In an announcement that threw a lot of people for a loop, a hard-nosed, big body presence best known by Leafs fans by being a relatively recent draft pick for the team signed a contract with Jokerit last week.
But enough about Viktor Loov. A taller, younger, more-right handed, and more-Finnish Eemeli Rasanen (ranked 15th in my pre-season Leafs prospect pool project) also signed a two-year contract with everyone’s favourite Finnish KHL team, not long after his OHL season ended and he reported to the Marlies to play (read: practice) out an end-of-season Amateur Tryout.
This is a pretty unique development path for both the player and team, particularly because we’re talking about a player that’s never played under the Russian developmental umbrella. With that in mind, let’s break down how this benefits everyone.
An Asset Management Benefit
The clearest gain that anyone has in this equation belongs to the Leafs, in the sense that this lets them spread out minutes while minimizing contracts. As originally explained by CapFriendly, Rasanen’s rights would have been relinquished on June 1st, 2019 had the Leafs not signed him to an entry-level contract. Because he is now playing in Europe, however, Toronto holds his for an extra two-years, giving them a new deadline of June 2021.
This also explains why 2016 draft picks like Keaton Middleton and Nicolas Mattinen have to be signed in the next several days to remain in the organization, but why Vladimir Bobylev, who headed to the KHL for segments of 2016/17 and 2017/18 after being drafted from the WHL, does not require a deal of his own.
Extending that window for Rasanen is important for a couple of reasons. It lets the Leafs see if he’s a player worth committing to for three years; while he seems to have the most upside of the “good skills, good size” generation of defensive draft picks, this past year with the Kingston Frontenacs wasn’t the quantum leap needed to make him an undeniable commitment. Toronto could wait it out another year, but then lose the biggest incentive that they could give to a player like him to not opt to re-enter the draft: a signing bonus while still playing in junior. Not that Rasanen would necessarily opt to re-roll the dice, but it’s always good to be cautious when possible.
Besides contracts, it also makes sense that Toronto would want to spread their talent out. The second year of this deal would likely be Rasanen’s first with the Marlies, and if the organization continues to scour the world for unearthed gems, they’ll want to keep roster spots open to give those future players some minutes. If you can find clubs in Europe that you can trust to develop prospects who begin on your B or C priority tier, even if it just extends your evaluation period to Age 21 or 22, it’s a good move to have.
While Jokerit’s development program isn’t as top-to-bottom as it used to be when they were in the SM-Liiga, they still maintain a youth/junior system and have a relationship with Finnish team Kiekko-Vantaa, who play in second-level Mestis. A player who is an example of that ability to bounce back and forth is 21-year-old defenceman Juho Rautanen, who has played for Jokerit at the Jr. A Liiga and KHL levels, and for Kiekko-Vantaa on loan in spurts over the past two years. Should Jokerit decide that Rasanen isn’t game ready, they have multiple pro and amateur leagues at their disposal to send Rasanen to.
How Common is the KHL at 19?
Deciding he’s not ready, by the way, isn’t exactly an uncommon outcome. The aforementioned Rautanen, for example, was one of just two Jokerit players under the age of 23 this season, with the other one being blue-chip Nashville Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen, who just came off the best season by an 18-year-old KHLer ever, outscoring the paces of Evgeny Kuznetsov and Vladimir Tarasenko.
Expecting Rasanen to be a Tolvanen is an unlikely outcome, and really, expecting any 19-year-old to walk onto a KHL roster and be a full-timer is unlikely. After all, here’s how many defencemen even got past the sporadic stage in the KHL at 19:
That’s a very NHL-like array of young defencemen being deployed likely because, well, the KHL is a high stakes league that has ambitions for its adults as much as it has ambitions in developing its youth. The KHL has had 65 defenceman dress for 20+ games since being forked off of the previous Russian Super League blueprint in 2008/09. By comparison, SM-Liiga has had 47 in that time span, the SHL has had an equal 65, the NHL has had 31, and the AHL (likely in large part due to the CHL transfer agreement) has had just nine.
With that said, if you’re getting games in at that age in the KHL, it’s usually a good sign that you’re going to last in the pro ranks. Of this group of 65 to play an Age 19 season of substance in the past decade, 91% of them suited up for pro games last year, 75% of them played in the KHL or NHL, and 48% of them played at least half the season in those leagues. Those numbers likely could have been higher too, which a few players of the list being members of Novokuznetsk Metallurg (who were relegated to the VHL this year for financial reasons), and one of the six “out of hockey” players being Yuri Urychev, who passed away in the Lokomotiv tragedy in 2011. Three of these players (Dmitry Orlov, Nikita Zaitsev, and Andrei Mironov) played in the NHL this year.
