The World Juniors are underway and holiday league breaks are slowly coming to an end on this edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs prospect roundup. There may not have been many games to recap over the past week, we do have some very important ones to get to.
Matthew Knies | LW | Team USA
Matthew Knies wasted no time finding the back of the net for Team USA in his World Juniors debut, scoring the opening goal in USA’s tournament-opening victory over Slovakia on Sunday night.
USA cashes in to score their first of the tournament pic.twitter.com/VM4pIdHmxg
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) December 27, 2021
Knies converted on a 5-on-3 powerplay to open the scoring off of a feed from 2022 draft-eligible Logan Cooley. Listed on the second line with Cooley and Detroit prospect Carter Mazur at even strength, Knies played 15:17 in the game.
It was a solid debut for Knies in what was certainly a special night for himself and his family. Not only was this the first major event he has appeared at for the USA, Knies did so facing off against the country in which his family comes from. Matthew’s parents are from Slovakia, even his older brother Phil was born back in Bratislava. Growing up speaking Slovakian at home, I’m sure that Knies’ first goal for the United States at a major tournament was made only that much more special in doing so against a nation in which he has such deep roots.
Looking ahead for Knies, Team USA has their final three preliminary games prior to our next prospect roundup:
- Tuesday vs. Switzerland, 4:30 pm EST
- Wednesday vs. Sweden, 9:30 pm EST
- Friday vs. Russia, 9:30 pm EST
Knies and the United States will also play their quarterfinal on Sunday, with the opponent and time to be determined over the next five days.
Roni Hirvonen (LW) and Topi Niemelä (RD) | Team Finland
Finland also began their 2022 World Juniors campaign on Sunday, actually opening group play in their closer than expected 3-1 victory against Germany.
Topi Niemelä, the reigning Top Defenceman at the event, led the way for Finland with 21:32 time-on-ice. While he did not find the scoresheet and recorded just one shot on goal, Niemelä was his typical self throughout the game, transitioning play back towards the German zone with his smooth skating and quick, sharp passing.
As for Roni Hirvonen, he was limited to 14:17 time-on-ice after leaving the Finnish bench for some time. He was limited to 2:35 in the third period, so we’ll see if he is in the lineup for Finland in their next game against Austria. He did pick up a secondary assist on the game-winning goal earlier in the game.
Maatta finishes up the juicy rebound
Finland leads 2-1 pic.twitter.com/T4rCa36TBU
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) December 26, 2021
Finland struggled to score at even strength in their pre-tournament matchup against the United States and failed to put up a decisive performance against a weaker (on paper) German team than in recent years. If Finland is to challenge for a medal again, they’ll need to really start to find their groove quickly here and if they do, Niemelä and Hirvonen will need to be a big part of it.
Here is Finland’s schedule for the rest of the preliminary round before the quarterfinals on Sunday:
- Monday vs. Austria, 2:00 pm EST
- Wednesday vs. Czechia, 2:00 pm EST
- Friday vs. Canada, 5:00 pm EST
Rodion Amirov | RW | Salavat Yulaev Ufa (KHL)
Remember when we were complaining about Rodion Amirov’s lack of playing opportunities coming back from injury?
Amirov made his first real appearance in a KHL game for the first time since September 29 last week, playing 13:32 TOI in a third-line role against Kunlun. He then followed that game up with his first goal of the season two days later, a snipe on a breakaway chance against Spartak.
We missed you, Rodion Amirov. pic.twitter.com/LCp0ThdKM5
— KHL (@khl_eng) December 22, 2021
While he did see his time-on-ice dip back below 10 minutes in Salavat’s Christmas Day game against Avtomobilist, Amirov looks to be back in Salavat’s plans as a top-nine forward. It’s been a difficult season for the Leafs 2020 first-round selection, battling injuries after playing as a top-six forward for Salavat in the preseason.
Much attention will be given to Toronto’s prospects at the World Juniors over the next two weeks, and rightfully so, but don’t forget about Amirov just because he’s been hurt and is too old to go and dominate the World Juniors. He’s now got three points in seven KHL games, doing so while playing minimal minutes and spread over the span of months due to two injuries. Assuming he can stay healthy and play the rest of the season in the top nine, I’ve got my eyes on an Amirov breakout sooner rather than later.
News and notes from around the prospect pool
- I noted in the last prospect roundup that Dmitry Ovchinnikov had taken a hit to the head and did not return to the game. He remained out of the lineup for games on Tuesday and Wednesday before making his return on Christmas Eve for Sibirskie in the MHL, picking up an assist.
- Remaining on Ovchinnikov, it appears as though he will be spending more time in the MHL. He dressed but did not play for Sibir in their Christmas Day game and has not played a KHL shift since December 4. Since then, Ovchinnikov has played four games at the MHL level, including two this past week.
- Artur Akhtyamov began the week with his best performance of the season before cooling off a touch. He was instrumental in Kazan’s 3-2 win against Omskie last Monday, stopping 50 of 52 and getting a shoutout from his agent Dan Milstein on Twitter for his remarkable performance.
— Dan Milstein-Hockey (@HockeyAgent1) December 20, 2021
- Later in the week, though, things weren’t as hot. Akhtyamov stopped 22 of 25 in a 4-3 shootout win against Metallurg and was pulled on Christmas Day after allowing three goals on 24 shots against Sokol. Overall, he’s recovered to post a .911 save percentage in 31 games this year, a significant turnaround from the sub .900 SV% he had for much of the season.
- Vyacheslav Peksa, the other Leafs goaltending prospect in the Kazan system, also had a busy week. In his first three games of the week, Peksa stopped 82 of 87 for a .943 SV%. Santa wasn’t so kind to him, however, as he was pulled on Christmas Day after allowing four goals on 18 shots. Peksa has been a workhorse for Irbis Kazan at the MHL level, but starting to sets of back-to-backs in a five-day stretch was a poor decision, to say the least.
- It wasn’t just the World Juniors and Russia this week as the Finnish Liiga returned to action on Boxing Day as well. With Topi Niemelä away at the World Juniors, Axel Rindell saw himself in an elevated role for Kärpät and made good on the opportunity, recording two secondary assists to break a seven-game pointless streak.
That will do it for the final Leafs prospect roundup of 2021! We’ll be back next Monday for the first roundup of 2022 to recap the week that was in the World Juniors and much, much more. Have a safe and happy New Year’s!