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Photo Credit: Nick Barden

Leafs Prospect Roundup: Significant injuries, Topi Niemelä continues to score, and the Growlers are back!

We’re fully into the hockey schedule as everyone in the Leafs organization have their regular seasons underway. With the Marlies kicking off last weekend and the Newfoundland Growlers starting their season on Thursday night, there will be lots more prospect content coming up.

We’ve got good news and bad news on this week’s edition of the Leafs Prospect Roundup. Let’s get the bad out of the way first. Depending on who you still consider a prospect, the Leafs two top prospects are injured and are set to miss significant time.

Rodion Amirov remains out, Nick Robertson to miss extended time

It was a short-lived strong start for the Marlies as they opened with a 5-1 victory against the Manitoba Moose, only to fall 5-0 the following day and see their most dangerous offensive piece hobble to the locker room.

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Nicholas Robertson was electric in the season opener, scoring two assists and looking great alongside Kirill Semyonov and Josh Ho-Sang. In the second game, though, a relatively innocuous play resulted in Robertson landing awkwardly on his leg.

It didn’t look good at the moment and the diagnosis was just as ugly:

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It’s a brutal blow for Robertson as he was already coming off of a broken season. He was injured early in the 2020/21 year with the Maple Leafs, only to see his season ended early with the Marlies a few months later. Things were shaping up for Robertson to have a great year where he would enjoy top-line usage and push for a spot with the Leafs as the season progressed, but that will have to wait until the end of December to resume.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Rodion Amirov has missed the last 10 games for Salavat Yulaev Ufa with an undisclosed injury. There’s very little information available regarding his situation, though he did miss the start of the season following an injury during the KHL preseason which may be related to his injury. Amirov returned for three games in September but has not been in Salavat’s lineup since September 29. An update on his status should come sometime soon as we near one month since his last game.

Bad news out of the way, let’s get to the much better news and notes. Finally on the injury front, Joseph Woll was activated off of the Leafs season-opening injured reserve and added to the Marlies roster earlier in the week. There’s yet to be a confirmation as to whether he will get a game with the Marlies this weekend, but the move to send him down is a very promising first step.

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The Growlers are back!

590 days after their last game, the Newfoundland Growlers finally made their return to the ice Thursday night. It was a successful return, to say the least, as the Leafs ECHL affiliate defeated the newly founded Trois-Rivieres Lions 6-3.

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Gordie Green opened the scoring just 15 seconds into the game, while Brennan Kapcheck, Marc Johnstone, Bobby McMann, and Ryan Chyzowski (2) also found the back of the net. Evan Cormier stopped 22 of 25 in the win.

While there are currently no Leafs affiliated prospects on the Growlers roster, there are still numerous intriguing Marlies prospects to keep an eye on. Kyle Dubas has pushed the idea of using the ECHL as a development league, finding prospects with intriguing tools and using the ECHL as a starting place while they work with the prospect. Kristians Rubins is the best example of this, having started on an ECHL contract with the Growlers and working his way up to becoming a potential top-pair defenceman with the Marlies and a soon to be Olympian with the Latvian national team.

Be sure to keep an eye on the likes of Noel Hoefenmayer, Ryan Chyzowski, Brennan Kapcheck, and Keith Petruzzelli as the Growlers season progresses. They shape up to be a strong contender for the Kelly Cup once again.

Topi Niemelä | RD | Kärpät (Liiga)

Another week, another three points for Topi Niemelä.

Niemelä’s production this season through 13 games is nothing short of spectacular. He is currently tied for the league lead in scoring among defencemen. He trails only top 2022 draft prospect Joakim Kemell among U20 scorers, regardless of position. All while still being eligible for the Finnish World Junior team come December, a team he very well could captain.

No U20 defenceman has scored at Niemelä’s current rate (0.92 PPG) over the course of a full season since Reijo Ruotsalainen in 1979/80. Miro Heiskanen’s 18-year old season is the only recent example that comes close to Niemelä’s current rate, where Heiskanen scored at 0.77 PPG in 2017/18.

Past that, Sami Vatanen’s 0.60 PPG in 2010/11 will be the comparable to watch. Vatanen scored 30 points in 52 games that season, captaining Finland’s World Junior team in the process. He’s the clearest comparable to Niemelä’s current season and it will be a treat to see whether Niemelä will be able to top Vatanen’s results.

Dmitry Ovchinnikov | RW | Sibir Novosibirsk (KHL)

Dmitry Ovchinnikov’s situation has been frustrating to follow this season, to say the least. Far too good for the MHL, a league he dominated last year, and with no VHL affiliate to be loaned to by Sibir, he’s been caught in a tough spot for much of this season.

Despite dressing in every Sibir game this year, Ovchinnikov has actually played in just three games this season. 13 times he’s dressed but has not received a shift and twice he played less than 10 seconds. For a promising offensive player, it was an extremely difficult position for Ovchinnikov to find himself in. To simply get him minutes, he’s been loaned to Sibir’s MHL team on off-days for the main KHL team over the last couple of weeks.

It’s early, but he may be getting an opportunity soon. Ovchinnikov scored his first KHL goal against Vityaz during his 5:19 of ice-time, a season-high. It was the first game he played more than one shift in the KHL since September 25.

Sibir is a team in desperate need of offence. They have the fewest goals scored in the KHL, averaging 1.7 goals per game. Their top scorer is Nick Shore, the same Nick Shore that scored three points in 21 games as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs and played in the 2019 season opener over Jason Spezza.

It’s abysmal that Ovchinnikov has yet to be given an opportunity with Sibir given their struggle to score. He led the MHL in involvement percentage (percentage of team goals a player scored a point on) and his skill set is one that is desperately needed in Sibir’s lineup. Hopefully, his goal will result in more minutes. He even chipped in a goal and two assists during a game in the MHL this week too.

