2021 NHL Entry Draft Prospect Profile: Aatu Räty

Once considered a possible 1st-overall pick in this draft, the Finnish center is now one of this crop’s biggest wildcards

Name: Aatu Räty

Team: Kärpät (Liiga)

Position: Center/Left wing

Stats: 35 games played, 3 goals, 3 assists, 6 points, 18 PIMs, 0 plus/minus rating

NHL Central Scouting ranking: 3rd (European skaters)

Comparable NHL players: Filip Chytil / Alex Wennberg

Link to Räty’s Elite Prospects page

Don’t trust any scout who tells you they are comfortable or confident in their projection of Finnish center rAatu Räty.

By now, anyone who follows the annual NHL entry draft closely knows Räty’s story. At the start of this past season he was considered a front-runner — and in some circles the front-runner — to go 1st overall in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. But almost as soon as skates started hitting the ice again Räty’s play seemed to stall. He struggled to find a consistent role in Finland’s top professional league, he was sent down for a spell to Kärpät’s youth squad in the country’s top junior league, he was shockingly left off of their roster for the World Juniors in spite of making the team the year before as a 17-year-old, and then got called back up to the Liiga, where he rode out the remainder of the season.

Where does that leave Räty now? Well... that’s the million-dollar question, really.

There is no denying that Räty has an impressive set of hockey tools. He’s a big body who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, allowing him to win a lot of puck battles in the corners and along the boards, both in the offensive zone and the defensive zone. He also owns an incredibly soft pair of mitts, allowing him to quickly corral bouncing pucks, slide the puck around or through traffic, or make a few slick moves to deceive opposing defenders about what he’s going to do with the rubber. His playmaking is also pretty sharp, and he can make beautiful passes really well on his backhand. He’s not an especially fast or agile skater, but he has power in his lower body that helps him fight through checks, including widening his stance when handling the puck so that he doesn’t get knocked off balance. And when he’s playing at his absolute best there is a dedicated intensity to his game, as he’ll buzz around the ice with pace trying to create something offensively or wreak a bit of havoc defensively.

Speaking of defensive play, it’s also worth mentioning how much that has come along for Räty. Kärpät had a deep forward group in 2020-21 and he wasn’t going to play in the Top 6 or on the powerplay, so he had to improve his defending to carve out a constant role in the Bottom 6, which he did. By the end of the season he showed some solid defensive awareness overall, regularly getting back deep into his own zone in support, which is a crucial attribute for any prospect who wants to play center at higher levels.

So, with all of these good attributes to speak of, where do things start to fall apart with Räty?

The first area is that he can make some truly, utterly baffling decisions at times, especially when he has the puck. And that’s obviously a big problem, because Räty’s primary upside as a prospect revolves around what he can do when the puck is on his stick. For someone who needs to be driving play and making plays, turnovers like the ones clipped below are quite common, and that’s a serious cause for concern.

Another area of concern revolves around basic production numbers. Simply put, you want to see good statistical output out of any forward who is projected to be a big offensive contributor at higher levels, and that isn’t always the case with Räty. In his first season in Finland’s top under-20 league he recorded 17 goals and 31 points in 41 games, which is great for a 16-year-old, but in the next season he only produced two goals and 21 points in 30 games, which is a reduction in point-per-game average. It is incredibly concerning to see a drop in scoring like that from a developing prospect, especially one who was being benefitted by experience with Finland’s national program and time in the Liiga.

The disappearance of goals is especially baffling, since Räty is a pretty good shooter and he has the tools required to get himself into prime scoring areas. How does someone with his size and puck skill struggle to score a bunch of garbage goals, at the bare minimum, in a junior league? If a prospect should be scoring goals at will but simply isn’t, well, it’s hard to not be concerned by that.

Something that is worth mentioning, in Räty’s defense, is that it’s not easy being a teenage hockey player under a lot of pressure. The Athletic’s Scott Wheeler did an excellent profile on the young Finn and mentioned how the expectations of being a possible 1st-overall pick might have had a negative impact on him on his performance, and how he is finding his joy for the game again. Sometimes trying to do too much, being too serious and being too hard on yourself can produce worse results than going with the flow, playing within yourself and letting the game come to you.

What happens next with Räty will be one the more interesting storylines of the 2021 draft. It wouldn’t be a surprise if one team loved him and was willing to pick him in the Top 10 because they strongly believe in their ability to develop him, but it also wouldn’t be a huge surprise if he were to fall out of the first round altogether. However, with the tools at his disposal and the amount of hockey left in his career, his story is far from being complete.