The Edmonton Oilers chose small forward Toni Rajala No. 101 overall in 2009, over a decade ago. I was aware of him because Red Line Report had a fascinating view of the player. They ranked him No. 43 (Bob McKenzie had him No. 50) and the scouting report was impressive:
Toni Rajala may be both tiny and mostly a perimeter player, but his ultra-high skill level and goal scoring prowess simply can’t be ignored.
Cover photo by Rob Ferguson.
The Athletic Edmonton features a fabulous cluster of stories (some linked below, some on the site). Great perspective from a ridiculous group of writers and analysts. Proud to be part of The Athletic, check it out here.
- New Lowetide: Hard target search for Oilers acquisition options among NHL forwards
- Lowetide: Oilers GM Ken Holland should shop for picks at the draft
- Lowetide: Exploring Oilers prospect Ryan McLeod’s possible NHL path
- Jonathan Willis: What does the path to an Oilers Stanley Cup championship in 2023 look like?
- Daniel Nugent-Bowman: Ales Hemsky on his health, alumni games, tough opponents and the Oilers’ stars
- Lowetide: Swedish export Noel Gunler offers Oilers a worthy draft target
- Scott Wheeler: Why Oilers prospect Raphael Lavoie is the shot creation king.
- Lowetide: How can Andreas Athanasiou — Ken Holland’s big bet — help the Oilers?
- Lowetide: What are Evan Bouchard’s chances of making the Oilers in 2020-21?
- Jonathan Willis and Lowetide: Who are the Oilers’ top 10 prospects and where do they project in the NHL?
- Jonathan Willis: How do Connor McDavid’s first five NHL seasons compare to the all-time greats?
- Lowetide: Oilers 2020 draft: Are fans ready for Oil Kings’ Jake Neighbours?
- Jonathan Willis: Oilers need to keep feeding their currently rich pipeline of defensive prospects
- Daniel Nugent-Bowman: How a series of oddball jobs prepared Ken Holland for his front-office career
- Jonathan Willis: 2020 NHL offseason goalie market: Team needs, free agents and trade possibilities
Best Laid Plans
One of the derailments of the decade just past involves three forwards chosen after the first round in 2010. Tyler Pitlick, Curtis Hamilton and Ryan Martindale were all important picks for Edmonton, cashing at least one of them to the NHL was a big deal.
In draft plus one, all three players performed well in junior hockey. Pitlick (56, 27-35-62 in Medicine Hat) and Hamilton (62, 26-56-82 in Saskatoon) had impressive years, with Martindale (65, 34-49-83 in Ottawa) delivering a strong final junior season in the OHL.
Draft plus two saw all three turn pro, although none of them was 20 until late October. Pitlick had some injury issues and was slow out of the gate, but got into 62 games with the Oklahoma City Barons (7-16-23) as a rookie pro. Hamilton played 61 games, but on a depth line and scored just five goals and nine points. Martindale split time between the ECHL and AHL and didn’t move the needle much offensively. Year two pro loomed large. Barons coach Todd Nelson knew it, addressed it. Nelson about Pitlick: “He has to play in a top-six role, that’s where we have him slotted. He might play on a line with Josh Green. I see him as a winger right now. I used him both as a centreman and as a winger last year. He said that he felt more comfortable on the wing and he has tremendous speed as we all know, so to have him flying down the wing has been a sight to see. I think the biggest thing with him is just like with a lot of players, he just has to work on his consistency; always finishing your checks game in and game out.”
He also had a plan for Curtis Hamilton: “He is entering his second year. Guys like him and Pitlick are going to be relied on a lot more. I watched some game tape last summer when Curtis played in the world juniors and he played the penalty kill very well. He’s certainly a very smart hockey player and he’s going to be one of our go to guys on the PK.”
And then the rains came. This was the lockout season and upper management sent all the gifted kids to the AHL. That lockout meant several forwards who were only in the minors due to circumstance took all of the air in the room for the kids who really needed playing time. It’s always something.
