Rangers, Ryan Lindgren is comparable. As far as the style of play is concerned, Adam Fox and Tony DeAngelo — although right-hand shots — come even closer. And as the prospect pool includes defensemen like K’Andre Miller, Nils Lundkvist, Libor Hajek, and Yegor Rykov, it’s plain to see that Reunanen will be up against some pretty tough competition.
To succeed in the NHL, Reunanen has to improve in all areas. He’ll be the first to admit that he needs more consistency. He must be able to play more aggressively while maintaining his finesse. And he has to learn to be mean.
Defensemen typically mature more slowly than forwards do; Reunanen, however, will turn 23 during the 2020-21 season, so it’s time. He deserves another chance to make the Rangers team. Whenever the new season rolls around, he may have what it takes but has a huge mountain to climb.