The Draft Analyst: More to Lauri Pajuniemi’s game than just goal scoring
Owning a loaded farm system like the one the Rangers currently possess leaves plenty of room for the development of less-than-notable names to go somewhat unnoticed. But for TPS Turku winger Lauri Pajuniemi, being noticeable on the ice is something he accomplishes rather easily.
Not only is the 2018 fifth-round pick second in the elite Finnish SM-Liiga in goal scoring with 26, but his 252 shots lead all players who average 16 minutes a game or less. Not bad for a 20-year-old winger who was previously passed over in the 2017 NHL draft.
Here is Lauri Pajuniemi’s best chance in yesterday’s 2-1 win over Jukurit. Finished with seven shots while playing on the top line. It was his first Jr. A SM-Liiga game since the 2017-18 season.#PlayLikeANewYorker pic.twitter.com/ovlWFKlfxC— Steve Kournianos (@TheDraftAnalyst) March 10, 2020
As far as his current team, TPS Turku is one of the more storied franchises in SM-Liiga history. They won eight championships between 1989 and 2001 but have claimed only one title since. It’s been 15 years since their last regular-season title after winning nine in the 20 seasons before that.
Nonetheless, their organization as a whole continues to produce quality draft prospects, and the Rangers haven’t been shy towards dipping into their talent pool. They drafted Lauri Korpikoski in the first round in 2004, followed by recent picks such as defenseman Tarmo Reunanen (2016), forward Patrik Virta (2017), and of course, 2019 top pick Kaapo Kakko. The Rangers also unearthed free-agent goalie Alexander Georgiyev from the TPS prospect mine in 2017.
In drafting Pajuniemi, the Rangers’ scouting staff appear to have made a sound decision in selecting a forward who was a regular for Finland at multiple best-on-best international tournaments and showed unlimited potential. Being left off Finland’s national teams for both the under-18 and under-20 world championship squads in recent seasons, coupled with not getting drafted in his first look, may have motivated Pajuniemi to prove his doubters wrong. Fast forward to 2020, and he is now one of the top young goal scorers in all of Europe.
On Monday, TPS loaned Pajuniemi, Senators’ prospect Markus Nurmi, and premier 2020 draft-eligible defenseman Eemil Viro to support the under-20 squad in a critical playoff game against Jukurit U20. Although Pajuniemi didn’t register a point in the 2-1 victory, he was Turku’s best forward from start to finish
Prospect Report (Monday, March 9 vs. Jukurit U20)
Pajuniemi was on Turku’s top line playing the left wing as a right shot with Nurmi on the opposite flank and 2001-born center Aarne Intonen down the middle. He also was used as the one-timer option for the first power-play unit alongside the same linemates. Pajuniemi’s line received the bulk of offensive-zone starts and were on the ice for most of the late/close draws at even strength. He did not kill penalties.
Pajuniemi is a strong skater with a wide base and a long, powerful stride. He displayed fantastic edgework as he raced towards pucks just inside the blue line while using sharp directional changes to orient him towards the net. He has excellent balance and knows how to keep his feet wide while lowering his silhouette to help protect the puck. Sticks from both sides from a checking standpoint were very active in this game, but most of Pajuniemi’s forays into traffic bore optimal results and kept possession on his side.
Pajuniemi also moves quickly in tight spaces and is not scared to attempt high-risk plays intended to trap or leave pressure to his rear. He drew a penalty during a 4-on-4 situation by making a rapid inside move towards the net from the near boards. Later in the period, Pajuniemi used his speed to pounce on a long carom off a dump-in and turn it into a partial breakaway that was stopped.
There was nothing remotely concerning regarding Pajuniemi’s straight-line or lateral quickness; first step, agility, balance, or escapability. All were impressive when executed.
Delivering the puck on net is the obvious mission Pajuniemi intends to complete every shift. Simply put, there wasn’t a shot opportunity he was willing to turn down. He fired pucks from the blue line, both circles, slot areas, and off the rush. Pajuniemi most certainly is an “inside” player who looks to improve the angle of his shot by dropping a stutter step or gear change, and he also seemed confident crisscrossing defenders in 2-on-2 situations to get the puck onto his strong side.
The one-timer from the left circle is a play TPS must have designed with Pajuniemi in mind, even if it was for only one game. His shot accuracy from a hitting-the-net standpoint is excellent, while overall shot power via the slapper or wrister is very high — his quick release and no-hesitation approach were other reasons for the opposing goalie to stay on his toes. Additionally, Pajuniemi is comfortable taking shots on the backhand. His seven shots — a mixed bag of high-danger wristers, backhanders, and slappers from 50 feet out — were the most among TPS forwards.
Pajuniemi has very good vision and is capable of exploiting situations when opponents are playing the shot. He has confidence in his seam passing from either circle, and the significant majority of his deliveries that travel over 20 feet are on the tape. Pajuniemi uses slap fakes to open lanes quite frequently but most of the time his intent is to let one rip towards the net. He puts a nice touch on his passes during three-man weaves and cycles, plus he times his drop passes very well.
Pajuniemi is a tireless worker from the start of his shift to the very end. He’s an aggressive forechecker who will chase a defender behind his net and finish checks with authority. There’s a subtle edge to Pajuniemi’s game from a pest standpoint; one that shows up during board battles or post-whistle scrums near the net.
There were several situations where Pajuniemi was forced to play either an extended shift or a series of shifts packed closely together. At no point in either situation was there a degradation in effort or a loss of strength on the puck. He was energetic and noticeable in all three zones while keeping his engine revving. Pajuniemi was constantly demanding the puck for several reasons, including the fact that he is always in motion and finds the soft spots near the net.
It’s not often a high-volume shooter from the wing like Pajuniemi is required to handle the puck as often as he did on Monday. But it was clear from the onset that his linemates were more than comfortable deferring to him to control the flow of a possession and make smart plays with the puck. There were only a few forced plays as opposed to dozens of subtle instances where Pajuniemi’s poise under pressure yielded the desired result. If there were multiple options open, Pajuniemi identified them and looked off while delivering a strike.
Pajuniemi has excellent anticipation and always turned into the direction of puck travel. Even when he was off the puck, Pajuniemi took direct routes to interdict opposing zone-entry attempts before they reached his blue line. He was incredibly quick to the puck, but more for his ability to decode Jukurit’s intentions rather than using raw straight-line speed. The timing of the majority of his plays were both sensible and precise regardless of how much pressure he was under.
Pajuniemi is a scoring winger and playing with a heady two-way center like Intonen allowed him to focus on his area of responsibility between the top of the right circle and the blue line. His head was on a constant swivel and he was able to mark threats and stick with them. Pajuniemi hustled on the backcheck and picked up trailers when necessary. His smarts, energy, and strength made him somewhat of a nuisance to opponents during their offensive-zone time.
Yesterday’s game was a perfect example why a box score is the smallest of indicators of how well a particular player is performing. Granted, the level of competition, even for a playoff game, was beneath what Pajuniemi is used to seeing over the last two seasons. But he should be commended as a top liner for not take anything for granted and serving as one of TPS Turku’s hardest workers. His introduction to North American hockey, however, will be more telling of his potential than his time in Finnish circuits where physical play is more sporadic than it is the norm.
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