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Photo Credit: Nick Barden

Leafs Prospect Roundup: Nick Abruzzese debuts, Nick Robertson injury scare, European playoffs update

It remains an incredibly busy stretch of the hockey calendar with the NHL and AHL entering the final month of their regular seasons, the NCAA preparing for the Frozen Four later this week, and European leagues in the thick of their playoffs already.

Before diving into this week’s updates, I would be remiss if I didn’t begin with Elliotte Friedman’s positive report on Rodion Amirov’s status from Saturday night. Amirov, one of Toronto’s top prospects, was diagnosed with a brain tumour and has been undergoing chemotherapy in Germany. According to Friedman, Amirov has completed his six weeks of chemotherapy and is scheduled to begin his next round in a month’s time.

In the meantime, Amirov has continued skating on a rink the Leafs have been renting out for him in Germany. It’s great to hear good news regarding Amirov’s status, as always our thoughts are with Amirov and we send him our best wishes as he prepares for his next round of chemotherapy.

Nick Abruzzese | LW | Toronto Maple Leafs (NHL)

One week after signing his entry-level contract, Nicholas Abruzzese made his NHL debut on Saturday night against the Philadelphia Flyers.

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Abruzzese clocked in at 9:05 time on ice, about what you would anticipate for a player making their professional debut on the fourth line, but saw a fair bit of action in those limited minutes. He was on the ice for a Leafs goal in the form of Wayne Simmonds’ breakaway marker but was also on for a goal against in Ivan Provorov’s third-period tally (in which Abruzzese was slightly delayed in closing out, giving Provorov the extra time to get a shot through, if you want to be picky).

Overall, it was an unremarkable debut for Abruzzese. Shot attempts were 7-4 in favour of Philadelphia when he was on-ice, though Toronto had the scoring chance advantage 2-1. It’s a tiny sample so there isn’t much to read into just yet, but it’s hard to complain about a relatively quiet debut. Nothing spectacular, nothing egregious either. He was on the receiving end of a couple of physical plays from the Flyers and bounced right back up too.

For Abruzzese and the Leafs, this upcoming week is much more important than his nine-minute debut in gauging if he can truly challenge for fourth-line time down the stretch. Assuming he remains in the lineup as would appear the case from line rushes on Sunday, the key for Abruzzese will be to simply get better each appearance and begin to get comfortable at the pro level. Abruzzese made his biggest impact at Harvard as a creative offensive player with deft playmaking abilities. The fourth line has been in desperate need of an offensive spark and it looks as though he will be given the chance to prove if he can be exactly that.

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It remains to be seen whether he was just a fill-in on the second powerplay unit at practice, but if Abruzzese does see some time on PP2, watch out for him down low on the right side of the net. Abruzzese did most of his damage at Harvard in that spot on the man advantage with Harvard, potting a handful of goals from a one-timer position there.

Nick Robertson | LW | Toronto Marlies (AHL)

On the topic of a top Toronto Maple Leafs prospect named Nick, Nicholas Robertson had an eventful week in the AHL, to say the least.

Beginning on a positive note, he scored three goals in four games of action to bring his season totals to nine in 18 games. Robertson also added an assist in that stretch to have 18 points on the year as he passed his 2020/21 AHL totals in six fewer games.

 

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Since being sent back down by the Leafs, Robertson has not missed a beat, scoring six goals and 10 points in nine games. He has looked like an immensely confident player, not afraid to let his shot fly or try to dangle his way through an opposing defence.

In Sunday’s game against Manitoba, though, Robertson suffered yet another injury scare. As he made a quick move along the boards, Manitoba’s Dylan Samberg leaned in to break up the play, resulting in a knee-on-knee collision. It was a frightening sight given Robertson’s already notable injury history, but specifically due to the broken fibula he suffered early this season against the very same Manitoba Moose.

Thankfully, Robertson returned for the third period and finished the game without seemingly any other issues.

A clean bill of health is crucial for Robertson to finish out this season when considering how inconsistent his game action has been over the past two years. Crisis averted on this play.

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Mikko Kokkonen | LD | Pelicans (Liiga)

Mikko Kokkonen was the latest Toronto Maple Leafs prospect to sign an entry-level contract, doing so officially last Wednesday on a deal that begins at the start of the 2022/23 season.

