Toni Rajala was a 13-year-old youth league player in Finland when the National Hockey League implemented rules changes that would benefit him years later.
Labeled too small by some scouts, the 5-foot-9, 163-pound right winger has produced at every level, including a successful 29-game stint with the Oklahoma City Barons following a midseason promotion.
NHL officials in 2004-05 decided on strict enforcement of hooking, holding and other forms of obstruction. Two-line passes were legalized. Changes placed more emphasis on speed, creating more space for players of all sizes.
“It allowed guys like Rajala that have great speed and skill to maneuver a little more,” said Barons general manager Bill Scott. “Sometimes a player with his size gets overlooked. But he knows how to create offense. He has great vision and really good hands.”
Rajala (pronounced rye-ALL-uh) relies on speed, quickness and stickhandling.
In a recent shootout Rajala spun completely around to try and beat Rockford goaltender Carter Hutton.
“He's a very creative skill player,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson. “Let's face it he's not a very big guy so he relies on his creativity. He has deceiving speed. And he makes smart plays with the puck.”
To eventually reach the NHL Rajala must add weight. The key is putting on muscle without sacrificing speed or quickness.
“It's a fine line how to train the right way,” Scott said. “Small guys have to have a strong center of gravity to push through with your legs so you can fight through checks. Those are things Toni needs to work on. But he's young.”
Rajala turns 22 next week. He realizes he possibly could play in Oklahoma City another year or two before he's given a shot at playing in the NHL, a dream he's had since age 7.
“Of course I need to get stronger,” Rajala said. “But it's not something you can do when the season is on. That's what I'll work on hard this summer. I'm still a young player. I don't want to get in too much of a hurry. And I still need to keep that burst.”
Drafted in the fourth round by Edmonton in the 2009 NHL draft, Rajala got a taste of North American hockey three years ago in Canada when he played in the Western Hockey League.
Rajala returned to Finland for two more pro seasons in his home country. Last summer the Oilers informed him they felt he was ready to play professionally in the United States.
The biggest adjustments are rinks are smaller and games are more physical. Playing one season in the WHL made the transition easier.
“I got used to playing on the smaller ice,” Rajala said. “Everything here happens faster. You have less time to make a play. Here you have to make moves quicker.”
Making moves is Rajala's strong suit.
Rajala made so many moves he played only three months in Double-A. He was named an ECHL All-Star after scoring 38 points, including 18 goals, in 29 games with Stockton.
Promoted midseason, Rajala has continued to produce. He's scored 25 points in 29 games with the Barons.
“He's is a really smart player who has a great feel for the game,” Scott said. “He doesn't panic with the puck. Where people don't think he can do it at the pro level, he continues to put up points like he did as an amateur.”
The average NHL player is 6-foot-1. But players like Tampa Bay star Martin St. Louis (5-8, 175) and Montreal's Brian Gionta (5-7, 175) have paved the way for players like Rajala.
“Smaller guys can make it,” Rajala said. “The NHL is everybody's dream. I hope I get to do that some day.”
ROCHESTER vs. BARONS
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Where: Cox Convention Center.
Tickets: Starting as low as $10 at box office or by calling (405) 232-GOAL.
Radio: KXXY-FM 96.1, Jim Byers play-by-play.
Scouting report: Oklahoma City is in ninth place in the Western Conference, one point out of eighth, the final playoff berth. ... Rochester is in sixth, two points in front of the Barons. ... OKC signed defenseman Kendall McFaull on Monday. McFaull has played the past four seasons with Moose Jaw in the Western Hockey League. ... Yann Danis, the Barons top goaltender, has returned after a brief stint in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers. ... The Americans, the Triple-A affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres, are led by Mark Mancari, who has 55 points, including 36 assists.