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Photo Credit: Nick Barden

Leafs Prospect Roundup: Robertson in the running, Amirov on the mend, Niemelä’s hot start

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The Leafs Prospect Roundup has returned for another season but we’ll be doing things a little bit differently this year. As always, we’ll be bringing you the latest news and highlights on players throughout the Leafs’ system and I’m excited to share that I will be teamed up with my TLN colleague Kyle Cushman to bring you the best in Leafs prospect coverage over the course of the season. In addition to Kyle and I sharing duties for the Leafs Prospect Roundup series, TLN’s own Nick Barden will once again be providing comprehensive coverage of the Toronto Marlies this season to keep you informed on the player’s closest to pushing for playing time with the Leafs.

Check out TLN’s Top 20 Leafs prospects:

Recapping TLN’s 2021 Leafs prospect rankings

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Leafs training camp is in full swing, CHL seasons are getting going, and most European leagues have already gotten their regular seasons underway, leaving us with plenty to catch up on in the prospect world. Without further ado, let’s get to it.

Nick Robertson | W | Toronto Maple Leafs (NHL)

Robertson’s first professional season was a bit of a rollercoaster ride as he was forced to deal with injuries and was shuttled back and forth between the Leafs and Marlies a handful of times when healthy. He finished his first campaign with the Marlies with five goals and 11 assists in 21 games, including two goals and four assists in his final seven contests – respectable numbers for a 19-year-old getting his first taste of AHL action.

He has carried that strong play through Toronto’s rookie camp, was inarguably their best player at the recent Traverse City Prospects Tournament, and is now looking to take advantage of a wide-open left wing position on the Leafs’ depth chart. Robertson hasn’t quite popped yet through a pair of preseason contests and the sheer number of experienced options the Leafs have up front will make it tough for him to crack the opening night lineup, but a strong finish to the exhibition schedule could force Toronto’s management group into some difficult decisions.

Robertson just turned 20-years-old and has played a grand total of 31 games between the AHL and NHL so there is plenty of runway left for the young sniper. He is likely ticketed for the Marlies to begin the season and playing a prominent role in the AHL is probably what is best for his development at this point in time. Injuries to the NHL roster could create an opening for Robertson to jump into the lineup and grab hold of a spot at any point and if he is able to produce well enough with the Marlies, he may force Toronto’s hand before long regardless.

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Rodion Amirov | W | Salavat Yulaev Ufa (KHL)

After signing his entry level deal with the Leafs last spring and spending some time in Toronto during the offseason, Amirov was loaned back to Ufa and returned to Russia ahead of the KHL season. He got off to a hot start in the preseason, playing top-six minutes and registering four points before suffering a broken collarbone in his fourth game that would keep him on the shelf for over a month and force him to miss his club’s first eight games of the regular season.

Amirov returned to Ufa’s lineup last week, picking up a beautiful assist in his first game back, and has played mostly third line minutes in his three contests so far. He is still playing catch-up a bit after recovering from his injury and it will be interesting to monitor his ice time as he settles back into a regular role in the lineup. His role seemed to diminish as last season wore on and was a growing source of frustration for Leafs fans.

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With the circumstances surrounding Amirov’s signing with the Leafs and his subsequent loan back to the KHL, it’s reasonable to expect that the Leafs will have a bit more influence on how he is handled this season. It seems highly unlikely but now that he is under contract, the Leafs could theoretically bring him over to North America whenever they choose if they aren’t satisfied with how his development is being handled by Ufa. For now, gaining experience closer to home and plying his trade at Russia’s top level is the best situation for the soon-to-be 20-year-old winger.

Topi Niemelä | RHD | Kärpät (Liiga)

Niemelä has rapidly climbed the Leafs’ prospect ranks since being drafted at the beginning of the third round in the 2020 NHL Draft. He had already established himself as a regular contributor at Finland’s top level as a 17-year-old and continued to earn more responsibility for Kärpät in the early part of the 2020-21 season before heading to the World Juniors where he was a star for the Finnish squad. He finished the tournament with eight points in seven games, earning Best Defenseman honors for the event on the way to claiming a Bronze Medal.

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Following the WJC, Niemelä dealt with a couple of injuries that forced him to miss most of the second half of the Liiga campaign. He is healthy once again and the injury troubles don’t seem to have slowed him down. He once again starred for Finland, this time at the World Junior Summer Showcase where he tied for the scoring lead among defensemen with two goals and four assists through six games, and has gotten off to a hot start in the early part of the Liiga season with six points through Kärpät’s first seven games.

Niemelä has continued on his upward trajectory and while he is still a few years away, he is looking more and more like a player that will be a contributor at the NHL level in the coming years. He will once again be a key figure for Finland at the World Juniors this season and if he is able to maintain his current level of play over the course of the season, don’t be surprised if the Leafs try to get his name on an ELC when Kärpät’s schedule comes to a close next spring.

Roni Hirvonen | C | HIFK (Liiga)

Hirvonen had a solid draft+1 season in Liiga in 2020-21, tallying 21 points through 54 games, but where he has really shone was on the international level. Like Niemelä, he was a key figure on Finland’s Bronze Medal winning squad at the World Juniors where he finished with six points in seven games, including a couple of clutch goals late in pivotal games. He, too, carried that over to the recent World Junior Summer Showcase where he finished second in overall scoring with eight goals – including a pair of hat tricks – and two assists in just six games.

Hirvonen has made the jump from Ässät to HIFK for the 2021-22 Liiga season and has gotten off to a fine start with his new team. He has registered a goal and two assists through the first seven games and has been playing anywhere from 12 to 17 minutes per game. He is an exciting prospect with his ability to get in on the forecheck and play with an edge, is a strong defensive player for his age, and has the skill to capitalize on dangerous scoring opportunities. Hirvonen is expected to play a prominent role at the World Juniors once again this season where his well-rounded game and opportunistic scoring touch should set him apart from the competition.

