July 14, 2010
The Brandon Wheat Kings were willing to leave a light on for Toni Rajala.
The chain of events — Brandon made just one import pick last month prior to the announcement the Edmonton Oilers were loaning Rajala to Ilves Tampere, so the 19-year-old centre could perform his compulsory military service in Finland — might make one think the Western Hockey League club was were caught off-guard. Brandon coach-GM-owner Kelly McCrimmon said that was not the case.
"We knew it was a possibility with Toni going into the import draft," said McCrimmon. "We thought if there was any chance of Toni returning, we would take that chance and keep an import spot open. We discussed it at the end of the year when Toni was going home, we talked with his agents."
"The unfortunate part for us was everyone felt this was right place for him to play this year. But if you look at it from the big-picture standpoint, he didn't want to impact his chances of coming over to North America in a later season and perhaps miss an opportunity to play professionally in the Oiler orgnaization."
Under Finnish law, all males over 18 are required to do a six-, nine- or 12-month stint in the military at some point. The Winnipeg Jets famously had to wait on future Hall of Famer Teemu Selänne.
Rajala, a fourth-round selection by the Oilers in 2009, helped the tourney host Wheat Kings reach the MasterCard Memorial Cup final last season.
He averaged just more than a point per game in the regular season (63 in 60 games), but came on strong in the post-season. His playmaking helped set up the first and last Wheat Kings goals in their 5-4 comeback overtime win over rival Calgary in the Memorial Cup semifinal.
"Toni's an excellent person," McCrimmon said. "He was really well-liked and I thought he had a great year of development, especially after having the start of his season delayed by a knee injury. He had a good second half and took a big step in the playoffs ... Edmonton was really pleased and so were his agents."
Like a lot of teams coming off hosting the Memorial Cup, the Wheat Kings figure to have a different look.
Nineteen-year-old forwards Scott Glennie (Dallas Stars) and Brayden Schenn (Los Angeles Kings) have signed their entry-level NHL deals, sparking talk of early exits. Overage scorers Matt Calvert, Aaron Lewadniuk and Jay Fehr are also moving on, along with New York Islanders prospect Travis Hamonic and New Jersey Devils selection Alexander Urbon on the back end.
"What type of team we are, it'll depend on the fate of Schenn and Glennie," McCrimmon said. "[Former North Dakota forward] David Toews [brother of Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews], we're working on getting him to Brandon.
"The makeup of your team is going to be younger, but I liken it to three years ago [2007-0]. We were much younger then than we are going to be this year, with Schenn, Calvert and Glennie in their rookie years. And we finished with 90 points. So it'll play out as we see what players we get back."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Sports Canada. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.