0
Photo Credit: Nick Barden

Leafs Prospect Roundup: Rodion Amirov is back, World Junior hopefuls, Miller and Villeneuve on a roll

Even with the Toronto Marlies limited to one game this week, it was an eventful one for the Toronto Maple Leafs prospect pool. A long-awaited return from injury, World Junior roster invites, a collegiate commitment, and a couple of impressive performances are all ahead on this week’s edition of the Leafs prospect roundup.

Rodion Amirov | RW | Toros Neftekamsk (VHL)

After a lengthy stint on the sidelines, Rodion Amirov finally made his return to game action over the past week.

The #2 ranked Leafs prospect in our TLN Rankings over the offseason, Amirov looked poised for a breakout season. Featuring on the first line for Salavat Yulaev Ufa throughout the KHL preseason, he was injured just before the start of the season, forcing him to miss Salavat’s first eight games. Amirov would make his season debut on September 23, recording a primary assist in 11:54 of ice-time, but was back on the injured list just a week later.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Amirov’s last KHL game was September 29, where he played 11:28 against Avtomobilist. There has been radio silence regarding the specifics of the injury since then, simply speculation and vague quotes from Salavat’s head coach about an extended timeline.

Ultimately, Amirov’s spell on the shelf lasted 60 days as he made his return to game action on November 28. Salavat is easing him back into things with a short stint in the VHL, Russia’s equivalent of the AHL. Playing with their affiliate, Toros Neftekamsk, Amirov has played three games over the past week. While he did not find the scoresheet, the important aspect was simply getting into games rather than the actual outcome for Amirov. His ice-time increased game over game, beginning with 14:46 in his debut and rounding out the stint with 17:47 TOI on Thursday.

Salavat’s head coach Tomi Lamsa has already confirmed Amirov will be making his return to KHL action on Monday morning against Admiral Vladivostok.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Hopefully, the extended absence has given Rodion Amirov the chance to fully recover and we can finally see his game on display for the rest of the KHL season.

Matthew Knies | LW | Minnesota (Big 10)

It was a big week for Matthew Knies as his Minnesota Golden Gophers faced the #3 ranked Michigan Wolverines, but also as Team USA announced their preliminary World Juniors roster.

Beginning with the latter, it was no surprise to see Knies named to Team USA. He’s a lock for their final roster come to Boxing Day and will almost certainly be a fixture on the left wing in their top six. Though Knies has yet to appear for the United States at a major international tournament, he impressed over the offseason at the World Junior Summer Showcase. He racked up four goals and seven points across five games with Team USA there and will look to do more of the same at the quickly approaching World Juniors.

Right now, though, Knies continues to excel with the University of Minnesota. Though he scored just the one assist, Knies was all over the ice for the Golden Gophers over the weekend as they won 5-2 on Friday before falling 6-2 on Saturday.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Knies has stepped into the NCAA and been an immediate factor as a freshman. His mix of skill and size creates a unique combination not overly present in the Leafs prospect pool. As noted a couple of weeks ago in the prospect roundup and over the offseason, his USHL totals were dragged down by a derailed start to the season during his draft year. His play with Minnesota has shown that his early-season struggles were the fluke, not his second-half dominance.

Minnesota has no remaining games for the rest of 2021, so our next viewings for Knies will come as he dons the red, white, and blue of the American jersey.

Ryan Tverberg | RW | Connecticut (H-East)

Ryan Tverberg, AKA your favourite prospect you don’t know about yet™, might not have his tagline much longer.

After a stellar start to the season with the UConn Huskies, Tverberg came out of nowhere to be named to Team Canada’s preliminary roster for the World Juniors. While his play has made him deserving of a look, it was still a fairly big surprise to see him named to the 35-man camp roster for various reasons.

Back in the 2020 Entry Draft, it looked as though the Leafs were done for the day when they made their final scheduled selection, drafting Wyatt Schingoethe in the seventh round, 195th overall. Despite having already made 11 draft picks over the seven rounds, Toronto made an unusual move under this management by trading back into the draft at the 213th selection. Moving a future pick to grab one more prospect at the end of the draft, the Leafs used this final pick to take Tverberg, a point-per-game winger out of the OJHL.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

It caught my attention when the Leafs made this move as trading into a selection is something this management team has rarely done. In fact, Kyle Dubas had traded up or into a selection just twice prior to the Tverberg move:

  • 2018: Trading into 156th to select Pontus Holmberg
  • 2020: Trading up to 137th to select Dmitry Ovchinnikov

Tverberg’s 51 points in 47 games in his draft year with the Toronto Jr. Canadiens was nothing remarkable coming out of a lower-tier league in terms of the NHL draft. While the stats didn’t jump off the page, a quick look at his highlight reel showed a player with a lot of intriguing tools.

