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TLN Prospect #4: Roni Hirvonen makes life difficult for his opponents

Roni Hirvonen is just 20 years old, he’s currently starring for Team Finland at the World Juniors, and yet he already has three seasons of professional hockey under his belt. Maturity has been the name of the game for Hirvonen since his draft year and is a major reason why he became a Liiga regular at just 17 years old.

Coming into the 2021-22 season, Hirvonen was looking to take the next step as a player. While he showed flashes in his DY+1 campaign, particularly at the 2021 World Juniors, he failed to take a notable step offensively and had somewhat stagnated in the Ässät system.

A move to HIFK and a full-time shift to the left wing was just what Roni Hirvonen needed to spark that uptick in performance, bumping him up two spots on the TLN Prospect Rankings and reinforcing the middle-six potential that made him a second-round pick in 2020.

Roni Hirvonen

LW | HIFK (Liiga) | Age: 20 | 5-foot-9 | 172 lbs | Shoots: L
Acquired: 2020 Draft, 59th Overall | 2021 Ranking: #6

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While beginning his Liiga career with Ässät was a benefit given the ice-time and opportunity to play at the professional level, it showed its negatives in Roni Hirvonen’s DY+1 season. Playing on a team that finished fourth from the bottom of the Liiga standings, Hirvonen was playing regular minutes…but wasn’t getting much help. He finished fifth in team scoring despite only 21 points in 54 games.

Hirvonen landed with HIFK, one of the top teams in Finland that was coming off of a second-place finish in the regular season and a trip to the semi-finals. This move allowed Hirvonen to play on a deeper team with better teammates, even if it sacrificed a couple of minutes of time-on-ice per game.

The transfer proved fruitful, as Hirvonen saw his rate of production and on-ice impacts greatly increase from his time with Ässät. Hirvonen scored nine goals and 26 points in 46 regular season games, adding another three goals and six points in an impressive five-game showing in the postseason that would’ve been even better had he not been injured.

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Statistically, Hirvonen is a big breakout candidate heading into next season. He is already one of the better playmakers in Liiga relative to his ice-time, consistently improving on that front year over year.

Where he really stands out is in his individual shot generation. Hirvonen peppered goaltenders with 9.5 shots per 60, ranking sixth in Finland in that category. Despite this significant amount of shot volume, Hirvonen scored just nine goals in the regular season, an 8.65 per cent conversion rate.

With a swing his way in terms of shooting luck and consistent form as a playmaker, Hirvonen is in store for a big year with HIFK.

As always, context is key. Hirvonen’s 32 points in 51 total games in Liiga pale in comparison to the numbers put up by prospects playing at junior levels due to the level of competition he is playing at. So how does he fair relative to his peers? This is where it gets interesting.

The list of top DY+2 scorers (regular season plus playoffs) in Liiga over the past decade is a mixed bag. You have names like Mikael Granlund and Teuvo Teravainen at the top…but then an underwhelming group following.

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Hirvonen ranks in the top ten but the group around him haven’t faired all that well in the NHL either.

What is promising, though, is Hirvonen’s playoff scoring. Of the same group of DY+2 forwards, many struggled to make an impact in the postseason. Hirvonen’s six playoff points only rank behind Joel Armia and Juuso Parssinen’s eight since 2011-12, a mark Hirvonen would have certainly beat had he played more than five games. Armia played 11 more games than Hirvonen, while Parssinen played eight more.

Interestingly, the other DY+2 forward to perform well in a limited playoff sample over the past decade was Joonas Donskoi in 2011-12, who scored six points in six games with Kärpät. Donskoi scored at a lower rate than Hirvonen at the same age and didn’t breakout until his mid-20s, but is a notable statistical comparable given Hirvonen’s similar upside as a middle-six winger.

Back to the overall stats, Hirvonen wasn’t just a shot generation machine for himself, he did so for his team as a whole. He finished fifth among Liiga forwards in Corsi-for at 60.9 per cent, a mightily impressive feat considering his age. Despite the positive impact as a two-way player, his on-ice goal impacts were decimated by an abysmal on-ice PDO of just 0.958.

Speaking of Hirvonen’s defensive acumen, the root of his success on the ice revolves around his intelligence. He’s an incredibly smart player and uses his hockey sense to be an effective presence despite a lack of top-end speed.

