Eemeli Räsänen is set to begin playing with Jokerit in the KHL in early September, assuming his training camp goes well. This will be the pivotal year in judging his development, and so, in advance of that evidence, we have ranked him 19th in this year’s Top 25 Under 25.
All 10 of our voters ranked Räsänen and the spread was small, only six places separating the high vote of 16 from the low of 21. In this part of the ranking, there are a few players who were fairly consistently ranked, and a few who we wildly disagreed on. Räsänen is one of the former.
Yes, he’s tall, but what this action shot handily illustrates is the crux of the size isn’t everything truism. Gabe Vilardi, the player with the edges and the skill and strength to use them to protect the puck, is not exactly a small guy himself at 6’3”, but Räsänen has four inches on him. He didn’t have the mass advantage when that photo was taken, and he doesn’t now.
His size shows up most in his reach. He is not a future Victor Hedman who brings all the glorious advantages of reach and height with a skillset that’s elite. But while Räsänen’s skating isn’t great, the effect of his long stride offsets some of his weaknesses in straight up defending. Imagine a circle around every player on the ice that shows the area they can defend in one stride. His is huge, due to his stick length and his stride length. Way back when, JP Nikota described Keaton Middleton as hard to get around, and this is Räsänen’s advantage from his even more prodigious height.
As a defenceman, his offensive production is not what he’s going to be known for, but he has some noted powerplay ability. He’s not a jump up and join the offence guy, so if your mental model of a hockey team is all five skaters engaging in a similar form of offence, you’re not going to think he has any value. If you can see the usefulness of a defender whose primary areas of play are the defensive zone and the bluelines, denying zone exits and entries and keeping the play alive offensively, then there might be something to Räsänen that you like.
Check out this video from his first preseason game with Jokerit where what he does is keep the play alive with such a sneaky pass, the official scorer got the goal and the assist wrong at first (Räsänen is the really big guy on the right point.):
His junior point production was not terrible, however. Let’s compare him to our newest, hotter, prospect, Rasmus Sandin:
Räsänen shot at a good rate, while not hogging the puck, and he was a top four defender in the OHL. I think we know very clearly what Räsänen is not, which is a future top pairing defender in the NHL. However, he did maintain a nearly identical points pace year over year, while being pushed down the lineup after the OHL trade deadline last year in favour of the newly acquired Sean Day. At the same time, the quality of his team’s forwards rose with the acquisition of Valardi and Cliff Pu. No matter how you slice that change in quality of teammates and usage, Räsänen at least kept pace.
Interestingly, he decided to go pro long before that trade deadline change in the Kingston Frontenacs’ roster.
“I need harder games than junior,” the towering Toronto Maple Leafs prospect said Tuesday at development camp.
“That’s what I decided after Christmas. I want to go pro. I didn’t know then where I wanted to go, but then I decided the KHL must be the best for me.”
He explained in that Sportsnet article from the recent development camp why he picked Jokerit:
What lured Rasanen back home is head coach Lauri Marjamaki. Jokerit’s decorated new bench boss most recently guided the national team at the world championships and has rapidly gained a reputation for molding Finnish prospects into NHLers.
Marjamaki had a hand in the development of Edmonton’s Jesse Puljujarvi, Carolina’s Sebastian Aho and Nashville’s Eeli Tolvanen. Rasanen picked his peers’ brains before making his decision.
He told a Finnish site something similar recently [Google Translate]:
Räsänen had discussed moving to Jokerit with Eeli Tolvanen.
“He praised a lot, and it did not take long to think about it. In a couple of weeks it was born,” the defender says.
He also says outright that his first goal is to make the regular roster for Jokerit. This is not a guarantee, as the team currently has 12 defenders on their 2018-2019 roster, although one of them is 17 and two others are 19 and 20 — all Finns. Any number of those young guys might be loaned out to another club for part of the season. Jokerit doesn’t align with a VHL team like most KHL teams do. They have a club in the Finnish second league they use as a farm club.
What’s on offer right now is a fringe roster spot with a chance to move up the ranks. In their second preseason game, which will be played later today, Räsänen is dressing as the seventh defender, so he’s got that far, now he has to impress in limited minutes.
In the absence of any evidence of how well or even how much Räsänen is going to play on one of the top five teams outside North America, and a team that could beat the current Calder Cup champs in a playoff series very handily, we have only the past to look at to judge him.
The Scouting Report
Watching Räsänen is an exercise in waiting for him to do something that impresses. It’s not quite as fraught and anxious a wait as drumming your fingers while John Tavares decides on his future, but it’s a lot less rewarding.
I’ve watched him at the WJSS last year, the rookie tournament this summer, and a Finland - Czech Republic junior game just a few weeks ago, and nothing jumps out at you. The danger here is that in the absence of obvious good things to see like an exceptional playmaking ability or fast puck-carrying, all you see is the mistakes. And he makes them.
The knock on him has traditionally been his skating. This is valid, yet overstated. He didn’t want to be a hockey player, he wanted to play soccer, and when he grew too tall to be anything but a goalkeeper, he switched. For a Finn, it’s shocking to see how rudimentary his skating is, but he’s not horrible, and the idea that he is totally incapable is largely based on a very old scouting report that is years and many hours with Barb Underhill out of date.
My knock on him is his brain. He makes bad decisions, and he doesn’t always react fast. This is often given the catch-all term of hockey IQ, and that leads you to infer it’s a thing you are just born with, which is likely neither totally true nor totally false. I think he needs a better structural understanding of what to do, when and how to do it, and a lot of practice implementing it. And Finland is the land where structure is at the top of the pantheon of the hockey gods, so he’s in the right place to learn as much as he can.
Let’s watch a good day from his most recent season where Räsänen, 77 in black and gold, has his shot working for him against the London Knights.
This is his big offensive weapon, and if you’re thinking that looks like Andrew Nielsen, you’re not wrong. Nielsen’s shot is beautiful, of a better quality, and it’s all he’s got. Räsänen has some defensive skills that stands him well in junior hockey, and keeps him from just being the guy you haul out for the power play. He is also smart enough to know not to go wandering out of his area of control on the ice. He is a blueliner, but he’s not a high-penalty minute body-crasher. He’s smarter than that in how he tries to use his size advantages.
Last year I called him a big ball of potential, and he seems to have gotten about as much as he can out of the OHL. He’s made the right move to develop his strengths and maybe improve on his weaknesses, and other than that, I say ask me next summer.
A lot of my ranking for him is based on age. For a player that is on a development path, not an NHL-ready in a year or two path, he’s still really young. He’s got two or three years where we can expect big growth. I don’t mean physically either. Oliver Lauridsen, his new teammate who is 6’6”, is 238 pounds. That’s a guy players bounce off of if they try to check him. The last thing Räsänen really needs is more mass to drag around, which is my opinion on Yegor Korshkov too. He needs to worry about what’s between his ears and where his feet are. If he could use his edges like Vilardi up there, that would be good too.
We’ve given him two rankings in the “maybe he’s a player” part of this list, two years in a row. Next year is the year we might say “never mind” or we might be able to say “yes, he’s got a chance”.