Here are the leading scorers on the team through 29 games, end of December 2012:
- Jordan Eberle 31, 23-24-47
- Justin Schultz 31, 17-28-45
- Taylor Hall 24, 12-20-32
- Mark Arcobello 29, 9-19-28
- Teemu Hartikainen 31, 10-11-21
- Ryan Nugent-Hopkins 19, 8-12-20
- Martin Marincin 28, 3-10-13
- Chris VandeVelde 26, 1-8-9
- Magnus Paajarvi 12, 4-4-8
- Taylor Fedun 28, 2-6-8
- Anton Lander 27, 2-4-6
- Josh Green 14, 2-3-5
- Curtis Hamilton 26, 2-2-4
- Tyler Pitlick 24, 1-2-3
- Tanner House 19, 2-1-3
- Ryan Martindale 7, 0-3-3
- Toni Rajala 5, 1-1-2
- Phil Cornet 8, 0-0-0
Incredible timing for Pitlick, Hamilton and Martindale. How in hell were they supposed to compete with Hall, Nuge and Eberle? Holy Dinah. Eventually, the NHL started back up again, with Pitlick, Hamilton and Martindale ready to strike. Nelson, who is an excellent coach, could finally institute his plan and rely more on Pitlick and Hamilton, with Martindale hopefully pushing up from the underground. Let’s have a look at January 1, 2013 through end of season scoring:
- Toni Rajala 39, 16-27-43
- Mark Arcobello 45, 13-27-40
- Phil Cornet 38, 15-18-33
- Josh Green 35, 7-12-19
- Taylor Fedun 42, 6-13-19
- Martin Marincin 41, 4-13-17
- Teemu Hartikainen 16, 4-12-16
- Anton Lander 20, 7-7-14
- Magnus Paajarvi 26, 0-12-12
- Chris VandeVelde 31, 6-5-11
- Ryan Martindale 34, 6-5-11
- Tyler Pitlick 20, 2-5-7
- Tanner House 36, 5-1-6
- Curtis Hamilton 35, 3-2-5
- Jordan Eberle 3, 2-2-4
- Justin Schultz 3, 1-2-3
- Taylor Hall 2, 2-0-2
Small forwards Rajala and Cornet took advantage and moved up the depth chart, with all of Paajarvi, Pitlick, Hamilton and Martindale faltering. Including his ECHL numbers, Rajala scored 83 points in 75 regular season games.
Here’s the kicker: Edmonton and Rajala mutually agreed to end their professional relationship that summer. He was scoring up a storm the next winter for HV71 in the SHL and remains a productive offensive winger in the Swiss league these many years later.
The reason I bring this up is the following: The Oilers have returned to a level of “normalcy” in regard to the farm team in recent years. The Bakersfield Condors are being run in a fashion similar to the Hamilton Bulldogs at the turn of the century.
Hamilton Bulldogs 2000-01
- Rookie pros progressing: Shawn Horcoff, Fernando Pisani, Michael Henrich, Chris Madden, Alexander Fomitchev
- Year 2 progressing: Jason Chimera, Peter Sarno, Brian Swanson, Chad Hinz, Alex Henry
- Year 3 progressing: Michel Riesen, Chris Hajt
- Entry level stall: Brian Urick, Maxim Spiridonov, Eric Heffler
- Minor league veteran: Paul Healey, Scott Ferguson, Alain Nasreddine, Brad Norton, Ryan Risidore, Joaquin Gage
Not every player makes it, but if you look at the system Glen Sather left to Kevin Lowe, there’s an order to things. The pipeline was about to produce Horcoff, Pisani, Chimera, and had just sent Daniel Cleary up top.
Meanwhile in 2012-13, Toni Rajala was in his first season in the ECHL/AHL at 21, a year after playing very well in the Sm-liiga.
I’m not saying he would have emerged as an NHL player, only that if would have been a good idea to let the river run.
Bakersfield Condors 2019-20
- Rookie pros progressing: Evan Bouchard, Ryan McLeod, Kirill Maksimov, Dmitri Samorukov
- Year 2 progressing: Tyler Benson, Cooper Marody, Kailer Yamamoto, Logan Day, William Lagesson, Stuart Skinner
- Year 3 progressing: Joe Gambardella, Caleb Jones, Shane Starrett
- Entry level stall: Nolan Vesey, Cameron Hebig, Dylan Wells
- Minor league veteran: Josh Currie, Brad Malone, Luke Esposito, Markus Granlund, Brandon Manning, Tomas Jurco, Keegan Lowe
And we’re back to something that resembles the Sather system. Each of the entry levels 1-3 contains at least one significant player and five years from now we’ll look back and see true development and success.
You may say ‘where the hell were they going to send Hall, Nuge and Eberle in 2012’? and that’s a good question. However, those three didn’t need to dominate AHL hockey at the expense of development.
It’s like that Byrds song ‘Turn Turn Turn’ that says to every thing there is a season and purpose. Every nuance, every turn, seemed to negatively impact development in the hungry years of this organization. Todd Nelson has a plan for Pitlick? Let’s send him Eberle! The Barons have some complainers? Let’s send Rajala on his merry way. Omark might have been the ultimate, honestly the Oilers as an organization did a ‘Sonny at the Causeway’ on him after signing him twice!
Let the river run. Normal is a good thing. We’re back.
LOWDOWN WITH LOWETIDE
A fantastic show today, we start at 10, TSN1260. Bruce McCurdy joins me from the Cult of Hockey at the Edmonton Journal to talk about Ethan Bear and what the defense might look like in 2020-21. Jonathan Willis from The Athletic pops in at 10:40 to chat about goalies, the NHL’s return and the urgency of improving over the offseason. Joe Osborne from OddsShark joins the show just after 11 to discuss Nascar, KBO and golf’s return. 10-1260 text, @Lowetide on twitter. See you on the radio!