Ruben Rafkin of the Windsor Spitfires. Photo by Luke Durda/OHL Images
Ruben Rafkin is an 18-year-old Finnish defenseman who is eligible for the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. He’s spent the last four years in North America, most recently in the OHL, but he’s returning to Finland for the upcoming season. He is a two-way defenseman with decent size (6-0, 190) and a right-handed shot. He’s ranked as high as in the second round but there’s a lot of variance with his rankings.
I interviewed Rafkin over the phone in Finnish, transcribed that discussion, and then translated it to English. I hope you enjoy getting to know him a little bit through this Q & A type interview.
Q: Now that corona is on everyone’s mind, I have to ask; have you managed to stay healthy?
A: Thanks for asking, I have. I’ve taken it easy and avoided large groups of people. We’ve definitely taken this thing seriously. How about you?
Q: Same here. Apparently you’ve stayed active and played some sports at least. How well have you managed to train during this time?
A: Hannu Rautala – who also trains Mikko Rantanen, Rasmus Ristolainen, Patrik Laine and others – has been leading our training in small groups five times a week in the mornings. In the evenings, I’ve been jogging, and just before this call I was playing padel, and all kinds of fun things that can be done outside instead of being inside with a large group. Obviously I haven’t been able to go to the ice but other than that, pretty normal training.
Q: What else have you been doing now with more free time?
A: The first two weeks after returning to Finland I was in quarantine at the cottage. After that, I’ve gone fishing quite a lot. It’s something I really enjoy doing. Additionally, I’ve just spent time with the family because I haven’t been able to do much of that during the season. Hanging out with the family and a couple of my closest friends. I haven’t even been able to visit my grandparents because they’re quite old, so they’re staying in quarantine.
Q: You posted a picture of a pretty big fish to Twitter. How big was it?
A: 102 centimeters (40 inches) and 8.7 kilograms (19 pounds). It was my personal record.
Q: How do you feel about the NHL Draft when we don’t know when it’s going to happen and if there’s going to be a live event at all?
A: Of course it’s a shame if we can’t go there. But we need to understand that these things happen in life and we can’t do anything about it. All of us would want to be there, including the teams and the organizers. It’s a big event for them as well and a big loss if it’s not happening. But we all have just one life, so of course protecting our lives is more important than anything else, and we just have to live with it. At the end of the day, the draft event and being drafted doesn’t define your life. I’ll rather stay healthy and continue doing what I love and not have something bad happen to me.
Q: You’ve been ranked all over the place in public rankings. Where do you think you might get drafted?
A: Second, third or fourth round, somewhere in that range. But you might be ranked 150th and some team likes you enough to take you 20th. Before your name is announced at the draft, nothing is certain.
Q: Your name is not a traditional Finnish name. What can you tell us about it?
A: We have some Italian in our family, and my great-grandfather was sent to Sweden during the war as a child, so it’s a mix of Finland, Sweden and Italy. Most of my family speaks Swedish.
Q: According to your bio at EliteProspects, you were born in Turku, Finland but you’ve been playing in the USA for a while now. Could you tell us about that?
A: Indeed, I was born in Turku and went through the TPS hockey system as a kid. The Selects Hockey Academy paid for my trip to play at a summer tournament and get to know the school. I visited the school and liked it a lot. I spent two years playing there and went to high school at the same time. From there I signed a tender agreement to the USHL and from there I went to the OHL last season, so that’s been my route.
Q: How old were you when you went to America?
A: I was 14. I left after the seventh grade, skipped the eighth grade and went directly to high school there. Their high school basically starts on the ninth grade. I just finished high school and got my papers out recently.
Q: Let’s talk about that USHL season when you played for Tri-City Storm (10 points in 38 games). How did the season go and what kind of expectations did you have for it?
A: Of course I had big expectations for myself but everyone told me that it’s going to be a difficult season, that going from baby hockey to playing with the big boys is going to be the biggest jump in my life, every step after that is smaller. Some players were four years older than me. On our team, we had Shane Pinto and Zac Jones who both played for USA at the U20 World Juniors. Pinto was drafted early in the second round and Jones in the third round. I lived with them for three years. Three defensemen from our team got drafted to the NHL, two in the third round (Jones and Ronnie Attard) and one in the fifth (Mike Koster). But I was happy with how I played. Our team was crazy good, we lost probably seven games that season. It was a year that taught me a lot off the ice as well; there are going to be tough times, and the important thing is turning them around and coming out at the top. It was a big learning experience mentally. But during the season, it didn’t feel good, being far away from my home and things not going the way I wanted. But that’s life, and adversity is part of it. Looking back, I’m not even the same person anymore after going through it.
Q: Did you have any family members living there?
A: No, I was on my own there. I lived with a billet family. This last season (in the OHL) was the first time when I even had another Finn on the team, I lived with Kari Piiroinen. My family has always been here in Turku.
