2018 TLN Top 20 Rank: #17
How Acquired: 2017 2nd Round (59th Overall)
Why Räsänen’s in this tier
Quite literally, he’s long. And he’s got a shot. At 6’7″, he’s going to always been known as a “really tall defenceman”, whether he likes it or not. Always thought of as a bit of a project, the Finnish player had a bit of a rough 2018-19 season, bouncing around through three different clubs without ever really finding consistency in his icetime. After spending his draft year as well as his D+1 year with the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL, Räsänen intended to spend the past year with Jokerit of the KHL, based in Helsinki, Finland. A right-handed defenceman, a player with Rasanen’s ceiling could be a very hot commodity around the league.
Räsänen spoke last summer with Sportsnet’s Luke Fox about his decision to sign with Jokerit, on a two-year deal:
“I need harder games than junior,” the towering Toronto Maple Leafs prospect said Tuesday at development camp. “I decided the KHL must be the best for me.”
But vague injuries, team depth and the coaching decisions to often sit Räsänen limited his ice time, which is unfortunate for a player looking to make his mark in pro hockey for the first time. All in all, there weren’t too many encouraging signs from the Leafs’ first look at Räsänen in a pro uniform, but there’s still time for him to find an opportunity in the Leafs’ system.
As we’ve already touched on, he’s a tough player to get a gauge on.
The biggest reason is, well, pretty obvious: no one’s really talking all that much about him these days. Räsänen played in just 23 regular season games last season, splitting time between Jokerit, Kiekko-Vantaa of the Finnish Mestis league (Finland’s second tier), and a five-game loan stint with the Toronto Marlies. Räsänen suited up only once in Jokerit’s six playoff games, as they were booted in the second round of the KHL playoffs.
As well, he spent a game with the Finnish National U20 squad, but was injured when the World Juniors came around.
From our own 51Leafs, here’s a brief summary on the Finn:
For those who don’t follow/haven’t been following all year, I keep track of Leafs prospects.
Here’s a quick analysis on Rasanen’s season so far: pic.twitter.com/tKBz7MS6Hj
— 51Leafs (@51Leafs) March 15, 2019
In total, he registered a goal and three assists in his regular season games, which, of course, aren’t exactly eye-popping offensive numbers.
If you’d like to see the last time he scored in a hockey game, we’re looking 11 months back to his first, and to date, only, professional hockey goal.
Eemeli Rasanen is on the board with his first in the KHL 🚨 pic.twitter.com/829DeXNdXR
— 51Leafs (@51Leafs) September 17, 2018
A goal to make it 7-0 isn’t really much of anything to get read off of, albeit we haven’t got much else to work with. To be blunt: 2018-19 was really a step back for Räsänen, who’d performed decently enough in his two OHL seasons, totaling 72 points in 127 games.
But it’s the stint in Kiekko-Vantaa that concerns me most, at least from a statistical standpoint. While it’s easy to look at a small sample size and talk about how a player looks outclassed, Räsänen managed to be a -7 in just five games in the second tier of Finnish hockey. While getting used to new surroundings may have been a large factor, it’s tough to extrapolate a player at any position who’s having trouble making an impact on the scoresheet will wind up in the NHL anytime soon.
To be fair, the team also did finish 10th in a 12-team league, and without knowing anything about his usage or the context of the goals against he was on the ice for, it’s hard to really put too much negative stock into it. As you might have guessed, there’s not too many analytics or publicly available isolated scouting video of Räsänen out there for that league.
After the Finnish season had concluded, Räsänen returned to North America and joined the Toronto Marlies on a loan and a PTO, similar to a season prior where he joined the team’s practice squad en route to their 2018 Calder Cup Championship. But he did get into action this go-around, making his way into five games.
Video clips of him, unsurprisingly, are relatively scarce. We’ve got this:
Better look at Eemeli Rasanen's first career AHL point, as his point shot is tipped home by Hudson Elynuik. pic.twitter.com/8mHuudWajA
— Mike Stephens (@mikeystephens81) April 14, 2019
And thus concludes anything anyone on this side of the pond really heard from Räsänen all year.
