2009 prospects: Toni Rajala

By Holly Gunning

Toni Rajala is one of the biggest wildcards heading into the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.

The Finnish winger clearly has talent. But is it NHL-caliber talent? That’s the question NHL teams are asking.

Rajala is listed at various heights, but in reality is probably not quite 5’9 and about 160 pounds. His small size is seen as his biggest drawback.

Rajala was invited to NHL draft combine, underway now in Toronto, which shows that enough NHL teams want to get to know him better to request his presence. But, on the other hand, there are NHL teams out there who just aren’t interested in him in any round.

Central Scouting has Rajala ranked as the 11th European skater in the final ranks, which were done before the U18 World Championships, where he excelled. ISS moved Rajala into 30th place in May, up from 39th in March.

ISS wrote in April, "A tremendously skilled player, Rajala is explosive and opportunistic. He doesn’t waste time getting shots off, has very good hand-eye coordination. One of the better skaters in the tournament, Rajala is often said to be too small, but he is feisty and didn’t back down when bigger players confronted him."

Rajala needed to have a big U18 tournament to make his case for the 2009 draft, and there’s no question that he did. He finished the tournament with 19 points in six games, breaking the previous U18 scoring record set by Alexander Ovechkin — in one fewer game. Rajala had 10 goals and 9 assists, scoring the game-winner for the bronze medal in a shootout, and was named the tournament’s best forward. He played on a very good five-man unit, with top 2010-eligible forwards Mikael Granlund and Teemu Pulkkinen, and 2009-eligible defenseman Sami Vatanen.

Certainly his linemates helped, but Rajala has an uncanny ability to elude defenders and get himself open. As those who have had to defend him will attest.

"Oh he’s a great player," said 6’1 USA defenseman William Wrenn, who was matched up against Rajala several times this year in various tournaments and said he was just as good in those. "He’s fast, he’s skilled, and tenacious. He’s really hard to play against."

Of course it’s one thing to dominate among 17 and 18-year-olds, and another to do it among men, who are bigger and stronger. For all of his willingness to engage physically though, Rajala is still on the losing end of a lot of battles. And his abilty to take hits remains an issue.

Rajala played the majority of his regular-season games this year with the Ilves U20 team, scoring 31 points in 31 games, including 14 goals. Rajala also took part in the WJC, where he had three points in six games. 

He played 21 games in the SM-Liiga with the seniors, scoring five points, and even saw some time on special teams.

"The first 10 games I didn’t play on the power play," Rajala said through a translator. "But then I played much more on the power play. I was given more responsibility."

Twenty-eight-year-old American defenseman Troy Milam helped Rajala with his English while he was up with the senior team. Milam is a veteran of 217 AHL games, so he knows what he takes to succeed in North America.

"Toni is a good player," Milam said. "He was called up a few times during the year and played well. He is a smart player and is very skilled. He also has a good attitude. Toni plays well and works hard in the defensive zone which is a big plus to get that from an offensively skilled player. I thought he could have been used more by our coach on the power play at the end. He is, however, very small. Hopefully he will work hard to put some weight on before he tries to make the transition to North American hockey."

Rajala’s U18 coach, Mika Marttila, also praised his two-way play during the tournament. So his defensive play is not at all an issue. It always comes back to size and whether he has what it takes to overcome it.

Asked to compare his style to an NHL player, Rajala said "Maybe like Marian Gaborik or Henrik Zetterberg?"

In skill alone, perhaps those are good comparisons. But Rajala doesn’t possess the size of either player, and few can match Gaborik’s speed.

Rajala plans to go to Montreal for the draft, which seems a bit of a gamble given that at the time of the U18 championships, no NHL teams had interviewed him. That will surely change at the combine though as he makes the rounds.

Rajala’s test results at the combine will be critical. Does he have the strength to compete in the NHL, or can he develop that strength? And how about quickness? A small player like him needs good scores in that category.

These are critical days in the Rajala saga.