Way back in 2002, I picked up a copy of the annual “future watch” issue of The Hockey News. On the cover was a young draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks from Finland by the name of Tuomo Ruutu
, as the publication had named him the “No. 1 NHL-Affiliated Prospect” after interviewing a panel of NHL executives.
For some reason, that always stuck with me throughout the early part his career in Chicago, even before the Hurricanes acquired him at the 2008 trade deadline in exchange for Andrew Ladd. When that move was made, the THN issue was one of the first things that crossed my mind, as he clearly had great potential that had been somewhat masked by the injury problems of his first few years in the NHL.
By accident, I recently rediscovered the issue, which I assumed had been lost long ago, while cleaning out a seldom-used closet. Most of the junk in there was thrown out immediately, but I decided to take a look at what the magazine said about Ruutu seven years ago.
For the most part, it was right on in describing the player we now know well. Although comparisons to Peter Forsberg were a little lofty, “The kind of guy who looks you in the eyes and goes right through you,” and “The toughest kid I’ve ever seen at his age,” were a few items of praise thrown his way.
However, there was one knock on his game that did surprise me. He was reported to have a nasty temper and a tendency to play dirty, with a suspension for cross-checking an opponent in the head serving as an example.
That’s not at all how one would describe today’s Ruutu. Although aggressive and physical, his hits are clean and, although he can get “excited” early in games and take a penalty or two, he’s not nearly the loose cannon that the magazine described.
Wondering if that was an unfair assessment that came from being related to older brother Jarkko or if it was something he’s worked on over the years, I asked Ruutu, who remembered the THN issue right away.
“Some games I didn’t care about the puck,” Ruutu said sheepishly of his early years with Jokerit of the Finnish Elite League. “I was just going to hit guys as hard as I could. That’s probably what they were talking about.”
“It was fair to say at that time,” he continued. “Then it was maybe every other game that I went looking for hits and wasn’t really worried about scoring goals. I try to stay calm nowadays."
True, Ruutu’s natural aggression and love for the big hit, when controlled, has become a strength rather than a weakness. His increased focus on scoring goals – he netted a career-high 26 last season – has also paid dividends.
It’s important to note that he hasn’t lost too much from the physical side of his game, as that, combined with his offensive talent, is what made him such an intriguing prospect in the first place. He led the Hurricanes in penalty minutes with 79 last year, although he’s likely to relinquish that crown to the likes of Andrew Alberts or Tom Kostopoulos next season.
Now that he’s found that balance – taking the hits when they come, rather than the goals – he’s at his most effective. Given that the rest of the issue serves as a reminder of how difficult it is to project even the best players (Stanislav Chistov, Vaclav Nedorost and Jeff Jillson, who all played overseas last year, round out THN’s top five prospects after Ruutu and Ryan Miller), give credit to THN and the executive panel in identifying a pretty darn good player.