Sunday, August 19, 2012
Oilers History: The Reijo Ruotsalainen Years
There has never been player in the Edmonton Oilers storied history quite like Reijo Ruotsalainen. The diminutive Finnish blueliner suited up for just twenty-six regular season games for the Oilers but still managed to leave his mark on the 1987 and 1990 Stanley Cup winning clubs. Not too shabby for a guy that GM Glen Sather, frankly stole from the New York Rangers.
Ruotsalainen had put together five impressive seasons with the Rangers, that saw him predominately used on the backend but did include some time at forward. Being used upfront led to career highs of 28 goals and 73 points during the 1984-85 season but also included a career worst -27 plus/minus rating. After staring under former New York bench boss Herb Brooks for his first four seasons in the NHL, the smooth skating Finn fell out of favour with new coach Ted Sator and headed back to Europe after the 1985-86 campaign.
Born in Oulu, Finland the talented blueliner was selected 119th overall by the Rangers in the 1980 Entry Draft, after starring for Finland's national junior team from 1975 - 1980. Over his five years in the Big Apple, he never registered less than 51 points in a season and was always a plus player, other than in the aforementioned '84-'85 campaign. Losing him was a major blow to the Ranger offence.
Outside of the Oilers Paul Coffey, no one could match his smooth and effortless skating style and like #7, the Reijo could and would, leave fans in awe with his breath taking end to end rushes. Whereas Coffey would typically take it right up the middle of the ice, Ruotsalainen would glide up ice and then fly by the opposition along the side boards. He was an absolute joy to watch and a significant loss to the Broadway Blueshirts.
That being said, with Ruotsalainen wasting away over in Europe and seemingly nothing more than an afterthought to the Rangers organization, Sather felt he had an opportunity to pounce...and pounce he did. He acquired Ruotsalainen's NHL rights, along with Clark Donatelli, Vile Kentala and Jim Weimer for veteran defenceman and tough guy Don Jackson, Mike Golden, Miroslav Horava and future considerations, which turned out to be Stu Kulak. This was highway robbery at its finest!
Jackson was a good leader and great teammate for years in Edmonton but he played only 22 games with the Rangers in 1986-87, before calling it quits. Making the deal an absolute no-brainer from an Oilers stand point.
After completing his season in the Swiss League with SC Bern, Rutosalaninen came to Edmonton and played in sixteen games during the '86-87 season but was his usual prolific self. He scored five times and put up thirteen points during his brief stint and went on to help the Oilers reclaim the Stanley Cup they had lost the previous post season. The twenty-seven year old, chipped in another seven points and played in all twenty-one of Edmonton's playoff games.
Upon winning his first Stanley Cup, the talented Finn headed back to Europe and played the next two years over in Sweden and Switzerland. Prior to the 1989-90 NHL season, Reijo had the itch to return to North America but was now property of the New Jersey Devils, after claiming him from Edmonton during the 1987 Waiver Draft.
He went New Jersey but played just thirty one games before being dealt back to the Alberta capital, this time for Jeff Sharples. After trading away Coffey during the 1987-88 campaign, the Oilers were never the same when it came to transitioning the puck up ice but they still won the Cup in 1988. However, with not only Coffey but now Wayne Gretzky out of the mix, Edmonton badly needed a blueline presence on the power play and Sather looked to an old friend for answers.
Ruotsalaninen played marginally for the Oil during the '89-'90 season, getting into only ten games but he still put up eight points. Having just turned thirty years old, the day after the season finale against the Winnipeg Jets, the talented Finn decided to turn it up another notch in the playoffs.
Just as he did in 1987, he played in all of Edmonton's playoff games and not only contributed on the score sheet with thirteen points in 22 games but he also tied Jari Kurri for the second best plus/minus on the club, at +13. Unlike the Cup winning team in '87, no one expected the Oilers to win it all in 1990, making it that much sweeter for everyone involved.
Somehow, the Oilers had pulled a cat out of the hat for a second time, in what was another brilliant move by Sather. It was a win-win for both club and player and one that will forever link the Edmonton Oilers to one of the most talented European players of his era, one "Rental Rexi" Ruotsalaninen.
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