Photo by Steven Christy.
Drafted in 1992, Finnish forward Jere Lehtinen will always be one of my favorite players. Perhaps this is when my love affair with Finnish hockey began. From a high 80’s draft pick to a Stanley Cup winner in ’99, Lehtinen was really one of the most important pieces of the late 90’s blossoming of the Dallas Stars. The obvious narrative is that he was a hard worker, and quite nicely resembled the community with which he played in terms of ethic and demeanor. For me it was very simple, he was a great hockey player. One of the best Dallas would ever coddle, and certainly one of the best to ever come out of Finland. He also, perhaps, created a mold for players who might traverse the same winding road to the NHL, especially for those born, raised, and crafted near the Baltic Sea.
Jere, have you met Toni?
Toni Rajala, the latest Finnish prospect to don the blue and orange, follows on the heels of Teemu Hartikainen who was a vastly different player than himself. Hartikainen, for all practical purposes, danced the fine line between get-dirty-in-the-trenches and goal scoring wizardry. And although his time is done for now as an Oiler, he’s still honing his craft. Then there’s Toni. Rajala is a naturally gifted goal scorer with hands that make Kandinsky long for the boring colors, feet that belong at Julliard, and Mother Teresa like faith in his abilities to strike the net. He’s a fun player to watch, and we could discuss his indiscretions, Oilers lineup potential, and future landing spot, but there’s one thing that will likely always be something that “this kid needs”, and that’s a little Jere.
For Rajala to continue to be successful, he will need to develop the two-way game made famous by fellow country man Lehtinen. Jere was not a big man at just 6′ and just under 200 lbs. By comparison, Rajala is a pipsqueeking 5’10” 163 lbs soaking wet. To me the discussion of size is important, but the bigger issue is game smarts. Lehtinen knew how to play the angles, and although he wasn’t a hulking forward, he was able to panic defenders moving the puck out of the neutral zone. This was his bread and butter.
Understanding your defensive responsibility as a forward seems to be a lost art among kids these days. The lawn, get off. Yet the unselfishness of Lehtinen is what afforded him opportunities for success.
Pull up YouTube, search ‘Jere Lehtinen’ and you’ll find goal scoring tribute videos loaded with quick wristers and shootout glorification. Jere was a fabulous offensive player. But not found in those videos was his keen awareness of how to remove players from the equation without the punishing blows along the boards. He was a master chess man, able to know your moves before you did.
Some might argue that Rajala isn’t cut from the same cloth as Lehtinen, and that’s probably true. Yet there’s a lesson to be learned by all forwards laboring in the minors, and that’s to form a game that is well rounded. We’ve watched Philippe Cornet, Alexandre Giroux, Ryan Keller, and a handful of other players score goals at white hot paces with their time spent in OKC. However, it was the defensive side of the puck (probably among a few other things) that was lacking enough to probably prevent them from long term NHL success.
In 2012-13, Rajala averaged 1.3PPG in the ECHL and .98 in the AHL. The lockout certainly buried him deep in the depth chart, but the reality is that he simply surprised everyone. With the lockout in the rear view, and the promise of prospect hockey again being of the utmost importance in the Oilers farm team, the Barons of 13-14 will be built around the kid from Parkano, Finland. This is a pretty large burden to bear considering he’s not played a full AHL season yet, and he’s only 22. He has the right toolbox, he just needs to add a few pieces to make the NHL jump potentially more legit. Embrace the Jere, young Toni.