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In the defensive zone, Hirvonen is constantly aware of his surroundings. He is quick to pressure his man when they receive the puck, creating numerous turnovers and bad passes as a result.

Here, Hirvonen overwhelms the opposing right winger quickly off of the draw, stealing the puck and creating a rush opportunity out of a defensive zone faceoff loss.

This is just a top-notch shift. Hirvonen has an opportunity to fly the zone, but as he remains aware of the play developing, stops and pivots back to defending as his team is unable to clear the zone. He then pressures the opposition not once, not twice, but three times. Hirvonen picks up the loose puck off of the rebound, turns it into a clean exit and a cross-ice pass, and eventually records the secondary assist as a result.

Hirvonen is also comfortable putting his body on the line to block a shot. Here, he blocks a shot off of the faceoff loss and breaks up a pass immediately afterwards, turning play the other direction and nearly creating an odd-man rush out of a defensive zone faceoff loss.

Where Hirvonen really stands out defensively is before the play even gets into the defensive zone. He’s an adept transition defender, pressuring puck carriers into mistakes and funnelling play to the outside.

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As we continue moving up the ice, these instincts and skills also make Hirvonen a strong forechecker. Just as he is in his own end and the neutral zone, he’s quick to pressure defenders and can catch them off guard with his relentless harassment.

Hirvonen’s intelligence around the ice and work ethic to constantly pressure his opponents makes him a nuisance to play against. He’s always looking to make life difficult for the team he’s facing.

Offensively, Hirvonen succeeds most as an in-zone creator. He’s a good playmaker off of the cycle as he’s particularly skilled in the “dirty areas”, winning battles and turning them into quick passes to dangerous areas.

This makes Hirvonen a goal threat from around the net as well, an area he scored a fair amount of his points from. Take his game-winning goal from the 2021 World Juniors against Sweden as an example of his prowess around the net.

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Hirvonen is also a sneaky shooting threat, with a quick and hard shot that he can get off in traffic.

Hirvonen can stand to round out his offensive game as a rush attacker. He became more involved in transition as the season went along, but I found Hirvonen to be fairly passive when carrying the puck up the ice. He primarily played a give-and-go style, looking to pass quickly rather than carrying the puck himself.

When he did carry the puck, often it resulted in a dump-in. I would like to see Hirvonen carry the puck into the zone more often and become more creative in transition to really round out his offensive game. This is an example where Hirvonen does carry the puck in, a play that keeps possession in HIFK’s hands and eventually leads to a primary assist off of the cycle for him.

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One of the knocks on Hirvonen has been his lack of speed given his smaller frame. While this will always be a hurdle to overcome, I don’t think it is a major concern. He will need to add a step to his top-end speed, but Hirvonen is already quick to jump on loose pucks and pressure opponents. His lack of top-end speed won’t impact his ability to remain strong in these areas at the next level, even if it does limit his ability to be a dynamic presence.

Hirvonen’s skillset makes him a player that profiles as a potential middle-six winger in the future, one that can be a complementary piece offensively while helping push play in the right direction defensively.

Looking ahead to next season, Hirvonen is under contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs having signed his entry-level contract in the spring, but will remain with HIFK for the final year of his Liiga deal. As a 20-year-old with a Liiga contract, Hirvonen must be offered back to his team in Finland if he is not on the NHL roster.

Back with HIFK, we can expect Hirvonen to continue to rise up their lineup and gain more responsibility in his second season with the team. He almost exclusively played as their 3LW last year, I would anticipate he gets a look in their top six early and often. His playoff performance coupled with his strong showing right now at the World Juniors bodes well for the situation he will find himself in next year.

Come to the end of his Liiga season, he will join the Toronto Marlies for his AHL debut and hopefully a Calder Cup run.

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Roni Hirvonen’s impressive season in Finland has flown under the radar given the success of the three prospects ahead of him on the TLN Prospect Rankings, but it is not one that should be glossed over. At a tournament that features both Matt Knies and Topi Niemela, it’s Hirvonen that is grabbing the attention of Maple Leafs fans at the 2022 World Juniors.

With more ice-time and a progression to the mean in his shooting luck, don’t be surprised if 2022-23 is Roni Hirvonen’s turn to have a breakout season.

Statistics from Elite Prospects, Pick 224

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