Artur Akhtyamov | G | Bars Kazan (VHL)

After a rough start to the season, Artur Akhtyamov is beginning to turn his year around.

Since being pulled in the first period after allowing three goals on four shots on October 4, Akhtyamov has posted a .914 save percentage or higher in his last four starts. The recent turn in form has seen his season-long totals improve to a .906 SV% and a 2.45 goals-against average, though still a ways off from his .927 SV% and 1.90 GAA a year ago.

This week Akhtyamov stopped 50 of 54 across two games, a 5-2 win over 19th place Buran and a 2-1 loss to 9th place Rostov.

Having jumped around a lot last season across the KHL, VHL, and MHL, Akhtyamov is firmly the VHL starter in the Ak Bars organization. It’s been an up and down season so far, but the consistent performances are starting to return for Akhtyamov, a promising sign as one of the Leafs few goaltending prospects.

Vyacheslav Peksa | G | Irbis Kazan (MHL)

On the topic of Leafs prospect goaltenders playing in the Ak Bars system, Vyacheslav Peksa continues to impress with Irbis in the MHL.

It was a light week for Peksa, facing MHL Eastern Conference bottom feeder Tyumenski Legion twice. He picked up an 18 save shutout and stopped 12 of 13 in the other as Irbis pounded Tyumenski, scoring 14 goals over the two games.

Peksa is now up to a .938 SV% and a 1.73 GAA this year with Irbis, a significant improvement over his .909 SV% and 2.57 GAA in 2020/21. He’s cemented his place as the starter and will be pushing for VHL games sooner rather than later if he continues to play like this. In the month of October, Peksa has started five games and has yet to allow more than two goals against.

While the starting gig for the Russian World Junior squad is set in stone with Yaroslav Askarov, the backup and third-string positions are essentially wide open. Given his status as an NHL draft pick and his flourishing MHL results, Peksa could very well make his first appearance with the Russian national team later this year.

News and notes from the rest of the pool

  • Petr Mrazek’s injury and subsequent recall of MIchael Hutchinson opens the door for a battle between the aforementioned Joseph Woll and Erik Kallgren for the Marlies starting job.
  • Speaking of injuries opening the door, Nick Robertson’s extended absence from the Marlies lineup opens up an unexpected spot in the top six for someone to grab a hold of. First up will likely be Pavel Gogolev, who took a top six opportunity with the Marlies last year and parlayed it into an NHL contract. The injury also opens up a roster spot for Jeremy McKenna, who was expected to be a significant piece early in the year for the Growlers. Instead, he’ll be battling for a top-nine spot once again with the Marlies.
  • Minor note, but it appears as though the Manitoba Moose and Newfoundland Growlers have some sort of unofficial affiliation. The Moose do not have an ECHL affiliate and given their obvious history in St. John’s, a relationship between the two makes a lot of sense. Four players signed with the Moose (Ty Pelton-Byce, Tristan Pomerleau, Todd Burgess, and Isaac Johnson) have all been assigned to the Growlers over the past week.
  • Matthew Knies had his first true test in the NCAA last weekend and looked the part, picking up an assist and five shots on goal in two games against St. Cloud State and fellow Leafs prospect, Veeti Miettinen.

  • On the topic of Miettinen, don’t be surprised when his goal totals pop off sooner rather than later. He continues to pepper NCAA goaltenders, recording another nine shots on goal in the two games against Minnesota last weekend. He has 21 shots on goal in just six games this season, but just the one goal to speak for it. That’ll change quickly.

  • Roni Hirvonen returned to HIFK’s lineup this week after missing three games. Slow going for him early in the season with just five points in 19 games across Liiga and Champions Hockey League action.
  • Pontus Holmberg picked up another assist to bring his season totals to eight points in 12 SHL games. He was ejected at the end of Växjö’s game on Thursday for “abuse of an official”. I haven’t seen what occurred, but there may be supplemental discipline coming shortly.

  • William Villeneuve scored his first point of the season this week, but overall the production just hasn’t been there early in the season. Just the one assist through eight games for Villeneuve, a far cry from the high end scoring results in his draft season. Still, the Leafs like his tools enough to have already signed him to an ELC.
  • Jukurit finally ended their seven-game losing streak this week, but things are still tough for Axel Rindell. Despite 73 shots on goal, ranking top five league-wide among defencemen, he’s yet to find the back of the net.
  • Congratulations to Kalle Loponen on scoring his first career Liiga goal. A powerplay specialist the last couple of seasons, I really like his spot with KooKoo. He gets to play against the much stiffer competition he needs while still playing with regularity.
  • He’s a fringe prospect at this point, but Semyon Kizimov had a fantastic week in the VHL. He scored a goal and two assists in Gornyak-UGMK’s two victories, bringing his totals to 11 points in 15 games. He’ll be a career KHLer at most, but nice to see after Kizimov really stagnated with Lada Togliatti.

Three Stars of the Week (Oct 15-Oct 21)

⭐ Dmitry Ovchinnikov, RW, Sibir (KHL) & Sibirskie (MHL)

  • 2 GP, 1 G, 1 SOG, 2:42 ATOI (KHL)
  • 1 GP, 1 G, 3 PTS, 5 SOG, +3, 22:24 TOI (MHL)

⭐⭐ Topi Niemelä, RD, Kärpät (Liiga)

  • 2 GP, 1 G, 3 PTS, 3 SOG, +3, 22:29 ATOI

⭐⭐⭐ Nick Robertson, LW, Marlies (AHL)

  • 2 GP, 2 PTS, 5 SOG, +2