The Rangers had much to be pleased about following the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship tournament that concluded earlier this month.
Goaltender Adam Huska gained valuable experience with Slovakia while fellow netminder Brandon Halverson picked up a Bronze Medal with Team USA, but it was 2015 third-round pick Aleksi Saarela who was the big winner, walking away with a Gold Medal with host-country Finland.
“It means a lot,” Saarela said in an email exchange with BlueshirtsUnited.com. “Especially winning it in Finland in front of the fans. Finnish people will remember this for a long time.”
Saarela, who plays for Assat of the SM-Liiga in Finland, posted four goals and three assists for seven points in seven games, including picking up the primary assist on the tournament-winning goal over Russia.
While the stats are impressive, Saarela shined in all types of situations throughout the tournament, including in the final moments of the Gold Medal game with his team up a goal — though he was taken off the ice prior to Russia tying the game in the final seconds. The 19-year-old said being reliable in all three zones is more important than putting up points.
“It actually means more than scoring goals,” he said. “Ever since the draft, I have concentrated on becoming a better all-around player,” and added that he knows in order to compete in the National Hockey League, a player must be balanced and play in all types of situations if needed.
Chris Drury, the Rangers’ director of player development, said Saarela has “the pedigree and has always been gifted skill-wise,” and that he was “so impressed with how competitive he was.”
Drury wasn’t the only one impressed with Saarela’s performance.
“He was outstanding during the tournament,” said Rangers European scout Jan Gajdosik. “[Saarela was] a huge part of their gold [medal] team, took critical face-offs, [showed] great speed, [a] dangerous shot, scoring touch and incredible balance when he takes a hit — all intangibles needed for a player of his size. He will play.”
Saarela did not succumb to the pressures of playing at home during a tournament of the World Juniors’ magnitude. On the contrary, Drury said Saarela rose to the challenge. And he should know, having represented the United States on home soil twice, including the World Juniors in 1996 when the games were held in Massachusetts, and the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
“It’s a totally new animal playing for your country in your home country,” Drury said. “It’s a huge state. I thought he rose throughout the tournament. He did it in so many different ways.”
Saarela said he felt more comfortable as the tournament progressed and as his role was better defined.
“A little bit,” Saarela said when asked about his confidence rising. “Biggest thing was noticing I could compete against the best U20 players in the world and in some cases be better than them.”
Rangers goaltender and fellow Finn Antti Raanta said he has known Saarela for several years, with their paths crossing late in Raanta’s career in his home country. The net minder said it was nice to see Saarela’s overall game develop from the one-dimensional player so many are at younger ages.
“When he was a little bit younger, he was always the No. 1 guy on the team,” Raanta told BlueshirtsUnited. “He was always scoring the goals and everyone was expecting him to be the point scorer and the lead guy. Now, it was great to see how he was playing overall. He was at the right place, back-checking.”
The skill is still there with Saarela posting 10 goals and 15 points through 28 contests with Assat.
Drury said while the external expectations could rise following a tournament like the one Saarela just had, those inside the organization don’t feel that is necessarily fair. This is just one positive step in a young players career, according to the former Rangers captain.
“I don’t think it would be fair to anyone,” to raise expectations, Drury said. “He had a great tournament and we think he’s a terrific player,” but there’s little reason to raise the pressure on him. “He works extremely hard and that will help him moving forward. That’s how I look at it. Just another real big but nice step in his career.”