Exceptional athletic abilities don’t make hockey players immune to the difficulties faced by regular people.
Pressure and expectations can get to anyone, and that appears to be what happened with Aatu Räty.
Pegged as a favourite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NHL Draft as early as 2019, Räty struggled to live up to the billing this season in Finland and missed the cut for the world juniors — a year after cracking the squad as a 17-year-old — causing his stock to plunge.
Many mock drafts now expect him to go outside the top 15, and in Sam Cosentino's latest rankings for Sportsnet, he had Raty ranked 26th.
Despite his rough year, the skills that made Räty a prospective top selection remain and it looks as though his confidence is on the rebound.
Here’s a closer look at the talented Finn’s difficult 2020-21 campaign and what made him such an intriguing prospect in the first place:
Team: Oulun Kärpät (Liiga)
Age: 18 (born Nov. 14, 2002)
From: Oulu, Finland
Weight: 185 pounds
He ‘lost’ the joy to play
To get a sense of Räty’s fall, you have to appreciate his ascent.
At just 15, the playmaking centre was dominating the country’s under-18 level with his hometown Kärpät team, where he put up 27 points in 12 games across the end of the 2017-18 season and the start of 2018-19. Then he was bumped up to Finland’s top U20 league, where he continued to impress with 31 points in 41 games.
He appeared to continue on an upward trajectory the following season, suiting up for 12 games with the big club, where he added four points, and recorded three points in seven games for Finland at the world juniors. But after his return from the tournament, the decision was made to keep him with the U20 squad and Räty felt increased pressure to find his way back to the Liiga.
It was this pressure that caused his love for hockey to wane that off-season, as detailed in this feature by The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler.
“Last spring, it wasn’t easy for him,” his agent Mika Backman told Wheeler.
“He was the youngest player in the whole world juniors and then after the tournament Kärpät put him to play with the juniors and he tried to work harder and harder, and I think he even practiced too hard. I think he pushed too hard. The joy, he lost it.”
These feelings lingered through the summer and into his draft year, affecting his play on the ice as he tried to lock down a permanent role with Kärpät. It was a struggle. Räty sat out games and recorded just three points in 11 contests, appearing to lack confidence, while logging limited ice time, before getting sent back down.
The tough start ultimately cost him another shot with Finland at the world juniors, despite his play at the tournament as an underager the year prior.
“I wasn’t happy about not making it,” Räty told The Athletic. “I know that I didn’t play as well as I should have at the start of the season but I also didn’t get the chance to play almost at all. I played like 10 minutes a game and only every other game. So I basically knew that I wasn’t going to be selected, not because of the skill level but because I just hadn’t had enough games.”
But his fortunes took a turn for the better in December. Räty returned to Kärpät’s Liiga team, carving out a regular role with the club for the rest of the season, and he finished with six points in 35 games.
“He’s definitely headed in the right direction now and I mean, he’s a good-sized centre and that’s tough to find in Finland. He can battle with his size and in tight positions he’s good, and he can shoot fairly good. I wouldn’t say it’s the best but it’s still good,” Kärpät team president Tommi Virkkunen said, per Wheeler.
What to make of his projection?
While Räty didn’t have the year many evaluators expected, Dan Marr, director of NHL Central Scouting, said the two-way centre remains highly rated, but it’s simply a case of similarly talented players showing more development and moving ahead of him.
“Going into the season the expectations were high, and this is what happens when you have an A-rated prospect who really performed well as an underager and both him and the team struggled during the regular season, and the fact that he didn't get selected for the world juniors — if he wasn't feeling that good, then I'm sure that didn't make him feel any better,” he said.
“So this is probably a year where he had to learn a lot about himself as far as how to handle that type of adversity, how to motivate yourself to stay in the game. But his role on the Kärpät team, it wasn't a role in which he could go out and contribute consistently, he had a small-time role.”
Given those factors, Räty was still third among European skaters in Central Scouting’s final rankings for the 2021 NHL Draft.
“When you have a prospect who showed you his skill set, his smarts, his NHL attributes as an underager, and he did it consistently for a full year playing above his age with different peer groups, you can’t fake that,” said Marr, admitting Central Scouting has the luxury of simply focusing on potential, absent the risk faced by teams who have to draft the players.
“In life, things happen as you grow and develop, so things have happened here that have affected his development this year, but we don't let that affect the projection.”
Marr said Räty’s ups and downs heading into the draft are reminiscent of those faced by Jacob Chychrun.
After thriving as an underager, Chychrun was pegged as the potential No. 2 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft behind Auston Matthews — and ahead of the likes of Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi, Matthew Tkachuk and Pierre-Luc Dubois — but off-season shoulder surgery, confidence issues and the burden of expectations dragged down his play. NHL Central Scouting kept him as the fourth best North American skater in its final rankings, but he fell to the Arizona Coyotes at pick 16 (!) in the draft.
Chychrun has since blossomed into one of top defencemen in the NHL.
‘We know what he can do’
Chychrun’s draft year is a cautionary tale for NHL GMs who have second thoughts about Räty’s 2020-21 season.
Because when he’s confident and on his game, the six-foot-two, 185-pound pivot is still a talented playmaking centre.
“We know what he can do — we've seen it, and just because circumstances this year didn't allow for him to shine, that doesn't diminish what he brings to the table,” said Marr.
“He still has the puck skills, he's still a strong skater, he competes and he works harder than anybody. He has the tools, the energy and the work ethic, he just didn't play up to his potential this year.”