Holmberg earns praise, man-advantage Minten, Niemelä’s numbers: Leafs Prospect Roundup

Photo credit:Nick Barden
Nick Richard
1 year ago
In last week’s Prospect Roundup, we took stock of a number of Leafs prospects and how they have performed through the first couple of months of the season. One of those players was Pontus Holmberg, focusing on his rapid ascension to becoming an NHL regular. Fast forward a week, and his case for staying put in the Leafs’ lineup has only gotten stronger.
Holmberg scored his first NHL goal in last Wednesday’s win over the scorching hot New Jersey Devils, a goal which stood as the game winner. He found the back of the net once again in Saturday’s victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins – a great shot into the top corner over the glove of Casey DeSmith – and established a new career-high with 12:01 of ice time.
Holmberg now has two goals and an assist through his first eight NHL contests, but it is his play away from the puck that has really endeared him to head coach Sheldon Keefe. He was even trusted with a couple of shifts on the penalty kill this past week as he continues to grow into a regular role on the team.
For a team that was playing one of Alex Kerfoot or Pierre Engvall down the middle on a consistent basis, two players who are better suited on the wing, Holmberg has stepped in and helped to solidify the center ice position. In short order, he has proven to be a reliable two-way presence and seems to be gaining more and more trust from Keefe.
If Holmberg keeps this up, and he has shown little reason to doubt that he will, we won’t be talking about him in this space for much longer.

Fraser Minten | C/W | Kamloops (WHL)

It was another productive week for the Leafs’ first pick from the 2022 draft. Minten and his Kamloops Blazers took down Tri-City last Wednesday, with Minten opening the scoring on the powerplay before adding an assist on Logan Stankoven’s third period marker. He would go on to add another powerplay tally in Saturday’s 4-1 victory over Prince George, showcasing his heavy release as a threat on the man advantage.
Minten has been a menace on the powerplay, with five of his seven goals and 14 of his 19 points coming while playing with the man advantage. The flip side of that is that he hasn’t been able to generate much at 5v5, with just five even strength points through 13 games. Despite the lack of even strength production, Minten has still been doing his part to tilt the ice, and he is averaging almost 2.5 shots on goal per game at even strength.
He needs to start converting more regularly at 5v5, but as the old saying goes, they don’t ask how; they ask how many, and Minten is well on pace to surpass his offensive totals from his draft year. He scored 20 goals and 35 assists in 67 games for the Blazers last year, and through 13 games so far this season, he is on pace for 33 goals and 56 assists in 61 games. If and when his even strength shooting luck regresses in a positive manner, that pace could increase, even if his powerplay production slows down a bit.

Topi Niemelä | RHD | Kärpät (Liiga)

Niemelä has struggled to put up points in the same way that he did last season, but he added a couple to his tally this past week, including his fourth goal of the season in a 2-1 win over Lukko on Wednesday. The goal displayed his activation in the offensive zone, as well as his heavy shot, which helped him to be so productive a season ago.
There is no questioning Niemelä’s offensive instincts or his abilities as a shooter and passer but the pucks just haven’t gone in for him so far this season. As has been noted in the Prospect Roundup throughout the season, the dip that Niemelä’s on-ice shooting percentage has taken this year is a significant factor, but he still hasn’t been as active hunting space or shrinking the zone from the point when his team is on the attack. He is still firing more than his fair share of shots at opposing netminders, however, and it feels like a matter of time before he and his teammates start reaping the benefits.
Even without the eye-popping numbers he put up last season, Niemelä has been a key piece for Kärpät, who has been one of the top teams in Liiga so far this season. Continuing to play a prominent role for a strong team with eyes on a deep playoff run can only aid in Niemelä’s development as he prepares to make the jump to North America.

Notes from the rest of the prospect pool:

  • Pontus Holmberg’s gain has been Nick Robertson’s loss these past couple of weeks, despite Holmberg playing center and Robertson lining up on the wing. Holmberg’s play has allowed Sheldon Keefe to shift both Alex Kerfoot and Pierre Engvall back to the wing on a permanent basis, leaving one fewer spot for Robertson to fight for. For now, it appears Robertson will have to bide his time and prepare to capitalize on his next opportunity whenever it comes.
  • Matt Knies and the Minnesota Golden Gophers split a weekend set with his hometown Arizona State Sun Devils, with Knies scoring a goal and an assist in an overtime loss on Saturday night. After a three game pointless streak, Knies now has five points in his last three games, bringing him to nine goals and seven assists in 16 games so far this season.
  • Recent Michigan Wolverines commit Nicholas Moldenhauer was injured against Youngstown on November 18th and missed both of Chicago’s games this past week. For a player who has already dealt with more than his fair share of misfortune, the hope is that Moldenhauer will miss minimal time and get back to helping lead the offensive charge for the Steel.
  • Nick Abruzzese scored a goal and an assist over the Marlies’ three games last week, bringing him to five goals and six assists in his first 18 AHL games. He hasn’t necessarily popped just yet, but he has been a solid secondary contributor for the first place team in the AHL’s North Division.
  • Alex Steeves matched Abruzzese’s output in those three games, but he has been anything but a secondary contributor. After an impressive rookie season, Steeves has upped his game in his second year of pro hockey and already has 17 points through 18 games.
  • Semyon Der-Arguchintsev also tallied a goal and assist last week as he continues what is becoming a bit of a breakout season for the diminutive forward. After compiling 32 points in 51 games last season, he is already tied with Steeves for third in team scoring with 17 points in 18 games.
  • Ty Voit began the week with his second consecutive four assist game but was held off the scoresheet in each of Sarnia’s next two games – one of which was a blowout 10-0 defeat at the hands of the Flint Firebirds. After being held without a point just twice in his first 18 games, he has now been held scoreless in four of his last six outings. Voit still leads the OHL in scoring with 40 points in just 24 games, but his lead isn’t as wide as it was a couple of weeks ago.
  • Key in that explosive offensive showing for Flint was Braeden Kressler, who tallied three assists in the contest to extend his point streak to four games. Kressler is now in his final year of junior hockey, but he has missed ample development time due to injuries and the 2020-21 OHL season being canceled. Now healthy, it is encouraging to see Kressler playing a prominent role and producing offensively. He now has 12 goals and nine assists in 16 games.
  • Dmitry Ovchinnikov has had a slow start offensively but notched his fourth goal of the KHL season last week, bringing him to seven points in 37 games so far this season. His usage has been a bit up and down again as of late, and the Leafs will surely be eager to get him back under their developmental umbrella.
  • Artur Akhtyamov played just one game last week, but it was another stellar performance in what has been an incredible season for the Russian netminder thus far. He stopped 35 of 36 shots in a 3-1 victory over Buran on Sunday, upping his save percentage for the season to .940 through 21 games. It’s getting more and more difficult to ignore what he has been able to do so far this season.
  • Last week also marked a return to action for another Leafs goaltending prospect, 2016 third-round pick Joseph Woll. After recovering from shoulder and ankle injuries that forced him to miss camp and the beginning of the season, he served as the backup for a pair of games before getting his first start against Cleveland on Friday. It was a great first step for Woll as he looks to reclaim his place on the depth chart, stopping 20 of 21 shots in a 4-1 win.
(Statistics from EliteProspects.com)

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