The first round of the 2021 NHL Draft will take place on July 23. Following the results of the draft lottery, the Flames hold the 12th overall selection and will have a chance to add a high-end prospect to their organization.
Once considered a front-runner to be the top selection in this year’s draft, Aatu Räty has faced some challenges over his past two seasons in Finland but still looks like a safe bet to go in the first round.
Räty is a 6’1″, 181-pound centre who has spent his developmental years playing for Kärpät at various levels in Finnish hockey. He dominated Finland’s U-18 level at age 15 in 2018 before spending parts of two seasons playing for U-20 Kärpät in the junior SM-Liiga.
2019–20 was a challenging campaign for the 16-year-old Räty. He split the season between the U-20 level and the top-level professional Liiga but faltered in both. While he earned a berth on Finland’s team at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship, Räty’s struggles still weighed on him as the year progressed.
In a profile written for The Athletic on Jun. 2 (paywall), Scott Wheeler described how Räty’s tumultuous 2019–20 season negatively affected the Finnish prospect’s mental well-being.
…after a season of bouncing between junior and pro, and appearing for Finland at the under-20 world juniors, the discussion began to slowly shift, the pressure began to mount and his play at both levels suffered.
In time, as the 2019-20 season neared its unanticipated shutdown due to the pandemic, Räty had begun to feel like he was losing himself.
“Last spring, it wasn’t easy for him,” [Räty’s agent Mika Backman] said. “He was the youngest player in the whole world juniors and then after the tournament Kärpät put him to play with the juniors and he tried to work harder and harder, and I think he even practiced too hard. I think he pushed too hard. The joy, he lost it.”
In the midst of another tough season, Räty was somewhat surprisingly left off Finland’s roster for the 2021 World Juniors. Perhaps galvanized by the snub, Räty responded with a much stronger second half to the 2020–21 campaign; Marco Bombino described Räty’s resurgence in his prospect profile for McKeen’s Magazine (paywall).
Aatu Raty’s start to the season was somewhat underwhelming. He struggled to make an impact with Karpat U20 and there were some other players on the team who generated offense on a more consistent basis. Additionally, he was surprisingly left off the Finnish World Juniors roster. But since the turn of the year, he has looked more like his usual self in the Liiga, playing with and against older players in a competitive professional league.
Despite having ups and downs in his season thus far, Raty remains the top NHL Draft eligible Finnish prospect in my book. There are many other interesting Finns with traits that NHL teams look for, but I do not think any of them are particularly close to Raty in terms of pure talent and long term potential.
Räty (pronounced RAH-too, with a rolled R) possesses a wide variety of positive attributes. He earned strong grades across the board from Bombino but fared best in the “skills” category:
Räty has some fairly dynamic elements and makes things happen with his individual play. He can carry the puck through the middle of the ice in order to generate effective offensive zone entries – if he sees open ice available, he will take it. His stickhandling ability is very good. He is capable of stickhandling through multiple opponents and making plays with limited time and space. He has quick hands and he can catch defenders off guard by attacking to the middle from the wall. He also protects the puck well with his body and he is effective on the cycle.
Every NHL Draft has at least one prospect who earns the “boom or bust” moniker. Depending on his floor, Räty may well be that player for 2021. He still carries first-line centre upside but some of his recent production has dramatically impacted his stock.
Räty made his debut in the Finnish U-18 league late in his age-14 season and quickly emerged as a top-level contributor. He played six games with U-18 Kärpät to close out the 2017–18 campaign, recording nine points (one goal, eight assists).
He played six more games with U-18 Kärpät to kick off 2018–19 and found another level, scoring 10 goals and 18 points at the mere age of 15. Kärpät subsequently promoted Räty to their U-20 team, after which he finished with 17 goals and 31 points in 41 games.
Räty’s 2018–19 campaign stands as one of the greatest seasons by a U-16 player in the history of the U-20 league. Only Patrik Laine has ever scored more points at that age, recording 26 goals and 37 points in 40 games during the 2013–14 season. The age-15 seasons put forth by Jesse Puljujärvi, Aleksander Barkov, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi all bear resemblances to Räty’s debut go-round with U-20 Kärpät.
Something changed in 2019–20. Räty scored just two goals in 30 games in the U-20 league, taking 65 shots and adding 19 assists along the way. Räty’s dismal 3.08 shooting percentage was the worst of any forward on his team; still, per Pick224, Kärpät outscored its opponents by a 29-13 margin during Räty’s shifts at even-strength (good enough to give him a +6.41 relative on-ice goals-for percentage, fifth-best on the team).
Räty played his first 12 professional games in the Liiga with Kärpat in 2019–20, scoring four points (two goals, two assists) in 12 games. He played 35 more Liiga games in 2020–21, recording three goals and six points; Kärpät tied its opponents 9-9 during Räty’s shifts at even strength, giving him a +0.55 relative on-ice goals-for percentage.
He took 50 shots in those 35 Liiga games and converted at a 6.0% rate. Räty added eight more U-20 games with Kärpät in 2020–21 and managed to rebound at that level, scoring seven points (three goals, four assists) and taking 21 shots.
Availability and fit
The Flames certainly need more centres.
Elias Lindholm is the de facto number-one centre but lacks the elite upside of many of his counterparts; Sean Monahan has struggled with injury problems and declining production for the last few seasons; Mikael Backlund is on the wrong side of 30 with three expensive years still looming on his contract; Derek Ryan is an unrestricted free agent and is even older than Backlund.
Are the Flames prepared to take a swing on Räty? His production in the 2018–19 season indicates he has special upside, but how will his game translate to the North American stage? Have Räty’s struggles taught him how to deal with adversity at the professional level?
There should be a few centres available to the Flames at the 12 spot. Räty might have the highest ceiling out of them all. He also carries the most question marks.
Räty is ranked at the following positions by these publications and scouting services:
McKeen’s Hockey — 12th
Future Considerations — 19th
Sportsnet (Sam Cosentino) — 14th
Dobber Prospects — 11th
TSN (Bob McKenzie) — 20th
Draft Prospects Hockey — 11th
NHL Central Scouting (European Skaters) — 3rd
Recruit Scouting — 13th
EliteProspects.com — 20th
Smaht Scouting — 9th