Those tools are what have propelled Tverberg from a 213th overall pick to a Canadian World Junior hopeful in a little over a year. A skilled player with speed, Tverberg’s tenacity and willingness to run anyone and everyone over have made him one of my favourite prospects to watch. It’s also what got him the “AKA your favourite prospect you don’t know about yet™” tagline I gave him earlier this year.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Originally a Harvard commit, Tverberg switched his commitment to UConn after Harvard cancelled their 2020/21 season. Eligible for the Huskies beginning in the winter semester, Tverberg scored a respectable seven points in 14 games in the back half of 2020/21. He looked set to comprise a similar role this season as a third-liner who could play in all situations. Tverberg had other plans.

He opened the season with a three-point performance against UConn rivals in Sacred Heart, adding two goals a couple of games later against Boston University. Tverberg quickly found himself occupying the 1RW slot for UConn and hasn’t looked back. He currently leads the Huskies in goals with nine and points with 16, all while being among the youngest on the team.

All of this to say, Tverberg’s rapid rise has been a joy to watch and it’s amazing to see his excellent play rewarded with a spot at Team Canada’s camp. He remains a long shot to make the final roster but it’s easy to see a situation where Hockey Canada falls in love with his game. A speedy depth player that can play in all situations and also hammer someone into next week? That has Hockey Canada written all over it.

In the meantime, UConn had both of their games over the weekend postponed due to COVID protocols. Their final games of 2021 are scheduled for December 9 and 11, which Tverberg may or may not be available for depending on obligations for Team Canada’s camp.

William Villeneuve | RD | Saint John (QMJHL)

Let’s get to a couple of standout performances from the week that was, beginning with William Villeneuve who continued his hot streak in the QMJHL.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Villeneuve’s six-game point streak was snapped on Sunday in a 2-1 loss to Victoriaville, but he’s been fantastic since the beginning of November. Villeneuve scored 12 points over that six-game streak and is now up to 21 points in 23 games. Keeping in mind plus/minus is a far from perfect stat but is one of the few things we have available at the junior level, Villeneuve’s +17 rating is best among Saint John defencemen by nine.

Over the course of four games this past week, he scored a goal and four points, added seven shots on goal, and finished the week a +5.

Drafted in 2020 as the top-scoring draft-eligible defenceman in the QMJHL, Villeneuve’s offence dried up in his Draft +1 season. He scored 20 points in 33 games as the coaching staff directed his focus to the defensive side of the game. After a slow start in which he scored one point in his first eight games, it appears as though Villeneuve has begun to find a way to be involved offensively while improving defensively.

Villeneuve matched his 20 points in 33 games from 2020/21 in just 22 games this season. The Leafs clearly like the player, having committed an entry-level contract prior to the season despite some concerns over his D+1 season. Villeneuve’s recent play is proving that decision correct.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Joe Miller | C/RW | Chicago (USHL)

After extending his point streak to 10 games AND committing to a new NCAA school, it was impossible to leave Joe Miller off as a featured player yet again.

Miller got off to a relatively disappointing start this season with the Chicago Steel, scoring five points in their first nine games. Given his skill, status as a Draft +2 player remaining in the USHL, and linemates including top 2023 prospect Adam Fantilli, Miller was expected to light up the scoresheet out of the gates. Things didn’t break that way for him and he saw a demotion to the second line for a few games.

Come to the end of October, though, and the scoring started to come consistently. Since October 23, Miller has been held off the scoresheet just once. Over those 14 games, Miller has eight goals and a whopping 24 points. In his active point streak of 10 games, he has 21 points.