A 2019 third-round draft pick, Kokkonen is a difficult prospect to get a read on. Way back in 2016, Kokkonen became the youngest defenceman to play in Finland’s top league when he made his debut at 15 years old. He was a regular in that league by his draft year in 2018/19, producing at a strong rate as well with 19 points in 56 games from the blueline on a poor Jukurit team.

Touted for his defensive game, the Leafs’ selection of Kokkonen in 2019 was seen as more of a “safer” pick on a player falling a bit down the draft board.

Since he was drafted, his results in Finland have stayed roughly the same, however. After spending his entire career in the Jukurit system prior to the 2021/22 season, Kokkonen made the move to Pelicans for this past season, to mixed results. He scored 15 points in 58 games but did so in bunches, as he had an 18 game pointless streak at one point during the year. His once strong team-relative defensive results also took a major dip upon moving to Pelicans, too.

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Despite a disappointing season in Finland, Kokkonen still has promise as a bottom-pair, defensive defenceman. He made his AHL debut at the end of last season with the Marlies and was impressive, scoring seven points in 11 games. I’m very interested to see if Kokkonen’s small sample success was an anomaly or whether his game is in fact more suited to a North American style, which we could see as soon as the rest of the AHL season if Kokkonen joins the Marlies on an amateur try-out to finish the year.

I will note that Kokkonen’s poor season in Finland may be attributed to Pelicans’ overall style of play. Kokkonen’s team had a Corsi-for of an abysmal 44.8% and his individual rate was even worse, down at 43.9%. This is a stark difference from his prior results with Jukurit, where Kokkonen consistently outperformed his team’s poor Corsi-for results despite facing top competition.

For example, Kokkonen had a Corsi-for of 51.3% in 2020/21 despite Jukurit being down at 46.2% as a team.

Kokkonen will have the option of remaining in Finland for one more season to finish out his current contract with Pelicans or coming over to join the Marlies with his new entry-level contract. Personally, I would like to see him begin his full-time career in North America this year as it really feels as though things have stagnated in Finland.

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Playoffs Update

European leagues are in the thick of their playoffs right now, with numerous Leafs prospects still chasing championships in their respective leagues. Here is where everyone stands in their playoff battles to finish off this week’s prospect roundup:

  • Topi Niemela’s record-breaking season in Finland is on the verge of coming to an end as Karpat is down 3-2 in their series against Ilves. Niemela has just one assist through the five-game series so far in what has been a very low-scoring series (more than five combined goals have been scored once).
  • Axel Rindell has appeared in three of the five games for Karpat, going without a point. Interestingly, Rindell was sent down the U20 league for three games in Karpat U20’s playoffs, where he has been dominant as you would anticipate with five points.
  • Roni Hirvonen’s HIFK are down 3-2 in their first-round series against TPS. He’s been great for them in this series, scoring three goals and five points in four games played. Note the four games played, though, as Hirvonen has was out of the lineup in Game 5 with what is seemingly an undisclosed injury.

  • Pontus Holmberg is looking to defend his SHL Playoffs MVP title but is off to a tough start. Vaxjo is down 2-0 in their first-round series against Frolunda, with Holmberg recording one assist so far.
  • Mikko Kokkonen’s Liiga season finished in the play-in round as Pelicans lost against KooKoo in three games. As mentioned earlier, he is eligible to join the Marlies if he so chooses on an amateur try-out for the rest of the season.
  • In what is easily the biggest goaltending storyline in the Leafs organization (sarcasm), Vyacheslav Peksa remains Irbis Kazan’s playoffs starter over the more experienced and older Artur Akhtyamov. Irbis knocked off Chaika Nizhny Novgorod, the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference, and is now in an uphill battle in the MHL semifinals against SKA-1946 St. Petersburg, though they did take Game 1 in a shootout. Peksa has a .928 SV% in nine playoff games.
  • In North America, Matt Knies and Mikey Koster are preparing for their Frozen Four matchup against veteran squad Minnesota State later this week. Minnesota State eliminated Nick Abruzzese’s Harvard squad earlier in the tournament and will be looking to do the same to Knies and Koster.

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