Aatu Räty might not be the best prospect in the Vancouver Canucks organization but he’s one of the most important.
Apart from Räty, the Canucks don’t have a single centre in their system with any certainty of making the NHL. Räty, at the age of 20, has already played in 15 NHL games and it’s fairly safe to say he will play many more.
Put it this way: he’s one of just ten players from the 2021 NHL Entry Draft to play at least ten NHL games. At the very least, barring injuries derailing his career, Räty will be an NHL forward.
But how good an NHL forward will he be? What should the Canucks and their fans expect from Räty?
Räty needs at least one more season in Abbotsford
For this next season, at least, Räty should be expected to start in the AHL. That was already likely given his need for more development but the acquisitions of Pius Suter and Teddy Blueger in free agency make it a certainty. Suter and Blueger will take the bottom-six centre positions that Räty might have been gunning for, while Nils Åman will be next on the depth chart at centre.
That’s a good thing for Räty, as he doesn’t need to be rushed to the NHL. Räty needs to work on several elements of his game, particularly his skating and his consistency from game to game. The big concern for Räty is pace of play, as he’s not the fastest skater and will need to work on puck protection and quick decision-making to make up for his lack of footspeed.
Those are things Räty can work on with the Abbotsford Canucks and their skating coach, as well as Daniel and Henrik Sedin, who are certainly examples of how to succeed in the NHL without fleet feet.
The Canucks will be looking for Räty to significantly improve upon his 27 points in 54 AHL games last season. That production isn’t exactly bad for a 20-year-old in his first season in North America, but it’s not great either.
Really, Räty’s performance in the AHL was remarkably average. Among the 42 under-21 forwards who played at least 20 games in the AHL last season, Räty was 21st in points per game — right in the middle.
Let’s be blunt: the odds of Räty becoming a top-six forward in the NHL are slim if he can’t produce like a top-six forward in the AHL, even at the age of 20. Players who score at about a half a point per game in the AHL at 20 years old are unlikely to become top-six forwards in the NHL.
There are exceptions — in fact, J.T. Miller had a similar rookie season with 23 points in 42 AHL games at the age of 20 along with a stint in the NHL — but players with Räty’s statistical profile are more likely to become bottom-six forwards.
If the Canucks are hoping that Räty can be their second-line centre in the future, he’ll need to prove himself by taking a major step offensively in the AHL next season.
Third-line centre is a reasonable expectation for Räty
A more likely outcome for Räty is becoming a third-line centre. While some Canucks fans have expressed concerns that Räty might end up on the wing, his bonafides as a centre are fairly secure. He has a solid two-way game, has improved his playmaking since he was drafted, and is already solid in the faceoff circle — he was 54.2% on 83 faceoffs in the NHL last season and won 51.1% of 756 faceoffs as a 19-year-old in the Finnish Liiga the season before.
Räty even has the ability to switch hands on his stick before a faceoff to get an advantage. Even though he’s a left-hand shot, he regularly flips his stick to win faceoffs as a rightie depending on his opponent and where he is on the ice.
Räty has many of the attributes teams are looking for in a third-line centre. He’s got big-league size at 6’2” and 190 lbs; he gets in effectively on the forecheck even if he’ll need to pick up a step in his skating to do so in the NHL; he’s got the type of work rate that can make up for choppy skating, as he generally keeps his feet moving and rarely gets caught flat-footed; and he’s got the hockey IQ to read plays both offensively and defensively and take care of the details away from the puck.
To go with those details, Räty has strong puck skills and an excellent shot that should let him chip in some secondary scoring at the NHL level, even if he’s unlikely to score like a top-six forward, particularly since he lacks the vision of a top-six playmaking centre.
Getting a solid third-line centre out of Räty would be far from a bad result but it's perhaps a tad depressing that the best centre prospect in the Canucks' system has a limited ceiling.
Then again, there's that one Liiga season
Of course, Räty can quickly change that projection with a strong performance next season. The way he produced as a 19-year-old in the Finnish Liiga suggests he has the capability for more scoring than he showed in his first season in North America. Räty had 41 points in 47 games — 40 points in 41 games if you just look at his post-trade production with Jukurit.
Räty’s 0.87 points per game in the Liiga is a higher point-per-game pace at 19 than Roope Hintz, Mikko Koivu, and Valtteri Filppula at the same age.
In fact, over the past two decades, just five 19-year-olds have scored at a higher point-per-game pace than Räty in the Liiga: Mikael Granlund, Anton Lundell, Aleksi Heponiemi, Teuvo Teravainen, and Tuomo Ruutu. If you just look at Räty’s 0.98 points per game with Jukurit, only Granlund had a higher point-per-game pace.
Generally speaking, that’s good company to be in. Teravainen has been a consistent top-six forward for the Carolina Hurricanes for years, including a career-high 76 points in 2018-19. Ruutu had 54 and 57-point seasons with the Hurricanes. The 21-year-old Lundell already has a 44-point season under his belt and just played a key role in the Florida Panthers playoff run. And Mikael Granlund has a long career as a top-six forward, with three 60+ point seasons.
The one outlier of the group is Heponiemi, who wasn’t able to stick in the NHL and is heading to Switzerland next season at the age of 24. But Heponiemi is a much smaller player with limits to his two-way game.
Perhaps, then, Räty’s limited scoring in the AHL this past season shouldn’t be a concern. It could simply be a case of Räty adapting to his new environment, especially because he bounced between the AHL and NHL and had to deal with a mid-season trade.
With that in mind, maybe expecting Räty to develop into a legitimate second-line centre isn’t unreasonable. The first step in that process will be proving he can do it in the AHL.