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Why Lauri Pajuniemi needs another year in Liiga

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Pajuniemi has a big shot, but the rest of his game needs polish

IHOCKEY-GAMES-FIN-CZE Photo by ERIK SIMANDER/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images

Two years ago, there wasn’t a ton of buzz surrounding forward Lauri Pajuniemi when the New York Rangers selected him 132nd overall in the 2018 Draft. He was considered a good skater with the potential to be a playmaker, but altogether unrefined. After finishing the 2018-19 season with 13 points in 44 games with TPS in Liiga, Pajuniemi’s production skyrocketed to 26 goals and 40 points in 49 games this past year. So, there’s plenty of buzz now.

However, there’s evidence that Pajuniemi is not ready for the NHL and both he and the Rangers know it. As tantalizing as the Finnish winger’s release is, there’s work to be done on his play off the puck.

Last month, Pajuniemi told Markku Silvennoinen for TPS’s team site that the Rangers wanted him to stay in Liiga for another year instead of coming to North America and developing in the AHL. He also shared some notes he received about his game from visiting Rangers scouts.

“The matter became clearer when we played against IFK in Helsinki and the New York Rangers scouts were present,” Pajuniemi said. “I scored a goal, but after the game they said they noticed right away that after playing the goal, there was a sigh of satisfaction. I didn’t go to the finish line so much after that and played for sure. They said you have to try even harder after the goal. One should want to make it a second goal and even a third goal.”

And score he did.

Pajuniemi finished the 2019-20 season tied for third in Liiga in goals despite playing on a TPS team that finished out of the playoffs. One reason to be skeptical about his ability to translate that scoring touch to the NHL (or the AHL) is 13 of his 26 goals were scored on the power play, many off one-timers from the circle.

Any goal looks better when scored while wearing a shiny gold helmet

In an interview in May with Lohud, Rangers Assistant General Manager Chris Drury noted that the Rangers drafted Pajuniemi in part because of his shot but that, “There are very few — if any — guys that just play the power play, or just go to a certain spot and wait for the puck to get fed to them.”

Tomi Kallio, general manager of TPS, told Lohud that his team’s top power-play unit was designed specifically to create shooting opportunities for Pajuniemi. This is not only evidenced by the winger’s team-leading 13 goals on the power play, but also his 5.14 SOG/GP. That’s a blistering shooting pace for a player averaging 15:25 TOI/GP — fifth among TPS’s forwards.

Anyone who takes the time to watch a Pajuniemi highlight reel from the 2019-20 season will notice that a lot his goals look similar, which is why there are valid questions about whether or not he can create his own chances on a North American ice surface and develop into a more complete two-way player. There’s no question that Pajuniemi is an exceptional, albeit one-dimensional player in Liiga — his 51.3 score-adjusted CF% was the best on TPS — but he needs more time in the oven before he tests himself in North America.

The Rangers scouting department definitely did their homework before they grabbed Pajuniemi in the fifth round. He’s an intriguing prospect who could develop into a third-line scoring threat if everything goes well, but there are a lot of things that must go well. He won’t develop into the more complete player the Rangers need him to be unless he gets more even strength minutes with TPS. Hopefully his call-up to the Finnish national team and breakout 2019-20 campaign spurs head coach Reimo Helminen to trust Pajuniemi with a bigger role — particularly at even strength — in his age 21 season.

Note: quotes translated through Google.

Data courtesy of liiga.fi and pick224.com