Best Case Career Outcomes
When you think of tall guys in the NHL, it isn’t always the most mobile crew. “Clunky” would be a good blanket term to use for many taller defenders, and it’s one Räsänen’s actively looking to avoid.
In July 2017, Räsänen told NHL.com that he felt sessions with Barb Underhill were effective in their short time together at Maple Leafs development camp.
“Every part of the game, but mostly my skating [needs improvement],” said Räsänen on what he’s looking to work on.
In terms of classic big guys in the NHL, physicality is often what keeps them in the NHL. You think of the extremes —John Scott hung on for a career by doing what he had to — fighting Phil Kessel in preseason, being in the public eye enough to earn NHL All-Star game votes (and MVP), and generally punching or hitting whatever he needed to.
But that doesn’t always need to be the case. Hal Gill, as I remember him, was of big usage blocking shots on the penalty kill.
And it’s not like Räsänen necessarily needs to be a full-timer NHLer by the time he’s 22 or be considered a bust.
Even a guy like Zdeno Chara didn’t really take off until his age 25 season with Ottawa, where he finished seventh in Norris voting playing 25 minutes a night and putting up 39 points. Up until that season, he’d topped 15 points just once in his previous five years in the NHL.
It makes sense, if you think about it. With most taller players hitting a growth spurt somewhere late in their development path, it’ll take a bit of time to get used to one’s longer arms and legs. As you are, essentially one of likely the ten tallest hockey players on the planet, there’s really not a lot of people in similar positions who could teach you how to best use your frame the way say, a 6’3″ defenceman could learn it.
In last year’s profile, Hayley Hendren outlined how Victor Hedman was an easy player to look up to for the tall men of the NHL … but “maybe the best defenceman in the league” is a bit of a reach for, just about anyone, 6 foot 7 or otherwise.
I’m really just spitballing here, but it could benefit Räsänen to return to a smaller ice surface. With such a long wingspan, the smaller space to cover would theoretically give Räsänen an easier time closing gaps in the defensive zone and giving his opposition less space to work with.
So if we’re looking at what Räsänen could be with the right development path? With the right tweaks, a third-pairing role with some power play time could be attainable in the next couple of years. You’d have to do some mental gymnastics to how the other Leafs’ top D prospects pan out, but the Leafs’ blueline is relatively wide open past this season. If he comes in with the right attitude to improve and enough resources around him to get it done, perhaps he could really be
Oddly, a player to emulate at the NHL level could be Rasmus Ristolainen on the Buffalo Sabres. While he has faced quite a bit of criticism in Buffalo for failing to live up to the duties of a top pairing defenceman, few can deny Ristolainen’s effectiveness with the man advantage. Räsänen wouldn’t be throw into the fire quite as hard as his Finnish countryman, but he could get by with some defensive shortcomings if his PP game is strong.
And the Worst Case Scenario?
Well, there’s a decent chance the Leafs never actually see Räsänen. in the organization. As he’s still unsigned, the Leafs may never fully extend an offer to keep him on this side of the pond. He didn’t do anything egregious to sour the organization’s view of him or anything, but there’s also nothing on his resume to this point that suggests he’s a sure bet to be on an NHL track.
This past June, Räsänen was a notable omission at Leafs development camp, although perhaps he’d just been twice before and they felt the experience would not be beneficial.
A couple notable absences from #Leafs development camp group in Eemeli Rasanen and Vladislav Kara. Radanen had spent five games on a PTO with the Marlies last season. Kara was at dev camp a year ago.
— Kristen Shilton (@kristen_shilton) June 24, 2019
Ideally, you could see Ras in the Marlies lineup once again closer to the end of this season. It appears he’ll be back with Jokerit this coming season, although a contract termination isn’t out of the cards if both sides feel it would not be beneficial.
And if he’s struggling to fit into a KHL lineup, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that you’ll see him in the NHL anytime soon. But being a late bloomer doesn’t necessarily need to be a bad thing, as long as the Leafs continue to work on rounding out his edges.
To close it off, well, here’s a pic of him sticking out of the frame.
— Mike Zeisberger (@Zeisberger) June 24, 2017
He’s 6’7″ every day, and that’s what you love about him.