Lauri Pajuniemi, the 20-year old winger has his sights set on the NHL but understands it takes time. Time is something the Rangers and Pajuniemi have at the moment. I reached out to Lauri to catch up with him on his breakout season, his national team debut and his military service. Most importantly we discussed his future with the Rangers and where it stands at the moment.
Rangers want Pajuniemi to spend another season in Liiga
Rangers management has indicated they want him to stay in Finland for another year when discussing Pajuniemi’s future with him. “We agree that (another year in Liiga) is the best for my development”, Pajuniemi added.
With two years of exclusive NHL rights remaining (drafted in 2018, 18- and 19-year old players drafted out of Europe have their rights retained for 4 full years), the Rangers are in no hurry to sign Pajuniemi to his ELC. With the way the team is structured, it would be wise for Gorton to spread out the contract extensions, sign Pajuniemi in 2021, and loan him to TPS for another year. That is exactly what they did with Jesper Fast.
Expectations for Pajuniemi this upcoming season will be high coming off his best season ever. With the off-season preparations starting soon, Pajuniemi will be switching between military service and training camp with TPS. There’s no doubt he will be ready to take the next steps.
On Being Drafted by the Rangers
Growing up in Turku, Finland, Lauri Pajuniemi started playing hockey at age 6. His dream to one day play in the NHL seemed far away at age 17, being eligible for the 2017 NHL draft for the first time he was not selected. The following summer he made the trip to Dallas and the Rangers picked the winger with their 5th round selection. “Being drafted meant so much for me. I will remember that day for the rest of my life for sure. The jersey I got at the draft means a lot to me and it’s at my parents’ home hanging on the wall“, Pajuniemi said about the experience.
Before this season started, a lot of fans never heard of Pajuniemi. He wasn’t really making a case for himself in his first season after being drafted but that all changed in 2019. As we know, Kaapo Kakko was drafted by the Rangers and moved to North America which opened a spot for Pajuniemi in the top-6 and on the powerplay. He made the most of that opportunity, scoring 26 goals in 49 games, 3rd most in the league and the most by a TPS player since Tony Virta in 2000-01, 19 years earlier.
The fans who watched some TPS games or highlights may have noticed Pajuniemi wearing a different helmet. In Liiga, each player who leads his team in scoring is wearing a Golden Helmet, or “Kultainen kypärä”. Pajuniemi was that player for TPS and it’s a huge honor for players to be allowed to wear it. Pajuniemi himself sees it as another sign of a good season. “It is a great honor and I am proud to wear it every time it is given to me. It means a lot to players“, Pajuniemi explained. He finished the season with a 0.53 goals/game average, the highest by an u21 player since 2000, edging out Kakko who finished at 0.49 the season prior. He also scored a goal in the Spengler Cup.
National team call up
His performance did not go unnoticed and earlier this year he received a phone call from Finland’s head coach Jukka Jalonen. “He called me and first I thought it was a joke. I was so happy to be able to represent my country. It was a fast game and unfortunately I left the game early with a shoulder injury, but it was a great experience“. Pajuniemi ended up playing 3 games in total and he looks back on it with a smile despite the injury.
Pajuniemi became the 3rd Rangers prospect in 12 months to earn a call up for the Finnish national team. Joining former TPS teammate Tarmo Reunanen on the national team, Pajuniemi at least had a familiar face around. “I still talk to Tarmo often, same with Kaapo“, Pajuniemi said. His goal was of course to play in the IIHF World Championships but due to the global pandemic, that was not possible. Both the Carlson Games in the Czech Republic and the subsequent global tournament in Switzerland were canceled.
Rangers prospect Lauri Pajuniemi has swapped his black outfit for a green one (temporarily). The 20-year old winger started his military training two months ago at the Santahamina barracks, situated on an island off the coast of Helsinki.
Last month, he had a short break and traveled back to Turku where he continued to train and get in shape for the new season. “It is good to be in the army now, so you can focus on the essentials again in the autumn”, said Pajuniemi. The food isn’t great, he said. But it could be worse, said the winger in an interview with his team. The pandemic has also affected life in Finland. “You can’t do anything,” he told me. “Everything is closed”.
The young scorer is finding ways to keep busy. “I started training again directly after the season ended. I took 1 week off. There are a lot of other Liiga players doing their military service with me so we can do some stuff together – keeping our distances of course,” Pajuniemi continued about his experience in the army. “It gives it a competitive aspect a bit. The facilities in the military are very good for professional athletes to train. We can do stuff every day. But in general I‘ve been doing the same things as in previous years.”
Military service in Finland is a minimum of 6 months but can be split up into smaller portions. A lot of NHL players have done so in the past, including Erik Haula, Sebastian Aho, Antti Raanta, Mikko Koivu and Sasha Barkov. They have until the age of 28 years to start their military service.
Pajuniemi isn’t alone during his military service, as a lot of Liiga players opt to complete their service during the off-season. Lauri Pajuniemi mentioned this as well. “There are a lot of Liiga players doing their military service with me so we do some stuff together. I was able to join the Sports Corps with them, which enables us to practice a lot during the service. I still have a couple of months left“, he added. With Pajuniemi being a sniper on the ice, he should get through his service with little difficulty.
Lauri Pajuniemi #48
If Pajuniemi makes it to the NHL one day, the number he prefers is 48 if it’s available. It was given to him by TPS and has grown on him. “When I was little, I used to play with number 12 since I have my birthday on that day. Number 48 doesn’t actually mean anything, I got that number right away when I started playing at the Finnish Elite League. I’ve started to like playing with that number.”
Author’s Note: As always, I want to thank the player, Lauri Pajuniemi in this case, for sitting down with me and telling me his story, giving me the opportunity to share it with our readers.