Q: After a season in the USHL you jumped to the OHL to Windsor Spitfires. Why did you decide to go there instead of staying at USHL?
A: USHL is sort of an intermediate league before going to college. The OHL was much more difficult. There were a lot of players drafted to the NHL in the first and second round, players signed to the NHL. So it was a much harder league than USHL. Then another thing was that I had never been able to play without thinking about school. I didn’t have to wake up to school every morning, I did everything on a computer. The idea was to put hockey ahead of everything else but I still managed to finish high school which isn’t all that common among Finnish hockey players. It was important to me to finish high school. I can now focus purely on hockey and whenever the hockey career is over, whether it happens early or at age 40, there’s still time to go to school after that.
Q: What kind of goals did you have for the season and were you able to achieve them?
A: It went well, I even managed to put up some points (31 points in 59 games). It was a hard league and there were some tough games but I managed to stay healthy. Looking at points, some players like Ryan O’Rourke are ranked in the first round and they had 5-10 points more than me, so I can’t be disappointed. Some rankings just don’t like me because I’m only 183 centimeters (six feet) tall. But I think it’s more about will than anything else. I have the type of will that not many have; I want to win every corner battle and all that. You can’t teach that kind of will. You can’t do anything about your height. But I have a lot of motivation to train and develop.
Q: You had a hot start to the season, scoring 12 points in the first 13 games. Did you start feeling like it’s not that difficult to put up points there?
A: I don’t know about that. We had some older defensemen playing their last season there. Coaches wanted to play them to keep them happy when they leave. Everyone played pretty evenly which wasn’t good. We had guys like Jean-Luc Foudy and Will Cuylle who were ranked in the top 15 and suddenly they were dropped to the second round and there are all kinds of negative things being said about them. So that was a bit frustrating that they didn’t really think about our draft. There wasn’t the same kind of hype that some other teams have, they’re thrown onto the ice all the time and they’re given all kinds of attention. Also, for a defenseman, points can be decided by luck at times. I’ve never really watched point totals all that much. A lot of players my age can put up points in juniors but they won’t all be point-producers in the NHL. Someone has to do the dirty work and just play basic defense. Sometimes I feel like that gets overlooked.
Q: Do you think you would have been able to play at the U18 Worlds or would the OHL playoffs have gone in the way of that?
A: Our team played the first 30 games amazingly well and put up better-than-expected results. After Christmas, we started losing a lot. It was starting to look like we would face one of the top three teams in the first round. Perhaps we would have been eliminated in the first round and I would have been able to play there. Anssi Laine (Finland U18 head coach) came to visit me during the season and we kept in touch. I don’t know what would have happened but obviously the coronavirus stopped everything.
Q: So Finland’s coaching staff came to watch you play and kept in touch? That’s good to hear – it must be tough for players in North America because they can’t participate in international tournaments during the season.
A: Yes, Anssi came to watch a game and we met after it, and we exchanged text messages during the season as well. It’s nice to get contacts from Finland and just talk a little. Nicely done by the Finnish hockey federation. I’ve played in all major tournaments and some minor ones as well with the national team for about two years now, and the trust between players and coaches is built there. Coaches always have their trusted players.
Q: For this upcoming season, you’re returning to Finland. You signed a contract with Liiga team TPS. Why did you decide that now is a good time to make the jump to the men’s level?
A: I believe I’m ready to play a big role in Liiga now. I think it’s pointless to play a small role there or split the season between Liiga and the junior league. There’s a pretty big difference between OHL and Jr. A SM-liiga. I thought it was a good time to come back, and TPS has added some big names to their organization. I’ve known Rauli Urama (TPS’ Sports Manager) from the Finnish hockey federation. Raimo Helminen (former pro player in Europe) is the new head coach, he’s well-respected and coached at the U20 World Juniors as well. They have Sami Salo (former NHL player) coaching defensemen and Kimmo Rintanen (former pro player in Europe) coaching forwards. Then they also have Saku Koivu (former NHL player, currently Senior Advisor for TPS) and others, so they definitely have things in order. Also, after next season TPS will have a year of celebration (100 years since the organization was founded) and I just finished high school, so it felt like everything kind of came together. With hard work and will, I believe I can go back to North America in two years. Now is a good time to come back home, spend time with family and live the Finnish way of living for a while and develop playing against men. Men’s games have their own value. In the OHL, I was a 30+ point player, so the next two years would have been 50-70 points, so it’s that kind of just putting up more and more points. Now I need to battle in every shift and battle for a spot in the lineup, and my goal is still to put up points. I thought this was the right time and TPS was the right organization. It’s been a dream of mine ever since I was a kid to play pro hockey in my home town, there’s nothing better than to wear that jersey where it all began.
Q: I’m sure there were other organizations that showed interest as well. Did you even consider them or was TPS your only option?
