There's falling in the draft and then there is what happened to Aatu Räty one year ago.
Players projected, at any point, to be the No. 1 selection slip out of the Top 10, perhaps drop to the end of the first round. They aren't still available at No. 52 when the Islanders were on the Board for the first time in 2021.
At one point viewed as a consensus Top-3 pick and the No. 1 European prospect by NHL director of European Scouting, Goran Stubb, Raty was the 18th International prospect selected at the 2021 draft. The fall followed what can be gently described as a difficult season playing for Oulun Kärpät, one of the perennial better teams in the Finnish League.
He scored just six points (3G, 3A) in 35 games while averaging just 11:38 playing as an 18-year-old for a Karpat team that surprisingly struggled. Raty's game had taken such a step backward that he missed the cut at the World Juniors a year after making the team at 17.
"He's unbelievable with the puck, has got great hands ... his playmaking is unbelievable. I believe last year he really didn't get the opportunity. But for real, he should have gone in the top 10 of this draft. I mean, he's an unbelievable player who just didn't get the opportunity last year."- Finnish prospect Brad Lambert in 2021
The skills that make you a consensus top pick don't diminish but they can go dormant. Whether it was the pressure of expectations, the lack of opportunity, or missing the joy of playing that's what happened to Raty. The same projections that ascended Raty up draft boards, sent him free-falling down after scouts watched a player suffering a crisis of confidence amid his first taste of adversity.
The expectations associated with being a top-pick subsided, but Raty now carried the moniker of "steal" for an Islanders organization that did not have a first-round pick in 2021 and had a prospect pool lacking high-end offensive talent.
At training camp in September, Raty created a buzz with his ability to play a North American style, showcasing poise, positioning, and the ability to win puck battles. Raty's week-long cameo stateside left a positive impression on teammates and the coaching staff.
"I've been extremely impressed with the player to this point. [He's] quite mature. Has lots of game, high hockey IQ, he reminds me of a Zach Parise-type of player. He's got a really good motor, always around the net, very intelligent, wins his puck battles, has really good hands. What a great pick by our scouts. Personally, there's certain kids that you get really excited with when they show up at camp. A lot of times we get a kid at camp, we get excited, but we go, 'He has this hole and this hole. We're going to have to work on this.' But there's not that many holes in his game really."- Former Isles HC Barry Trotz
BACK TO LIIGA
The start of Finland's Liiga season resembled the previous one. Raty saw sparse playing time in the first six games, collecting only an assist. But then in October, a new team offered a chance for a fresh start as Raty traded from Karpat to Jukurit, where he was coached by former Islanders forward Olli Jokinen.
Jokinen referred to Raty as a "super talented" player that would fill a need down the middle for his team. In 41 games with Jukurit, Raty scored 13 goals and added 27 assists, rediscovering the form that had him shoot up draft boards in 2019.
His performance secured his position as the Islanders most intriguing prospect as he readied himself for a brief stint in the AHL before year's send.
A TASTE OF BRIDGEPORT
Soon after the conclusion of the Liiga playoffs, Raty returned to North America and played in the Bridgeport Islanders final two games of the regular season as the AHL affiliate primed for the playoffs. In those two games, despite no points, he demonstrated a confident offensive game that created scoring chances for his line.
Both games of the first-round playoff matchup against Providence went to overtime and Raty played a part in each game-winning goal. In Game 1, he collected his first AHL point, winning an offensive zone draw that led to Arnaud Durandeau's GWG. Then, in Game Two, Raty scored his first AHL goal sending Bridgeport to the next round.
"He had a very good training camp. And I think that start of, you know, getting to know him and feeling good about where he was at as far as the young player, and I think his experience this year in Finland really Jukurit in what they did with that team, getting into the playoffs. He was another one who was in position of playing playoff hockey before the regular season ended. "- Bridgeport GM Chris Lamoriello
Expectations for Raty have changed but remain high in a different way following the twist and turns of the 2021-22 season. He is widely-regarded as the Islanders prospect top prospect with William Dufour not far behind. Both are expected to be with Bridgeport to start the year with Raty having a chance to push for an NHL roster spot at some point depending on the Islanders' health, his performance, and team needs.
For an Islanders organization with an aging forward group, an influx of young cost-effective offensive talent will be, if it isn't already, necessary for the roster to turnover in the years to come. The fall of Raty afforded to the Islanders the chance to be the beneficiaries of his ascent.