It’s been a few days since New York Islanders rookie and top prospect Aatu Räty skated in his first NHL game. It was a game to remember as not only did the Islanders blow out the Florida Panthers 5-1 Friday night at UBS Arena, but Räty scored his first career NHL goal.
The 20-year-old will remain in the lineup when the Islanders take on the Pittsburgh Penguins Tuesday night as he will remain as the fourth-line center with Casey Cizikas moving to the third-line winger role in the absence of Simon Holmstrom.
Following Tuesday’s morning skate, NYI Hockey Now caught up with Aatu Räty, along with a handful of his teammates and his head coach Lane Lambert to discuss what they saw from him in his NHL debut.
For Räty, the feeling of scoring an NHL goal is sinking in…slowly.
“A little bit, but it still feels surreal,” Aatu Räty said. “Now staying here, I’m going to kind of forget that and get focused on the next game.”
Räty shared with us that his mother, father, and girlfriend were actually here before he was called up, so they all got to witness his NHL debut which he describes as “really nice and really lucky.”
The young gun was all smiles and will try to build on an impressive performance.
His teammates had a tremendous amount of positive things to say about what they saw, and as you read, you will notice a common theme about what stood out.
“It was exciting. I was excited for him. Getting that goal was huge, but I thought even outside the goal he looked good…he looked comfortable,” Cory Schneider told NYI Hockey Now. “He’s always been a smart player, you know, even in Bridgeport where he knows where to be, and he’s got a good sense of where to go and anticipates on the ice like that.”
“So like I said, he didn’t even look out of place at all, and to cap it off by getting his first it’s a real big accomplishment. So we’re pretty excited for him.”
Although the NHL is getting younger, it’s still crazy to think that Räty is just 20 years old.
“I think you do forget his age a little bit. He definitely has a maturity to his game that not every 20 or 21-year-old has,” Schneider said. “He’s got a good toolkit and skill set, but I think maybe what separates him at this stage of his career is his awareness defensively. And, like you said, in this league, that’s a bit of a lost art.”
“I think especially in this organization, where they prefer guys they can trust in all scenarios and on both ends of the ice, he fits a lot of what they’re looking to do here. So I think that bodes well for him.”
For players like veteran Zach Parise, it’s fun to see youngsters get opportunities and come through.
“I thought it was exciting to see a guy score in his first game, play in his first game,” Parise told NYI Hockey Now. “I mean, we’ve all been there. We’ve all experienced that. So when you see a guy, number one, get to play between him and Parker (Wotherspoon) get to play their first games, and then with how well Parker played and then Räty scoring, it was great. It was a great start for both of them.”
“You always want someone to be able to step in right away and play, and it’s not an easy League, but I thought he looked really good out there. He looked comfortable with the puck. And it looks like he’s got some good experience down playing down in Bridgeport, and like I said, I thought he did really good for us.”
Linemate Matt Martin raved about what he saw from the young Finnish forward.
“I think his skill level is really good. And I think he’s responsible in all three zones on the ice as well,” Matt Martin said. “He’s playing center again tonight with Cizikas moving to the wings. So I mean, I think in some ways that’s a pretty good indication of what they saw from him and how responsible he is as a centerman. It’s so important in all areas of the ice to know where you need to be and especially in the defensive zone.”
“He played a great game. Happy for him to get his first goal, a beautiful goal, and now he’s gonna continue to get better, but just seeing his work ethic and his skill level and then just his hockey sense and brains for the game, it’s already NHL ready.”
That defensive aspect of his game is not something you usually see in young players, but we have seen it with Räty early on like we saw with Holmstrom.
“Yeah, you’re ahead of the curve for sure [when you are responsible defensively]. And I think these days you see so much offense, and the skill level continues to get better and better every year, but in a situation for him, where he gets called up and is now filling in Casey’s [Cizikas] role, he can do that because he’s so good defensively.”
“He’s not just looking to go one direction. Lane (Lambert) has already shown some faith in keeping him in the middle tonight, and he’s going to continue to get more and more comfortable, and his game is just going to continue to blossom […] He’s going to be a part of this organization for a long time.”
Parker Wotherspoon, who at 25 also made his NHL debut Friday night, loved what he saw from his Bridgeport teammate and now NHL teammate.
“It’s awesome. I mean, it’s great to see young guys coming from down below and scoring, and obviously, he puts in a lot of work as well and when you get opportunities and guys take the opportunity, it’s even better,” Wotherspoon told NYI Hockey Now.
Brock Nelson, who one could compare Räty’s game to, thought he looked good and played strong.
“He’s a smart player. I think he kind of slows the game down. He’s good on the puck. He’s strong on the puck, and he competes. So that’s a lot of good characteristics of a center. Obviously, he got rewarded,” Nelson said.
Head coach Lane Lambert kept it simple when asked what stood out about Räty’s game Friday:
“Just that he plays a good 200-foot game,” Lane Lambert said. “He’s on pucks, and he’s thinking about both sides of the game, and is responsible defensively.”