It’s been an incredible year for Matias Rajaniemi. The 18-year-old Finnish defender was drafted in the sixth round by the New York Islanders in October and then won a bronze medal with Finland at the World Junior Championships this January.
Now that he’s back in Finland after leaving the WJC bubble in Edmonton, the 6’4″ 202lbs defenseman has consistently hit the score sheet for Liiga side Lahti. He registered his first goal on his first game back from the WJC and went on a three-game point streak.
I caught up with the Islanders prospect to talk about the draft, his performance at the World Juniors, and what is going on now that he’s back in Finland.
New York Islanders prospect Matias Rajaniemi on draft, WJC, and 2021 season
Rajaniemi was a late selection in 2020. The Islanders selected him in the sixth round (183rd overall). When I spoke to Henrik Tikkanen, the Isles seventh-round pick in 2020 told me he was surprised that he was selected. I wondered if Rajaniemi had the same thought. He didn’t.
In fact, the Isles were one of a few teams to check in with him leading up to the draft, which was a pretty clear sign to him.
"Rajaniemi: They [the Islanders] actually called me a couple days before the draft so that was kind of a sign that they could be interested.Me: Did you have a lot of teams contact you before the draft like the Isles did ?Rajaniemi: Not before the draft, but maybe like ten teams contacted me."
Since being drafted, Rajaniemi has not only played a big part in the Lahti Pelicans sitting second in the Liiga but was the seventh d-man for Finland as they captured the bronze medal at the World Junior Championships in Edmonton.
He didn’t get a ton of ice-time (37:32) over six games, but in that limited role, he performed well, finishing with a +2 rating. Throughout the tournament, Finland’s d-coach constantly talked up the blueliner from Lahti, so I wanted to know how Matias saw his role on the team and if he was surprised to make the squad.
"It was unbelievable [winning bronze]. The team came closer and closer and we got better and better leading up to the bronze medal. It was a great experience for me. Of course it wasn’t easy when you’re not getting shifts. It’s hard. You just try to focus on the game and when you get on the ice you have to be ready and show your best.[On making the team] Not really a surprise. I knew that I had pretty good chance. In Finland there aren’t too many big defensemen who can skate well and play with the puck. And before the torunament we had a couple of camps that went really well."
Since returning to Finland from the Edmonton bubble, Rajaniemi has stepped up his offensive game (something he told me he’s working on this year). Since January 14th he’s scored three points over his last four games. That includes a three-game point streak where the 18-year-old scored his first goal at the Liiga level.
If you look at his ice-time you’ll notice that it’s gone up since his return. Prior to the World Juniors Rajaniemi was on the ice for nine to ten minutes a night. Now he’s averaging over 16 minutes a game. So what happened? Why the sudden increase in production and ice-time?
"[On production] I think I get more ice time but I think I was more confident after the World Juniors. When I get outside of the (Liiga) environment I think that helps too. I get a different type of game than Liiga games.[On ice-time]: Well there was a couple of defensemen who left for North America and because they left now there is more space for me now."
Want your voice heard? Join the Eyes On Isles team!
So far so good from the sixth-round pick. He’s gotta bronze medal now and he’s getting more ice-time in one of the top pro leagues in the world. Who knows if he’ll make the jump to the NHL at some point, but you have to like how his development is going since being selected 183rd overall just a few months ago.