Ian Scott | G | Toronto Maple Leafs (NHL)

Scott’s development has been derailed by injuries since leading the Prince Albert Raiders to a WHL Championship and earning CHL Goaltender of the Year honors back in 2018-19. Unfortunately for the young netminder, he has once again been bitten by the injury bug and was forced to leave the ice less than five minutes into his first preseason appearance for the Leafs with an apparent groin injury. The full extent of the injury remains unknown but head coach Sheldon Keefe did say that he expected to miss some time.

It has been a difficult couple of years for Scott. Here’s hoping that he can get over yet another hurdle and put his injury troubles behind him as he looks to re-establish himself, presumably in the ECHL with the Newfoundland Growlers.

Axel Rindell | RHD | Jukurit (Liiga)

Drafted by the Leafs in the sixth round of the 2020 draft as an overage player, Rindell had an impressive 2020-21 season on a poor Jukurit team. His seven goals and 19 assists through 47 games were good enough to finish second on his team in scoring – more than doubling Jukurit’s next highest scoring blueliner – and tie him for 10th among all defensemen in Liiga.

Rindell has been playing upwards of 24 minutes per game through the early part of the season but he is off to a bit of a slow start offensively with just two assists through his first six games. He is very clearly Jukurit’s top defenseman and will be expected to drive offense from the back end as the season progresses. Perhaps more important to his development will be how the rest of his game progresses this season. Rindell is a dynamic offensive threat who skates well, distributes the puck efficiently, and has a heavy shot to go along with his attacking mindset. The questions around his game stem mostly from his play without the puck on his stick and that will be an area of focus for him as he works towards hopefully making the jump to North America next season.

Mikko Kokkonen | LHD | Pelicans (Liiga)

Kokkonen was Rindell’s defensive partner with Jukurit for much of the 2020-21 season but has made the move to the Pelicans organization for this season. Pegged as a strictly defensive-minded blueliner, he scored just 10 points in 50 games with Jukurit last season but showed that there might be some untapped offensive potential there during a late season audition with the Marlies where he scored seven points in his first 11 AHL games.

That has continued through the early part of the Liiga season and Kokkonen has benefited from playing on a stronger team, already amassing five assists through just seven games. His refined defensive game always had him projected as a potential third pairing defenseman at the NHL level and his newfound offensive prowess will only improve his chances of cracking the Leafs’ lineup one day. It is still very early in the season but Kokkonen is well on his way to earning an entry level contract and should rejoin the Marlies upon the conclusion of his Liiga season.

Pontus Holmberg | C | Växjö (SHL)

Holmberg broke out in a big way during last season’s SHL playoffs. He scored seven goals and seven assists in 14 games, earning the SHL Playoff MVP award while helping lead Växjö to an SHL championship. That performance was enough for the Leafs to sign him to a two-year entry level deal this past offseason and he has since been loaned back to Växjö for the 2021-22 season.

Holmberg has picked up a goal and two assists through the first six games of the season but he brings more to the table than his raw offensive production would indicate. He is an intelligent player who competes hard and plays a responsible defensive game, able to slide up and down the lineup and mesh with different skillsets. It is probably unreasonable to expect him to maintain his scoring pace from last year’s playoff run but if he can chip in here and there offensively while continuing to play a strong game away from the puck, he could prove to be a valuable addition to the Marlies when the SHL campaign wraps up.

William Villeneuve | RHD | Saint John (QMJHL)

Villeneuve was selected by the Leafs in the fourth round of the 2020 draft after leading all QMJHL defensemen in scoring during his draft year with 58 points in 64 games. His offensive production tailed off in 2020-21 with just 20 points in 33 games but his defensive game showed improvement over the course of the year.

Plagued by questions about his skating stride and play away from the puck heading into the 2020 draft, Villeneuve has made a concerted effort to address those concerns over the last year. The Leafs saw enough improvement last season to reward him with a three-year entry level contract during training camp and have since loaned him back to Saint John in the QMJHL. The Sea Dogs are expected to be a contender this year and Villeneuve will play a large part in any success they have. He will continue to search for that balance between being a responsible defensive presence while still being able to impact the game with his offensive skillset and a strong season will set him up well to join the Marlies full-time in 2022-23.

Dmitri Ovchinnikov | C/W | Sibir Novosibirsk (KHL)

Ovchinnikov made regular appearances in the Prospect Roundup last season with his dominant showing at the MHL level for Sibirskie Snaipery Novosibirsk. He scored 20 goals and 31 assists in just 40 games, earning a late season look with his KHL squad. He was used sparingly in 16 games at Russia’s top level, averaging less than six minutes of ice time and registering a single assist in the process.

Ovchinnikov has cracked the KHL roster again to begin the 2021-22 season but still hasn’t earned a regular role, routinely suiting up as Novosibirsk’s 13th forward and going entire games without seeing the ice. Through their first 10 games, he has totaled just 9:05 of ice time – not exactly an ideal situation for a prospect looking to make their mark. The biggest issue for Ovchinnikov currently is that Sibir is one of the few KHL teams without an affiliate in the VHL – the level between the MHL and KHL. He has little left to prove at the MHL level after a couple of dominant seasons there but he is still a very raw player that is yet to earn the trust of his coaches at the highest level.

There is little that Ovchinnikov can do aside from continuing to work hard in practice and preparing himself to take advantage of his opportunity whenever it arrives. He has the offensive skill, skating, and vision to contribute in the KHL but still needs to add strength to his frame while continuing to round out his game. Ovchinnikov is still very much a project, but he is an intriguing one.

 

(Statistics from EliteProspects.com)