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After a few months of the hockey world starting to feel normal again, 2021 ended on a sour note as another wave of COVID brought things to a screeching halt. Despite the NHL instituing a league-wide shutdown just before Christmas, the IIHF decided to go forward with the World Juniors in Edmonton and Red Deer but were forced to cancel the tournament just a couple of days in as positive cases continued to cause disruptions and forfeited games. It was a disappointing conclusion to the annual holiday tournament but there is hope that it will eventually be played sometime in the spring or summer.
Leafs fans were still treated to a glimpse of a few of the organization’s top prospects, however brief. 2021 second rounder Matthew Knies scored the opening goal in Team USA’s only game of the tournament and had an impactful performance overall, showing signs of being a dominant player at the junior level. Finland managed to get a pair of games in, with Topi Niemelä and Roni Hirvonen each picking up a point in the process. It wasn’t the showcase everyone was hoping for but all of Knies, Niemelä, and Hirvonen provided reasons for optimism.
— IIHF (@IIHFHockey) December 27, 2021
With several leagues forced to postpone games in recent weeks, the first Leafs Prospect Roundup of 2022 is a bit light but there is still plenty to chew on.
Topi Niemelä | RHD | Kärpät (Liiga)
Even with the cancellation of the World Juniors, it was still a busy week for Niemelä as he signed a one-year contract extension with Kärpät on Wednesday.
Niemelä is in the midst of an outstanding season, leading all Liiga defenders in scoring while being on pace for one of the most productive seasons for a U20 defender in league history. His impressive play has only added to the anticipation surrounding his eventual arrival in North America but it appears we will have to wait a while longer to see Niemelä playing for the Marlies full-time.
Niemelä’s new deal with Kärpät doesn’t prohibit him from signing an entry level contract with the Leafs this coming offseason, and that should still be considered a likely possibility. What his extension does mean is that unless he manages to crack the Leafs’ roster next fall, he will be heading back to Finland rather than suiting up for the Marlies.
There is still a chance that Niemelä makes his AHL debut later this season as he could join the Marlies on an ATO whenever Kärpät’s campaign comes to an end, much like Mikko Kokkonen did last season. Still just 19 years of age, another season in his home country was always the most likely path for Niemelä and it should have little bearing on his NHL timeline.
Veeti Miettinen | W | St. Cloud State (NCAA)
Selected in the sixth round of the 2020 draft, Miettinen established himself as a legitimate prospect with a fantastic freshman season at St. Cloud State. He tied for the team lead in scoring with 24 points in 31 games and racked up plenty of awards along the way, including NCHC Rookie of the Year. Miettinen’s sophomore season started off a bit slower, however, and he managed just one goal to go along with four assists in his first 10 games of the season.
Things have started to turn around for the young Finn as of late, and he has tallied five points in his last four games – including a three point outing on Saturday.
And here is Miettinen's second goal on the night: pic.twitter.com/cKE0n025LZ
— Nick Richard (@_NickRichard) January 2, 2022
Now up to 13 points through 18 games on the season, Miettinen’s recent surge has brought him closer to his pace of .77 points per game from last season. He has been generating plenty of opportunities, having registered 18 more shots on goal than anyone else on his team, but is shooting just 8.1% compared to 18.5% in his freshman season. He isn’t likely to settle in as an 18% shooter but he has a good release and a nose for the net. If he can continue to generate opportunities at a high rate, Miettinen’s recent production should be relatively sustainable and he could be in for a big second half.
Vyacheslav Peksa | G | Irbis Kazan (MHL)
Peksa entered the organization as a mostly unknown quantity when he was drafted in the sixth round of the 2021 draft. It was a curious selection at the time considering Peksa had gone undrafted in his first year of eligibility and was coming off of a mediocre season in Russia’s junior league. The fact that he was playing in the same system as the goaltender they had spent a fourth-round pick on the year prior only added to the intrigue.
The Leafs clearly saw something in his game they felt others had missed and though it is still early in his development, it appears they may have been right. Peksa has been a workhorse for Irbis Kazan so far this season, playing in 41 games and sporting the league’s third-best save percentage among goaltenders who have played at least 20 games. Kazan’s goaltending depth chart is a bit crowded but he has shown through the first half of this season that he is deserving of an opportunity in the VHL sooner rather than later.
#LeafsForever prospect Vyacheslav Peksa stopped all 26 shots he faced to pick up his sixth shutout of the season in a 5-0 win over Ladya Togliatti. Through 40 games so far this season, Peksa has a 1.89 GAA to go along with a .935 SV%. pic.twitter.com/vinssHWD7A
— Nick Richard (@_NickRichard) December 30, 2021
Notes from the rest of the prospect pool
- Erik Kallgren let in a soft goal late in Saturday’s game against Belleville that ended up being the winner but overall, he has been a bright spot on a mediocre Marlies team so far this season. Through 11 games, the 25-year-old netminder has a 2.57 GAA and a .923 SV% – numbers that could earn him a look at the NHL level if the Leafs run into injuries in goal again.
- Joseph Woll had a huge game against Belleville on Thursday, stopping 45 of the 47 shots he faced in a 5-2 victory. It has been a bit of a mixed bag for Woll at the AHL level to this point in his career but the NHL experience he earned earlier this season might be starting to pay off.
- Filip Kral is currently riding a four-game point streak with five assists over that span. It has been a decent rookie campaign for Král with the Marlies and he currently sits second in team scoring among defencemen.
- Braeden Kressler had a solid night on Thursday, picking up a goal and an assist in a shootout loss. The undrafted free agent signing has 13 points in 23 games for Flint in the OHL so far this season.
#LeafsForever prospect Braeden Kressler scored a last minute, game tying goal. He drove to the net, fought off a defender trying to tie him up, and got his stick on a pass to redirect it in the net. pic.twitter.com/2Hpg2HmXW7
— Mr. Knies Guy (@brigstew86) December 30, 2021
- Joe Miller has had a big year and doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon. He now has 21 points in his last 11 games, including a three point performance against Madison on Friday. Miller is currently tied for fourth in USHL scoring with teammate and top prospect for the 2023 draft Adam Fantilli.
- After seeing limited ice time at the KHL level early on this season, Dmitri Ovchinnikov has been playing in the MHL more regularly as of late. He played over 25 minutes and scored a pair of goals to go along with an assist in a 5-4 shootout victory last Tuesday, bringing him to 11 points through 10 games at the junior level this season.
(Statistics from EliteProspects.com & SCSUHuskies.com)