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Finnish duo ready to impress at camp

by Marc Ciampa / Edmonton Oilers
Oilers prospect Toni Rajala (Getty Images)

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When the Edmonton Oilers drafted speedy Finnish foward Toni Rajala just over a week ago in the fourth round at the 2009 NHL Entry Draft in Montreal, at least one current Oilers forward couldn't contain his excitement.

Teemu Hartikainen, who was drafted in the sixth round by the Oilers only a year ago, was a teammate of Rajala's at the World Junior Championships. The two players also knew each other growing up in Finland playing with and against each other over the years.

"It was great," said Hartikainen of the addition of Rajala, "I don't speak very good English so he can help me very much."

Already the two players are assisting one another as they both make their first extended venture over to North America - and in particular the Edmonton area - for the 2009 Oilers Development Camp in Sherwood Park.

Rajala was projected to go in the second or third round of this year's draft so imagine Edmonton's surprise and delight that he was still available in the fourth round. The slick-skating forward immediately becomes one of the Oilers' fastest and more purely skilled prospects.

Rajala skates for Team Finland at the World Juniors (Getty Images)
"He's not overly big, he's 5'10.5" but he's extremely smart. He plays in the hard areas, one of those guys who's always on the puck creating plays to the net," remarked Oilers head scout Stu MacGregor.

"I think the only knock on Toni is he's not real big. That may have scared some people off. We were never really that concerned about that."

Size may be somewhat of an issue for Rajala but he has also grown more than two inches over the past 18 months. At more than 5'10" there are plenty of capable NHL forwards smaller than him.

Not to mention, within his peer group, Rajala has been dominant. He broke Alexander Ovechkin's record at the Under-18 World Championships with 10 goals and 19 points in only six games.

"He's a player that led the Under-18 World Champinships in scoring. Tied the record for most points in the tournament," MacGregor continued.

"We had a very good team," said Rajala. "My line was very good and we played very well together. It was my best tournament ever and I was very happy."

He was also happy to be drafted by Edmonton - after waiting much longer than he initially thought he would.

"I was very happy (to be drafted by the Oilers)," Rajala remarked. "It's a good team and Edmonton is a nice town."

Rajala has an important decision to make in the next few weeks. He was recently drafted in the CHL import draft by the Brandon Wheat Kings - a team which also happens to be hosting the Memorial Cup.

"Maybe I'll play in Brandon or Finland, I don't know yet," he said. "Playing the game here is tougher. It would be a very good experience."

The opportunity to play in Canada's top junior tournament is making this a tough decision for the slick-skating forward.

"It's a very nice thing, the Memorial Cup. It's a big tournament and I want to play in the Memorial Cup."

Teemu Hartikainen scored 17 goals last season (Getty Images)
The opportunity to play in the Western Hockey League would help Rajala with his goal of getting stronger but he knows where the true strength of his game lies.

"I'm a quick player and I have good hockey sense. Martin St. Louis or Patrick Kane are a little bit of the same style as me."


Rajala's teammate at the World Juniors and good friend, Hartikainen, plays a much different style of game.

"I'm a power forward. I drive to the front of the net and score," said Hartikainen, comparing his style of game to Tomas Holmstrom.

After being drafted in the sixth round, Hartikainen had a monster season en route to setting a record for goals in the Finnish Elite League by an 18-year-old with 17. He also won the league's Rookie-of-the-Year award.

"It was a very good season," he said. "We had a great playoffs and the coach liked me."

"I don't think he surprised us in what he did this year, but I think the amount of games - playing the full year in the Finnish Elite League and winning rookie of the year honours - was a big thing for him," said OIlers Assistant GM Kevin Prendergast.

"He played very well at the World Junior Championships. He's a big kid, 6'2" 205 pounds. He's got good hands, goes to the net and is very strong."

Hartikainen led his country in scoring with nine points in six games in the tournament. His strong showing almost earned him an appearance in the top men's world tourney.

"Talking to Jari Kurri, he's one of the players they had on their radar to bring to the World Championships," Prendergast continued. "If some NHL players declined, he was going to get that opportunity."

Hartikainen will play another year in the Finnish league with another opportunity to learn alongside NHL veteran Sami Kapanen.

"The coach said that Sami took him under his wing and really worked with him hard," Prendergast noted.

Hartikainen's goal is to come over to North American following next season.

"It's my dream to come play here," he said. "I think I'll play next season in Finland and then after a year I'll come here."

The Oilers are eager to work with him at Development Camp as he moves closer to being a top-level pro player.

"His skating's got to improve a little bit but he's aware of that," said Prendergast.

"When you're one of those players, you're a boy playing with men and you're able to put him numbers like he put up there's certainly a light at the end of the tunnel for him."
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