Drafted in the sixth round in 2020, Miller is a fascinating bet on skill. As a September 15, 2002 birthdate, Miller was born on the cutoff between the 2020 and 2021 drafts, meaning he was literally the youngest player the Leafs could’ve possibly drafted in 2020. Listed at 5-foot-9 and 146 pounds and taken out of the US high school ranks, it was a swing on talent and a late birthday in the final rounds of the draft.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

In his Draft +1 season, Miller was used as a third and fourth line centre by the USHL’s best team in the Chicago Steel. His limited ice-time and special teams opportunities saw him score an unremarkable 18 points in 40 games. Scheduled to move on to the University of Minnesota for the 2021/22 season, Miller elected to return for another season of junior hockey rather than move to a deep Golden Gophers roster where ice-time would remain very limited.

It was a very smart move in my view as Miller has begun to flourish on Chicago’s top line. Rather than move on to the NCAA as would’ve been part of the “normal”, linear progression for his career, returning to the USHL has allowed Miller to gain valuable experience and development time playing top minutes. Had he moved on to Minnesota as was planned, he would likely be in and out of the lineup and struggling to find ice-time.

Look no further than another Leafs prospect in Wyatt Schingoethe. Drafted in the round following Miller, Schingoethe moved on from the USHL to join Western Michigan for 2021/22. Schingoethe has struggled to find ice-time at WMU, playing eight games so far in a fourth line or 13th forward role. Keep in mind Schingoethe had played three seasons in the USHL to Miller’s one, but it remains an example of how things could have gone for Miller had he chosen to make the jump to the NCAA.

Come 2022/23, Miller still won’t be joining the University of Minnesota. As revealed by the Chicago Steel’s lineup cards, Miller has switched his collegiate commitment to Harvard University for the 2022/23 season. He will look to follow in the footsteps of fellow Leafs prospect Nick Abruzzese, a former Chicago Steel player who made the jump to Harvard in 2019/20 and has quickly become a top player in the ECAC.

News and notes from around the prospect pool

Toronto Marlies

  • Erik Kallgren dressed as Petr Mrazek’s backup on Sunday for the Marlies, marking his return to the lineup after a brief absence due to injury.
  • Kirill Semyonov’s departure back to Russia has big consequences for the Marlies. With Semyonov gone plus Marc Michaelis and Antti Suomela injured, the Marlies have no veteran centres to lean on. Depending on the timelines for Michaelis and/or Suomela, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a move made for a veteran centre at the AHL level.
  • Alex Steeves has been far and away the most active shooter for the Marlies this season. He’s averaging 3.58 shots on goal per game, more than a shot per game higher than the second-ranked player on the Marlies in Brett Seney. For context, John Tavares has averaged 3.48 shots on goal per game.

North America

  • Ty Voit (C) had another strong week for the Sarnia Sting, scoring four assists across three games of action. He’s one point away from matching his Draft -1 production from 2019/20 in less than half the games.

  • The aforementioned Nick Abruzzese (LW) had a three-point night for Harvard on Saturday following a shutout loss to Brown. His 15 points in 11 games lead the way for the Crimson.

  • The offence still hasn’t come the way you hoped it would for Veeti Miettinen (LW) this season. Two assists over the weekend against North Dakota is solid, but the overall statline of 16 games, three goals, and 10 points is underwhelming to this point.

Europe

  • Pontus Holmberg (C) continues to roll in Sweden. He added another three points in three games this week, bringing his season totals to 21 points in 25 games. He’s creeping in on his career-high of 23 points in significantly fewer games.

  • Roni Hirvonen (LW) offence is beginning to come more consistently for HIFK. He scored two assists in a season-high 17:44 TOI on Saturday and has five points in his last five games. Strong play from Hirvonen as we near the World Juniors.
  • The Karpat duo of Topi Niemela (RD) and Axel Rindell (RD) was held pointless this past week. Rindell saw a demotion to the third pair, playing just 10:34 in their last outing.
  • After a promising offensive start for Mikko Kokkonen (LD), he’s now gone 16 games without a point for Pelicans in Finland. He remains in their top four, however.
  • A frustrating situation for Dmitry Ovchinnikov (RW) once again. He dressed in two KHL games this week, playing under four minutes in one and did not receive a shift in the other. He was sent down for a cameo at the MHL for one game, where he played over 20 minutes.
  • The numbers are starting to turn around for Artur Akhtyamov (G) in the VHL. He stopped 74 of 79 across three appearances for Bars Kazan this week, including a 43 save performance against Rodion Amirov’s Toros Neftekamsk. His save percentage is up to a respectable .907 in 25 games.