|Photo by Steven Christy / Oklahoma City Barons
OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla.
- Oilers prospect Toni Rajala was once a victim of the numbers game.
Unable to stick due to the NHL lockout and a Barons squad with more bodies than roster spots, the 22-year-old began the 2012-13 season with the Stockton Thunder of the ECHL.
"It's been a tough year. And honestly, I was a little mad about that," he said. "But now when I look back on it, I think it was a good thing for me to go there, play a lot and regain my confidence."
"That's what you want to hear," added Assistant Coach Gerry Fleming. "Players go down and they're not happy, but it's important that they have that attitude that they want to get back up here. It's the same thing when a guy from the NHL gets sent down to the AHL -- they don't want to be sent down, but they've got to come in, work on the things that they need to improve and have that hunger to get back up there."
Rajala played a total of 29 games with Stockton, scoring 18 goals and 38 points in only 29 games, playing his last on Nov. 30 before becoming a full-timer in OKC. When the lockout ended and a handful of Oilers superstars returned to Edmonton, the product of Parkano, Finland, nestled into the driver's seat.
In 46 regular-season games with the Barons, Rajala recorded 17 goals, 45 points and a +18 rating. His success has continued into the post-season, where he's tallied three goals and an AHL-leading 13 assists.
"It's been unreal," said Fleming, shaking his head in amazement. "He's been a pleasant surprise. When we went down (to Stockton), (Thunder Head Coach) Matty (Thomas) used him a ton. He went down there, he played hard, did what Matty asked him to do and we brought him back up here and he's had continued success.
"Hopefully he can continue his torrid pace throughout the post-season and help us get to where we want to be."
Rajala was coming off a point-per-game season with the WHL's Brandon Wheat Kings before being drafted by the Oilers in the fourth round, 101st overall in 2009. He then spent the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons with Ilves Tampere of the Finnish Elite League, scoring a combined total of 51 points in 95 games.
While he was already having success in the relatively low-scoring SM-liiga, his offensive game has truly blossomed as a professional in North America.
"It's a little quicker here. The biggest thing is that you have to make your decisions a lot faster," said the Finn. "You have to be ready to pass or shoot at all times."
Rajala is currently skating on a line with CJ Stretch and fellow Finnish Elite League alumnus, Teemu Hartikainen.
The trio was instrumental in Saturday's Game 2 win over the Grand Rapids Griffins, combining to record three goals, two assists and nine shots on goal in a 4-2 victory. Having home ice advantage in their back pocket, the next three games of the series will be played at the Cox Convention Center in OKC.
The Barons aren't looking too far ahead, but there's plenty to be excited about. Just three wins stand between them and a berth in the Calder Cup Final.
"It's been a lot of fun," said Rajala. "We've been playing pretty well and I think we have a chance to win the whole thing. But it's a 1-1 tie now and there are a couple games left in the series, so we have to be ready for those."
While his focus is almost entirely on the Barons' thrilling post-season run, Rajala can't help but wonder what lies ahead. After a stunning rookie campaign and with more to be written here in the post-season, the 5-foot-10, 163-pound winger could potentially push for a roster spot with the Oilers next fall.
"It's still a long road to get there, but it's my dream to play in the NHL," he said. "The Oilers are a good, young team and it's tough to get there, but I'm going to work hard and we'll see if that's enough."
"If he goes home this summer, has a great summer as far as training goes and comes in in great shape, he'll give himself the best opportunity," added Fleming. "It starts with that, and if he can let his skill-set show through at training camp, he'll give himself a chance.
"It's up to him."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick