Rajala: The Realization That Sometimes The NHL Isn’t For Everyone (Even The Good Ones)

Photo by Steven Christy.

In November of 2011, defensive prospect, Johan Motin, was in the throws of one of the most impressive six week runs of his pro career. Prior to that time he’d ben somewhat dreadful. But 2011 was different. Johan was driven to become an instigating defender, and in the bottom pairing he was wonderful. Even out playing the twin towers of Colten Teubert and Alex Plante. That’s what made the announcement of his departure somewhat odd. He looked valuable, maybe for the first time in his career.

The rest of the story is simply that Motin asked for a release on the final year of his entry level contract, and Steve Tambellini obliged. He played for Timra in the SEL, looked brutal, headed to SWE-1 with Orebro HK, looked better. For a nearly #100 draft pick, he realized his worth was rapidly downgraded in Oil Country, and he moved on. It was the first time, as a Barons fan, I realized that sometimes players leave because they want to leave.

Johan Motin isn’t of the same caliber as Toni Rajala, but the mindset and approach to the situation are eerily familiar. As we watched the banishment of Linus Omark play out, the choice of Teemu Hartikainen to play for more money in the KHL, and now suddenly the Toni Rajala situation – the realization that the NHL isn’t for everyone is now a very real mantra.

First things first. Toni Rajala was one heckuva player. I wrote about that merely days ago. The best naturally gifted forward the Barons possessed last season (post-lockout), he’s surely someone that NHL clubs want in the chamber. The tomfoolery that is NHL GM’ing has pigeon holed itself into finding players that “fit a certain mold” rather than keeping the very best, regardless of who they are. Short and sweet, if Rajala wasn’t of any use to the Oilers in the near future, at least hang on to him as a fine asset. Instead, Toni chose a different path. Could he really be of no use to your team two seasons from now? Is he not worth the gamble?

The world continues to catch up with Western sports leagues. Remember when US basketball teams dominated international play? I do. These days US teams struggle in the Olympics, and the sheen of gold is often a shade of bronze (or worse). Regardless, there are options out there for players, and the NHL isn’t mutually exclusive when it comes to the best talent in the world. The NHL pool is much more talented than any other league, but there are some fine players residing elsewhere, making a good wage, playing really well. That’s a conversation for people (not me) that know more on the subject.

The head scratching continues on this one, as it does for Linus Omark and to some extent Teemu Hartikainen. Omark was banished, for all impractical purposes, Hartikainen was offered a contract, but chose better wage elsewhere. Rajala’s decision might be a bit of both.

Toni was indeed nearly a point per game player, and was well above that benchmark in the ECHL. He was a much more than average offensive player in the minors. Mini Linus, Tiny Toni, whatever you called him, there was no denying his competitive greatness and his naturally gifted presence on the ice. But let’s be honest, the Oilers found him a square peg in a round hole. Toni was smart enough to know this.

So he leaves the Oilers organization before his time was really ripe. Who knows, maybe he’ll return one day a more complete player. But who’s to say that he couldn’t have become a more complete player in two years as a farm hand.

The bottom line remains this. He was a good player. He will continue to be a good player. He will just be a good player earning a better wage in his early 20’s. The growing trend of Oilers leaving the fold at a young age is disconcerting to some, but I find it refreshing that young people see value elsewhere. They find direction beyond the traditional, yes with the help of an agent, but ultimately on their terms. And if you see as Rajala’s absence a bad thing, then you are simply human. It is difficult watching talent rich folks leave what we know to be “our” organizations.

I think he could have been a great Oiler, but what do I know? Perhaps his swan song was one season in Stockton/OKC, and that was it. I think he could have been of great value to another NHL team, but what do I know? Perhaps NHL GM’s think size, weight, hair color, upbringing, skate lace choices are more important. Any way you slice it, we must realize that the NHL isn’t for everyone, sometimes even the good ones.