If there wasn't an NHL lockout, Toni Rajala probably would have started the season with the Oklahoma City Barons.
Instead, the 22-year-old forward from Finland maximized his opportunity with Stockton in Double-A.
Named an ECHL All-Star, Rajala (pronounced rye-AL-uh) was promoted after the lockout ended. He's continued to rack up points in the Triple-A American Hockey League.
Wrapping up an outstanding rookie season, Rajala has scored 48 points in 48 games with the Barons. He's played so well that he's on Oklahoma City's No. 1 forward line in the playoffs, which continue Wednesday night with Game 3 in Charlotte.
“That's pretty remarkable for a rookie,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson. “Who knows how many points he would have had if he had been here all season? He might've been a candidate for Rookie of the Year. We're extremely pleased with the way he's produced.”
Rajala is small (5-foot-9, 164 pounds) but has electric skills. He has exceptional speed and sometimes unveils acrobatic spin moves to shake a defender. He's the closest skill-wise to Oilers stars Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall, who played in Oklahoma City during the lockout.
“His skill set is very high,” Nelson said. “Besides seeing the ice well and setting up other guys for goals he has a knack for putting the puck in the net. It seems every game there's something new he tries. And he actually ends up completing the move.”
The Oilers' fourth-round draft pick in 2009, Rajala remained in Finland three seasons, playing professionally with Ilves Tampere. He also represented Finland in 2010 and 2011 at the world junior championships.
Last summer, Edmonton officials asked Rajala to begin his pro career in the United States.
“Early in the season it was a little tough because they really didn't have a spot here,” Rajala said. “But I really didn't mind it. I got to play a lot (in Stockton). I got my confidence and came back.”
Playing on the No. 1 line with former NHL All-Star Jonathan Cheechoo and AHL All-Star Mark Arcobello, Rajala is the Barons' second-leading scorer despite playing nearly half the season in Double-A.
“He's a really good player,” Arcobello said. “He's smart and is extremely skilled. He can find open guys and has a knack for finding the back of the net. Plus, he's a lot of fun to play with.”
Combine his OKC and Stockton stats and Rajala has scored 86 points in 77 games, including 35 goals. His production has continued in the playoffs with three assists the first two games.
“Getting points is my job, but I've been playing with really good players. That, of course, helps,” Rajala said. “But now it's a whole new season. I have to really be focused and help us win in the playoffs.”
The playoffs are a relatively new experience for Rajala, although he had some postseason experience back home in Finland.
“You see the same team every game, so there's more battling, more yelling,” Rajala said. “It can get (chippy). I just have to be focused on my play and do what I can do.”
Rajala's plan is to add some muscle/weight this offseason. He could spend most of next season in Oklahoma City, but his rookie season has put him on the Edmonton Oilers radar.
“We knew Toni had good offensive skills, but we didn't know if it would translate to the North America game,” Nelson said. “At Stockton he produced. We called him up briefly once but put him on the third and fourth lines. He chipped in a bit.
“Since he's been back, he's been of our top offensive players. The only knock on Toni is he's not a very big guy. He's still young. Once he puts on some muscle, who knows how good he might be in the future?”