For New York Islanders prospect Aatu Räty, his lack of opportunities early on in his Liiga career saw him go from being a potential number one overall pick in 2021 to not even hearing his name called in the first round.
31 teams, some more than once, passed on the Finnish centerman before the New York Islanders took a chance on him at no. 52. Now after a team change, a stint in Bridgeport, and a dominant performance at the World Juniors, it’s not a stretch to say Aatu Räty could be the steal of that draft.
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Tiia Honkamaa, a Finnish reporter for Jatkoaika, sat down with NYI Hockey Now for an exclusive interview about Aatu Räty’s early struggles, his draft woes, his comeback story (which is still being written), and more.
Kärpät’s Handling of Räty
Aatu Räty spent two-plus seasons with Liiga’s Kärpät, whose top priority is to win championships, not cater to the prospects that will leave them for the NHL at the earliest opportunity–like most teams.
But their handling of Räty, at a critical point in his development, set him on a path for failure.
“It seems to me that they [Kärpät] kind of affected his confidence a lot,” Tiia Honkamaa said. “Aatu [Räty] said during the draft season  that he’s just like, he didn’t want to play hockey when the season started and that he was having confidence issues, and I think Kärpät played a huge part in that.”
Honkamaa shared that members of the Kärpät organization would say things to Räty like “We wouldn’t want you to end up like Puljujärvi” while the team CEO Tommi Virkkunen would tell his player that he should stay with them and develop rather than go to the NHL the first chance he got.
Jesse Puljujärvi, who was drafted fourth overall in 2015 by the Edmonton Oilers, never became the player the team expected.
Management gave Räty limited minutes in a bottom six role, telling him that he would not get opportunities despite his skill level until he worked harder.
Yet he was one of the hardest working members of the team, Tiia explained, and when you are giving something your all, and your effort is questioned, it becomes mentally grueling just to lace the skates up.
In 35 games played with Kärpät in 2020-21, his draft year, Räty only lit the lamp three times in 35 games.
Because of his lack of playing time and production, the experts started dropping his name in the 2021 pre-draft rankings, and NHL teams dropped him as well. From a potential no. one overall pick, he fell to the New York Islanders at no. 52.
Following his draft year, his 2021-22 season started off rather slowly, with just one assist in six games. It was time for a change out of Kärpät, as he just needed a new opportunity, a fresh start somewhere else.
He needed a chance.
Räty’s Loan to Jukurit
After that sluggish six games to start his 2021-22 campaign, Kärpät loaned him to Liiga’s Jukurit, a team coached by former NHLer Olli Jokinen.
Early on in his Jukurit tenure, Räty was asked about what was lacking in his game with Kärpät.
He had no answer for the media because he was never explicitly told, besides that whole “work ethic” thing.
Regarding Räty’s work ethic, former NHL and former Kärpät teammate Jussi Jokinen said that if anything, Räty worked too hard.
People say “you can never work too hard” but whether you are an athlete, a doctor, a lawyer…any job…if you work harder than you need to all the time, you are likely to increase your stress levels and eventually burn out.
Coach Olli Jokinen was honest with Räty from the get-go, instilling confidence into the confident-lacking player.
“You’re good. You’re exactly what we want in our team,” Jokinen told Räty. “We’re gonna give you a chance to play.”
Räty, prior to the start of the 2021-22 Liiga season, played well during the World Junior Summer Showcase and had turned some heads at New York Islanders training camp.
Räty’s success with Jukurit was just him continuing where he left off since being drafted by the New York Islanders.
With Jukurit, Räty played top-six minutes, which allowed him to learn and grow his game.
In 41 games with his new club, the 19-year-old Räty scored 13 goals with 27 assists in 41 games, a point shy of being a point-per-game player.
He got that chance he was looking for and made the most of it.
Räty Makes Most of Bridgeport Opportunity
Following the Jukurit campaign, Aatu Räty joined the Bridgeport Islanders, who were gearing up for a Calder Cup playoff run.
As many know, the European game is much different than the North American game, and an adjustment period is usually needed.
No one expected Räty to hit the ground running, on a new team, in a new country. But for some players, hockey is just hockey, and in a small sample size, Räty had management and the fan base ecstatic about his game and future.
Bridgeport head coach Brent Thompson penciled Räty in for the final two games of their regular season. Despite no points, he quickly earned the trust of Thompson that he could handle the North America game, as he played in all six playoff games, scoring his first North American goal with three assists.
That lone goal was a critical one for Bridgeport, as he scored the overtime winner to send Bridgeport to the second round for the first time since 2003.
Following that goal, Thompson spoke rather highly of Räty’s game.
“Well, first and foremost, (he) works extremely hard,” Thompson said. “He’s picked up our structure, and he’s been over here just over a week, and he’s picked up our structure very well. He’s physical…the awareness of guys away from the puck. He has a good stick.”
“There’s a lot of really positive things you can build or that you can talk about, and he just continues to get better and better, and I’m excited to see him, you know, two years from now playing for the Islanders.”
Although what Räty did with Jukurit before heading to Bridgeport was a good starting point for the prospect, what he did in Bridgeport in that small sample size showed that the Islanders may have something special.
Räty Excels at World Juniors
Aatu Räty was penciled in to play for Team Finland at the 2022 IIHF World Junior Championships, but COVID-19 saw the January tournament postponed. It would have been a critical moment for Räty in his development as he would be on the big stage, going up against the best of the best prospects.
Fortunately for Räty and the other players competing, the tournament was rescheduled for the summer.
Räty not only represented Finland but was their no. 1 centerman for the entire tournament, scoring three goals with seven assists in seven games. His 10 points were the fourth-most in the tournament.
Finland’s run ended with a 3-2 overtime loss to Canada in the Gold Medal game.
Finnish head coach Antti Pennanen allowed Räty to play his game, and fans got to see the abundance of tools that Räty has in his arsenal–not just his shot.
“Aatu hasn’t done some magic tricks that made him develop overnight,” his brother Aku said to Jatkoaika at the tournament. “You can tell that having confidence and getting recognition [for his game] has a huge impact on him.”
Aku Räty was a fifth-round selection by the Arizona Coyotes in the 2019 NHL Draft and has been playing with Kärpät since 2019.
While the world was shocked by Räty’s dominance, it was just another day in the office, Honkamaa said.
“Kind of the usual…he’s always been like that. Maybe I expected a little more points than what he had, but at the same time, the first line, in general, wasn’t producing as well later in the tournament as they were in the beginning and like in most of the practice games.”
Although Räty had a strong showing, he still has things to work on to get his game to that next level, the NHL level.
Despite showing off the shot, the playmaking ability, and the positioning, Tiia said that skating is something Räty needs to work on to be ready to play in the NHL.
“I would say it’s the skating, like, even he [Räty] says it’s the skating,” Tiia said after talking with him before the start of the tournament. “The difference between the NHL and Liiga is it’s bigger ice here [Finland]. So like the players usually say that you don’t have to be as fast because you get to be more tactical and all that in Liiga. Whereas in NHL, you just have to be faster and like quicker on your feet and everything.”
What’s Next for Räty?
Aatu Räty will be attending New York Islanders training camp, which kicks off Sept. 21, the next opportunity for the 19-year-old to show why the Islanders taking a flyer on him at no. 52 was the right decision.
This will be Aatu Räty’s second time at a New York Islanders training camp. He turned heads the first time, and after what he’s shown over the last year will make him a player that everyone has their eye on anytime he steps on the ice.