Looked at another way, here’s a look at what every Russian-born defenceman in the NHL this year was doing between the ages of 17 to 20:
Interestingly, the best pockets of players on this list come from two entirely different paths: Orlov prepped for the NHL by playing in the KHL for several years, while Sergachev and Provorov went straight from Canadian Major Junior to the NHL. Either way, it looks like the guys who stick around for the long haul, great or bad, have usually been thrown into some sort of fire at a younger age. Whether or not it’s necessarily helped them become better players is an eternal and often-case-by-case debate, but what we can see is that KHL teams tend to only use teenagers that they think can contribute, and those guys usually turn out to have careers. That Jokerit sees value in having Rasanen on their roster at this age is likely a promising start.
How will he be used?
There is an optimistic way to look at how Rasanen will be used by Jokerit this season. The pessimistic way is to look at how they used Juho Rautanen over the past two years;
Getting him into games is an encouraging sign that Jokerit is fine with dressing a younger player, but those time-on-ice numbers are, quite frankly, shockingly low. Just under nine minutes per game over 47 games of hockey seems like they’ve practically glued their youngster to the bench.
At the same time, though, Rasanen appears to be at least a tier ahead of Rautanen in terms of ability. Rautanen has never been talked about as an NHL prospect at any point and hasn’t been drafted or been approached to be signed by an NHL team. Rasanen’s Jr. A production is just a hair off of Rautanen’s despite his games coming at 15 and 16 years old, compared to Rautanen’s 17 and 18. It is very likely that Rasanen is already a better player in the present than Rautanen, let alone comparing them at the same age.
Rautanen, for what it’s worth, is heading back to the SM-Liiga system this year, leaving the Jokerit organization for Tappera.
The other optimist’s angle is to look at Jokerit’s current defensive roster:
The Rasanen and Loov signings seem to indicate that Jokerit is looking to add some size to their lineup; currently, Oliver Lauridsen is their only returning player that can be described as a “big” or “heavy” defenceman. Rasanen is also their only right-handed shot now, as former college phenom Matt Gilroy has left the team to go play in Switzerland. With this in mind, you’d guess that Rasanen will, at the very least, be used for handedness dependent and size-favoured situations – I’m imagining more penalty kill time and defensive zone starts will in his future, which should help with rounding out his all-around game.
Summing It Up
Overall, I think this is a move that helps everyone involved.
The Maple Leafs get to take their time in deciding whether Rasanen is an asset they’d like to move forward with, without having him take up a contract spot. The idea of a two-way defenceman with a massive frame is tantalizing, but he needs to be able to play – Toronto now has two years to see whether he can do that at an even higher professional level than they could’ve given him with the Marlies. Jokerit is arguably a Top-5 non-NHL team in the world, with a strong program, so if they integrate him well, that’s a great environment to lop him into.
Rasanen got to use the pedigree he’s built up in major junior to take a chance at becoming a bit of a rarity; a teenaged defenceman who sticks in the second best league in the world. Should he pull it off, and become a fixture in the Jokerit lineup, that should bode well for his future, as most tend to go on to have long careers in upper-tier professional hockey. A good year likely cements his ability to do this as his life’s purpose – something we’re pretty confident that he’s going to do already, but removing some doubt is always nice.
Should he play, Rasanen will get to play against much tougher competition than he would in the OHL. That’s good, given what we expect him to be – if you were looking for him to be a high-skill, creative type, then feasting and experimenting would be good, but if the dream is for Rasanen to be a big-matchups defenceman with some bonus tools to keep him effective in other situations, throwing him into the fire now, against some of the best forwards outside of the NHL, will get him prepared. He also gets to take advantage of Jokerit’s unique place in the league, as it means he’ll get to go back to Finland and be with his friends and family there.
Lastly, this even works out pretty well for Jokerit. I’m less fussed about handedness than I used to be, but I imagine that having at least one righty in the lineup is a good thing, and he gives them that, some size and knowledge of how to play both power play and penalty kill minutes if needed.
Again, this wasn’t an expected move – but it shows a lot of signs that it could end up being the correct one.---
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