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A deeper look at Eemeli Räsänen

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Aside from the fact he towers over Mark Hunter, what do we know about the Leafs’ second round pick?

2017 NHL Draft - Rounds 2-7 Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Everyone starts with the height when talking about Eemeli Räsänen, so we might as well do that too.

How big is big?

At the combine he was measured at 6’ 6.75”. That is almost exactly two metres. His weight there was 214.38 lb, or 97 kg, which is two kilos heavier than his older listing on Elite Prospects. Let’s put that in perspective instead of simply seeing that he’s very tall, calling him very big, and assuming that’s his destiny — to be a massive body on the ice.

When All About the Jersey did a profile on him they noted the following:

Räsänen is a giant at 6’7’’ but very slender at only 205 lbs. That puts him at the 2nd lowest BMI (9.01) of all OHL defenders and the lowest of the U18 players. His stats are shown below

First up, it’s obvious that the author is not using the standard BMI calculator there, but the idea of using that measure at all is to see how big the big-looking man is. Using the standard measure and his slightly higher combine weight, he comes out at 24, which is in the so-called normal range. Most hockey players should be expected to be well above the normal range. This is one reason why BMI as a measure of health is so very flawed.

The first person I thought to compare Räsänen to is last year’s tall draft pick who got immediately mistaken for a big man, Yegor Korshkov. He is a little shorter, and his current stats produce a BMI of 23. Both Räsänen and Korshkov have height, but not a lot of mass. Not yet, at any rate.

To compare Räsänen to the gold standard NHL defender who is a large man: Dustin Byfuglien has a BMI of 31. This is what you would expect from a larger than average athlete. Byfuglien’s 260 lbs makes him the immovable object/irresistible force he is on the ice. Räsänen has a long, long way to go to get there.

A more probable comparison in Byfuglien’s teammate, Tyler Myers, who is taller by a smidge than Räsänen and weighs in at 230 lbs. Myers has made his career out of skill, good enough skating, using his long stride to make up for what he lacks in finesse, and a reach that makes him very hard to get around.

Räsänen had one of the top 25 wingspan measures at the combine this year, but he is not overly endowed with reach or leg length. He’s got a lot of torso, which may eventually build up more muscle.

So while Räsänen has said he enjoys a physical game, and likes the hitting part of hockey, he isn’t exactly the next Roman Polak.

The game is played on ice

The next thing everyone says about Räsänen is his skating is poor. First, you need to watch the timing on the comments when you read that. Scouting reports on the internet are a bit like a time machine, old news often never goes away. The really bad reports on him are from the Ivan Hlinka tournament when he was 17.

A more recent report from Dominic Tiano, who writes about the OHL, said this:

Rasanen made the jump to the Ontario Hockey League and it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows early on. He looked to be having a difficult time transitioning to North America, but that faded quickly. He appears to have worked hard on his skating, but still has some ways to go, especially his technique and adding even more speed. At the Hlinka, he was beaten to the outside with speed easily. Now, he’s using his long reach and a quicker step to prevent being beaten.

Tiano noted Räsänen’s steady improvement, and that’s something AATJ discussed too. He needed time to adapt to the North American game, junior hockey, Canada, and being coached in his second language. He has only one year in the OHL at this point after playing in Finland prior to that.

Points are what matters

AATJ produced this chart of Räsänen’s rolling 5-game points sum.

Now about those points. There’s a huge caveat to seeing this guy as an offensive player based on one fairly good set of OHL points. (From AATJ again)

When all was said and done, he ranked 7th among U18 defencemen in the OHL in points and primary points. That ranking is buoyed by his 26 powerplay points, highest by far of any U18 defender — though even that number is inflated by the 14 secondary assists. This means that he had only 9 even strength points, good for 28th among 72 OHL U18 defenders.

His bomb of a point shot is useful on the power play, just like Andrew Nielsen’s, but he’s not a playmaking offensively focused defender. In fact, in comparing him to Nielsen, it’s possible Räsänen is better defensively.

