This past season saw Aleksi Saarela light the lamp 25 times, more than all but two of his fellow AHL rookies, and craft one of the most statistically prolific rookie campaigns in franchise history.
But he wants more.
“To be honest I feel like 25 goals wasn’t enough for me,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out whether it’s good or bad but to me it feels disappointing right now.”
The idea that scoring 25 goals as a rookie is a disappointment seems outlandish, and to an extent it is. But the belief is that there’s another plane he could ascend to.
“That’s a conversion we had,” said head coach Mike Vellucci. “Yes he had a good year but, to me, he could have had a great year.”
After coming up through Finland’s top league, Saarela made the jump to North America at the tail-end of the 2016-17 season and turned heads by racking up six goals and 10 points during his nine-game stint with the Checkers.
Coming over full time turned out to be a much bigger transition than he anticipated, however.
“I didn’t realize how tough it was traveling and playing 76 games,” he said. “But I enjoyed it. The veteran guys helped a lot. They talked a lot to us in the room and were a big help all year.”
That increased workload may have played a part in Saarela’s slight disappointment.
“He was just inconsistent with his effort and his play,” said Vellucci. “Not just game to game but shift to shift. So we talked about how to mentally prepare himself to compete every shift of every game.”
“I feel like I have to compete more in every game,” said Saarela. “I had ups and downs. I played 10 games good and then I was bad for the next five games. So I have to figure out how to compete and be a great hockey player every game.”
The highs that Saarela showed throughout the season are reason enough to believe he can ramp his game up even more. The 21-year-old possesses arguably one of the best shots in the league, and he appeared to take the ongoing message from the coaching staff of shooting more to heart, finishing the year with the second most on the team. He also excelled on the man advantage, ranking second on the team with 11 power-play markers.
While 25 goals as a rookie is a solid output, Saarela’s new aim is to reach that full potential both he and Vellucci expect from him.
“Every time I played good and I felt fine I was doing great stuff on the ice,” he said. “I have to figure out how I can do that every game.”
“Then I can get more goals too,” Saarela added. “Because that’s why I’m here.”