In a season of strong performances for Rangers’ European defensive prospects Nils Lundkvist, Yegor Rykov and Calle Själin, perhaps the most eye-catching turn has been that of 2016 fourth-round pick Tarmo Reunanen.
Reunanen, now healthy and playing major minutes for Lukko Rauma of Finland’s top tier Liiga, has hurdled various obstacles over the past few years. In 2015, a slipped disc initially misdiagnosed as a gluteal tear kept him out for more than five months after having to undergo surgery twice. Reunanen, then with TPS Turku, returned to their Under-20 lineup later that season, though his draft stock had already taken a hit.
“It definitely was the toughest time of my life so far, but also that time was a great lesson for me to be patient and recover well.”
Reunanen spent most of his post-draft season on loan at second-tier Mestis with TUTO as he looked to get his game going again. Inconsistent minutes and a frustrating bit-part role with TPS followed before Reunanen left the organisation in early 2018 by mutual agreement and soon joined Lukko.
“TPS told me that I wasn’t in their plans anymore and that I’m free to find a new team if I want. Immediately after everything was done with the contract termination I got a call from Lukko’s GM asking if I had been on the ice that week and if I could play tonight. Six hours later I was wearing a Lukko jersey in the away game against Ilves after travelling with my own car. Everything happened very quickly and that day is definitely one I will always remember.”
It was important for Reunanen to stay in Finland at that time rather than sign with another major European league, and Lukko, one of Liiga’s founding clubs in 1975, were a can’t-miss opportunity.
“My first goal was to play mens’ games in Finland with a big role. I think it was good to be patient at that time because now I think that I’m more ready as a player to go abroad if I get the chance to go.
The biggest thing I felt was that I would get an opportunity to play in a great organisation in Finland. I felt thankful and thought I was pretty lucky. I didn’t want to miss this opportunity so it made me work even harder than before.”
Reunanen has gone from strength to strength since joining Lukko and is currently in the middle of what he says is his best season to date. For the first time in a while he started out healthy and strong play has earned him the opportunity to step up in a bigger role on a competing team.
“I’ve felt more confident this whole season. The biggest thing that has made the difference compared to past seasons is my better physical condition. I had a healthy practice this summer which really gave me a good starting point for the season.
Coaching staff have encouraged us a lot to be ourselves and use our strengths which is very important, especially in our team when we have many youngsters playing their first season against men.”
Change on the ice also meant change off the ice. Reunanen, from Naantali, a seaside town just west of Turku, had spent his entire junior career with TPS so was switching organisations and locations for the first time.
“I’ve very much liked my time in Rauma. My girlfriend is living with me and we have a dog which really keeps us busy everyday. Rauma is quite small, just a little bit bigger than my home city, so it’s been very easy to fit in here.”
Reunanen led all Liiga players in average minutes per-game during January and he’s routinely skated in excess of 20 minutes as one of Lukko’s go-to defenseman this year. That kind of workload is an entirely new experience for the 20-year-old, but he’s embraced the challenge and enjoyed every second of it.
“It’s been awesome. It feels even better because we have played well as a team which is the most important thing. I think this season has been my best so far; we have a great team and we have played well which has given us a real opportunity to be successful.
One former NHL defenseman that I was lucky to play with told me, ‘Learn to play when you are tired.’ Now I really understand what that means after getting a lot of ice time. There’s many things I’ve learned this season but still so much more to learn.”
One of the key takeaways from Reunanen’s performance so far this season has been the powerplay. Primarily an offensive defenseman who likes to move the puck and create in possession, he tops all Lukko blueliners for points on the man advantage with nine. Reunanen’s shots per-game total has jumped from 1.16 to 3.36 too, something he’s conscious of.
“I think the biggest thing is that I have been more willing to take shots this season. I’ve always had a pretty good shot so I just needed to use it a lot more.
Every morning I watch recaps from the NHL games, and sometimes whole games depending on when they start. Watching the best players on the powerplay is definitely a good way to learn and take something in to my own game.”
Reunanen has spoken before about his need to be more assertive defensively. It’s his biggest area at-work, and though there has been obvious improvement at handling opposing forwards in his own zone this season, things are understandably a longer process.
“I think it’s progressing. There are still things to improve with every side of my game, but especially in defense. To get the kind of ice time I have gotten this season has forced me to defend a lot too.”
Perhaps the most apparent thing about Reunanen is that eagerness he has to constantly embrace learning opportunities and improve. After missing the Rangers’ prospect development camp in 2016 through injury, Reunanen was able to attend the following year.
“I enjoyed the experience a lot. I remember the physical and skating tests were hard, but it was good to get feedback which really helped me focus on the right things when training in Finland. To meet other prospects, staff and all the people working for the Rangers was great, but definitely the best thing was to visit Madison Square Garden. That’s the best arena in the world for sure and visiting the Rangers’ locker room pumped me up so much more.”
Reunanen trains alongside current Rangers’ goalie and former TPS teammate Alexandar Georgiev during the summer. He’s played with Patrik Virta and Lauri Pajuniemi at senior and junior level in Turku, too.
“Both of them are very good players and guys. Not just good players but also great athletes and tough guys to beat. They both love to compete, doesn’t matter if it’s a game or practice. With Georgiev we talked a lot about the Rangers and life in New York.”
Reunanen recently signed a two-year extension to his contract with Lukko. It’s not yet known what exactly the Rangers’ plan is for his short-term future, though he is staying squarely focused on what he can impact right now.
“We’ve had some contact but I’ve mostly focused on the season here in Lukko. I think that’s the right thing to focus on now. I believe if I can win a lot of games in Finland then that’s the best way to show the Rangers staff that I’m a guy who is tough to beat, a winner. After that moving to North America is possible, which is my goal and dream for sure.”