He never scored much in Finland, however he was being played all over the place in junior leagues, a few games here, a few there. The stability of the OHL move was obviously good for him, and once he settled in, he’s been an important part of the Frontenacs’ team.

Rasanen has been used as a top-four defenceman all season by head coach Paul McFarland.

"It is going pretty well. My work ethic is going better every day with Paul (coach McFarland's help)," said Rasanen, a native of Joensuu in eastern Finland.

Rasanen has been delivering some thunderous checks in recent games, a fact noted by the opposition. He has been instigated on -- challenged into fights twice in games against Oshawa and Hamilton -- after bowling over players. Hamilton and Oshawa players then came to the defence of their teammates to fight Rasanen, who has showed he is quite capable when the gloves are dropped.

"That's the way I want to play. I want to be always tough to play against," Rasanen said.

That is traditional OHL hockey. And if he can wade into that and relish the physical aspects of the game, he’s partway towards being able to do the same thing in the AHL. The jump to the NHL, of course, involves giving up most of that sort of thing and learning to pick your moments.

The more interesting point than his checking game is that he’s getting big minutes on his team, and getting a chance to develop the defensive side to his play. Nielsen was a big disappointment to me on the Marlies this year despite his showy boxcars. He got a lot of points, most of them on the power play, but when you watch him, you wonder if anyone ever tried to teach him to play hockey.

The hope has to be that, with Räsänen, the power play points are the icing on the cake of a good shut-down defender. An old scouting report seems to indicate that is exactly what he might be.

A big, mobile defenseman with long strides that while look awkward, they are effective…makes quick decisions with the puck…on reception, he never hesitates, instead immediately turns to transition up ice and avoid staying stationary…protects it well, very calm under duress, no stress…hard, accurate outlets…finds seam very quickly utilizing his smart, strong on-ice vision…massive guy who brings physicality and nastiness to the back end…unfortunately the trade off to his physical advantage is a little bit of a slower step which leaves him vulnerable if plays are out of his lengthy reach…imposing presence to battle with in front of his own crease…while he doesn’t use his huge frame to be punishing with a nasty edge like he could, he is still a physical presence, stepping up to lay clean hits or rubbing carriers out along the boards…does an excellent job controlling gaps, makes stick-on-puck plays off the rush…is a gifted, towering defensemen who can contribute offensively in a way most 6’6 defenders can’t…has some immense upside as a pro two-way defender. (November 2016) — Future Considerations

Mark Hunter

At 3:15, Mark Hunter talks briefly about Räsänen, and remember, the Kingston Frontenacs are Stephen Desrocher’s team. Hunter has been tasked with deciding if that former draft pick, who scored 11 more points than Räsänen this season, was worth an ELC. He decided no, but he’s been taking in Frontenacs’ games while he was making up his mind. And yes, it seems Räsänen and Desrocher played together, at least on the power play if not as regular partners.

“He needs to develop his body yet,” is how Hunter starts off. He says Räsänen’s legs don’t carry his big body around yet. And having watched Korshkov spend the first quarter of his KHL season falling down a lot, I can understand that problem. Hunter notes his great shot, and that he played top pairing for Kingston.

Conclusion

Everyone seems to agree that Räsänen is a project. He needs to improve his size, although his conditioning seems good. He scored very high ratings on the Wingate anaerobic bike test at the combine, so he is capable of producing short bursts of high power, which is a key ability for an NHL player. He needs to get better at skating, and he knows that.

At the end of the day, the real question is in his brain, as it so often is with hockey players. Does he have the mind to play defence at an NHL level? Can he think that fast, play with confidence, make good decisions consistently? If there was a combine test for that, this drafting business would have a much higher success rate.

Until he’s played out his OHL career while making use of the Leafs development and training resources, we aren’t going to know for sure if he will succeed. Less than half of the defencemen drafted in the second and third rounds ever make it. If Räsänen does, he will have beaten those odds.