Why Maple Leafs prospect Eemeli Rasanen is off to the KHL

Eemeli Rasanen, of the Kingston Frontenacs. (Aaron Bell/OHL Images)

TORONTO – For six months, Eemeli Rasanen has known he would be leaving the Ontario Hockey League in search of tougher competition.

“I need harder games than junior,” the towering Toronto Maple Leafs prospect said Tuesday at development camp.

“That’s what I decided after Christmas. I want to go pro. I didn’t know then where I wanted to go, but then I decided the KHL must be the best for me.”

After two years patrolling the Kingston Frontenacs’ blue line, the Finnish-born Rasanen is jetting back across the Atlantic for the next stage of his development, inking a two-year pact with Helsinki-based Jokerit.

What lured Rasanen back home is head coach Lauri Marjamaki. Jokerit’s decorated new bench boss most recently guided the national team at the world championships and has rapidly gained a reputation for molding Finnish prospects into NHLers.

Marjamaki had a hand in the development of Edmonton’s Jesse Puljujarvi, Carolina’s Sebastian Aho and Nashville’s Eeli Tolvanen. Rasanen picked his peers’ brains before making his decision.

“I’ve heard only good things about him and feel he likes younger players,” Rasanen said. “It’s a great opportunity for me.”

The move also buys the Maple Leafs time as they decide whether to sign their 2017 second-round pick to an entry-level deal.

“He’ll need to continue working on his development there, and we’ll be there to support him in his individual process,” said Leafs director of player development Scott Pellerin.

For a 19-year-old, Rasanen already possesses a decidedly adult build (six-foot-seven, 226 pounds) and a mean streak.

Although his production (five goals, 33 points in 61 games) as a sophomore in Kingston nearly mirrored his rookie numbers (39 points in 66 games), Rasanen pumped his plus/minus from a dash-7 to a plus-16.

Given top-pair, shutdown minutes from the beginning of the season, his defensive game improved and he simply felt more comfortable in Canada.

“I was top-one or top-two D-man. That was a position, honestly, I’ve never been before,” Rasanen said. “I was always under that.”

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The rugged defenceman’s primary intent this summer is to increase his speed. No more skipping leg day.

Once the Frontenacs were eliminated from the playoffs this spring, Rasanen was invited to practice with the AHL Marlies during their run to the Calder Cup championship.

Running drills alongside the Marlies opened the teenager’s eyes to the quality of play and devotion to fitness necessary at the pro level.

“I was happy I decided to go there and not go right home after the season,” Rasanen said. “That experience was great, for sure.”

The biggest takeaway from those practices, both for Rasanen and Leafs fans?

“I don’t think I’m really far from there,” he smiled.

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