A: Our negotiations went pretty far with a few organizations but this was a place where I wanted to be and develop. TPS has everything in place. When I talked about it with Tomi Kallio (former NHL player, currently Director of European Scouting for TPS), it all just felt right. Of course other teams can offer more this or that but this just felt right. When I had to make a decision, it wasn’t too difficult.
Q: What kind of goals do you have for the upcoming season?
A: Of course to stay healthy and play the entire Liiga season. To put up points and be a top four defenseman on the team, play a big role there. That’s what develops a player. Then of course the U20 World Juniors tournament is also a goal of mine. To continue where I left off; play the full season and play at a high level. Being able to play at a high level night after night, to be someone who can be relied on, that’s what is being valued. That’s what NHL teams value as well, so that’s my goal.
Q: Your contract with TPS is for two years. Is it your plan to move back to North America and into an NHL organization after that?
A: Yes, that’s my goal. Two years felt right but you’ll never know what life brings. But that’s my goal and I believe it is possible to do. I’m looking forward to spending two years in Turku, I’m in no hurry to leave this place.
Q: Does it have to be a spot in the NHL lineup at that point or are you willing to play in the AHL?
A: I’m willing to play in the AHL. But of course I would have to think about it because I know the North American playing style so well already that it’s not going to be such a big jump for me compared to other Europeans. I have that in my back pocket already, so I don’t need to adjust to that style of playing. When you’re ready, you’re ready. But of course the AHL is a hard league and a step closer, so that’s a good thing as well. It’s a good waypoint to the NHL but European hockey is not bad either.
Q: How would you describe yourself as a player to someone who hasn’t had a chance to watch you play yet?
A: A good two-way defenseman. Lots of offensive skill and craftiness, and a good shot. Defensively solid, good in front of the net and in box-out play, and good physical game. Good, simple breakout passes.
Q: If you had to choose, would you say you’re more of an offensive defenseman or a defensive defenseman?
A: I’d say I’m more offensive. But that’s a really tough question. I’m more of a 50/50 type but leaning a bit more towards offense. I don’t see myself ever being just an offensive defenseman or just a defensive defenseman.
Q: Can you think of any current NHL players who could be used to describe you?
A: Well, Matt Niskanen, Josh Morrissey and players like them. They’re not Erik Karlssons but guys who can put up 30-50 points, be reliable and play at a good level night after night, and be trusted players on their team. I don’t see myself becoming a 90-point defenseman in the NHL.
Q: Are Niskanen and Morrissey players you’ve watched to learn from them? And are there other players you watch for learning purposes?
A: I watch a lot of hockey and try to learn from everyone. You can learn from someone who has played 800 NHL games purely in a defensive role, you can learn defensive things from him. And you can watch Erik Karlsson and learn offensive things from him. Obviously, as a Finn, I’ve watched a lot of Kimmo Timonen. Over a thousand games in the NHL and he’s a small guy, even smaller than me, and he had great success there. I also watch a lot of forwards and try to find things that would make things easier for me.
Q: Did you have any hockey idols growing up?
A: Obviously being from Turku, Saku Koivu has always been one, and Mikko Koivu as well. Then of course Teemu Selänne, he’s a Finnish icon. Those kind of players I watched as a kid. I played forward and goalie as a kid and didn’t become a defenseman until I was 11 or 12. That’s when I was told that I see the game so well that I should be moved to defense. At first I was against it but it’s been working well for me since then.
Q: Do you have any clear development areas where you need to focus the next two years before playing in the NHL?
A: Of course 18-year-old boys turn to men, and that kind of manliness will help a lot on my way to the NHL. For me personally, I need to develop everything and everything can be developed. Skating is important. All parts of skating, movement, puck-handling, playing with the head up, getting pucks to the net even when pressured, moving the puck up the ice under pressure, those kind of things. I’ve played in North America, so I know what’s required to play there.
Q: Next season, you’ll play on the same team with Eemil Viro. You’re the same age, do you know each other already?
A: Yes, we’re both from the same town so we know each other and we’ve played together in many tournaments. We’re good friends and I’m sure it will be a fun year. I’ve also played with Juuso Pärssinen and we’re good friends. It’s nice to see local boys on the TPS’ Liiga team.
Q: You and Viro are ranked somewhat in the same range for the draft and you’re fighting for the same spots in international tournaments. Will there be a lot of competition between the two of you?
A: Of course competition is what drives us forward but we play on opposite sides, so one might end up playing higher because there aren’t good defensemen on that side. I’m sure it will be a good competition but I don’t think the draft number is going to be the highlight of our life. There will be first round picks who flop and there will be late round picks who surprise. I’m hoping to get into a good organization and have people who trust me there. The draft number isn’t everything, that’s only where the work starts towards the dream of playing in the NHL. It doesn’t matter if I’m picked 55th or 105th or whatever it may be, it doesn’t define me. Of course it’s nice to be drafted high but it’s not the end of the world.
And that’s all for now, thanks for reading. Remember to follow me on Twitter @JokkeNevalainen.