Leafs Prospect Roundup: Knies returning to college, OHL regular season concludes, Growlers set to finally defend 2019 championship
Photo credit:Nick Barden
By Kyle Cushman1 year ago
It’s time for another edition of the Toronto Maple Leafs prospect roundup! Now into the back half of April, even more prospects are approaching their playoffs and a couple of others have been eliminated over the past week.
There’s quite a bit to get to this week, so let’s not waste any time and dive right into things.
Matt Knies | LW | Minnesota (Big Ten)
We’ll have to wait at least one more year to see Matt Knies make the jump to the professional ranks. On Thursday night, Knies and the Maple Leafs confirmed that he will not be signing his entry-level contract and is returning to the University of Minnesota for his sophomore season.
The Knies discussion has been discussed ad nauseam, so I’ll keep things relatively brief. In last week’s roundup, Nick Richard summarized Knies’ season and his then-upcoming decision nicely.
Expectations for Knies got out of hand quickly. Realistically, Knies was debating between being a depth option for the Leafs in the short term and likely playing most of 2022/23 with the Marlies versus the merits of returning to college and turning pro at the end of the 2022/23 NCAA season. It’s easy to forget that less than a year ago, Knies was a late second-round pick out of the USHL. He has less than 40 games of NCAA experience under his belt. Returning to the NCAA is the safest decision for his development and arguably the best option he had as well.
For me, I think what Knies decided is best as well. He gets to return to Minnesota and be a leader on a team that will again challenge for the national championship. At the end of the year, Knies can then turn pro and push for NHL minutes with much more experience and development.
There are benefits for the Leafs from this decision too. As Knies is a late 2022 birthday, signing an entry-level contract in 2022 would have meant he immediately burned the first year of the contract upon signing. With him returning to college, the Leafs will have Knies on an ELC for an extra year of development, a potentially significant ramification. Assuming Knies signs at the end of the 2022/23 NCAA season, Toronto would have Knies on an ELC through 2025/26.
Nobody has ever stayed in college too long.
Nick Abruzzese | LW | Maple Leafs (NHL)
@Nick Abruzzese has been in and out of the lineup as one would expect since signing his entry-level contract and joining the Leafs roster upon the completion of his season with Harvard. There has been an adjustment period, of course, jumping from the NCAA to the NHL and trying to get comfortable while playing seven to ten minutes isn’t easy by any means.
On Sunday night, Abruzzese returned to the Leafs fourth line and despite playing just 7:46 in the game, looked the best he has on NHL ice in his young career.
Toronto’s fourth line of Abruzzese, @Jason Spezza, and @Wayne Simmonds was dominant in limited minutes. Shot attempts were 12-2 in the Leafs’ favour with Abruzzese on the ice against the Islanders at 5-on-5. He made some nice plays, including a takeaway and subsequent dangerous pass to Spezza.
While the Leafs feel good about their top nine, the fourth line is a question mark as it stands. All of Abruzzese, Spezza, Simmonds, @Colin Blackwell, and @Kyle Clifford have rotated in and out of the lineup as Sheldon Keefe looks to find some combination that gives Toronto a line they can go to for less than 10 minutes of effective hockey in the playoffs.
Abruzzese’s showing in limited minutes on Sunday is one that should get him another look or two this week.
Ty Voit | C/RW | Sarnia (OHL)
The OHL regular season wrapped up over the weekend and @Ty Voit decided to finish it off in style.
On Friday, Voit scored two goals and four points against Saginaw to reach the 80 point mark on the year. It was a phenomenal season from the Leafs 2021 fifth-round pick, emerging as the top offensive contributor that was expected of him had the OHL been able to play during his draft year in 2020/21.
With 26 goals and 80 points in 67 games, Voit just cracked the top 20 in OHL scoring. He was by far the best player on a young Sarnia Sting squad, leading his team in scoring by 21 points. Among OHL players first-time eligible for the 2021 NHL draft, Voit ranked 10th in points per game.
Where Voit shone brightest all year was at even strength. While we don’t quite have updated data through the end of the regular season, Pick224.com’s last update in early April had Voit top ten in even-strength scoring this year and second in even-strength primary assists, only behind Dallas first-round pick Wyatt Johnston.
Voit was leaned on to be an offensive catalyst this year and he did just that, doing so while also moving to centre from the wing for a majority of the season.
The Sting and Voit will be in tough in the first round of the playoffs as the #8 seed, taking on the Western Conference’s top-seeded Windsor Spitfires. If Sarnia is eliminated swiftly by the Spitfires, as is anticipated, look for Voit to join the Marlies not long afterwards to finish off the 2021/22 season.
Braeden Kressler | C/RW | Flint (OHL)
The other Leafs prospect based in the OHL, @Braeden Kressler made his return from a torn UCL injury just in time to play a few games before the playoffs.
Out since January 1, Kressler finally came back to the Firebirds’ lineup on April 9. This past week, he picked up three assists in three games to begin to pick up some confidence heading into Flint’s first-round series.
Undrafted, Kressler impressed at the Leafs development camp and rookie tournament enough to earn an entry-level contract. His season hasn’t gone as planned, being demoted to a secondary role early on by Flint and suffering the aforementioned significant injury which has kept him out of action for nearly the entire second half of the season.
Finishing the year with just five goals and 16 points in 28 games, Kressler had an underwhelming season. If he wasn’t signed by Toronto prior to the start of the OHL year, he almost certainly wouldn’t be drafted as an overage prospect.
I still believe signing Kressler was the right decision by Toronto and hope they continue to sign a standout invite from the development camp and the rookie tournament in the future. Kressler still possesses the tools that made him a nice addition as a free agent. He’s a tenacious, speedy forward with playmaking ability while also having good defensive results in his OHL career.
The #3 seed Flint Firebirds begin their playoffs later in the week as they take on #6 Owen Sound. Given his extended layoff, I’m looking forward to watching Kressler in the playoffs for Flint. I hope they can go a couple of rounds deep and he can finish a difficult year on a positive note.
Vyacheslav Peksa, Artur Akhtyamov | G | Irbis (MHL)
Irbis Kazan’s playoffs came to an end over the past week as they lost in the MHL semifinals to SKA-1946 St. Petersburg. It was a great run for the #5 seed Irbis, knocking off #4 Tolpar Ufa and #2 Chaika Nizhny Novogorod en route to the semis.
We’ve written often about the awkward situation in the net for the two Leafs prospects Vyacheslav Peksa and Artur Akhtyamov over this run. Peksa played nearly every regular-season game for Irbis, posting excellent numbers, but lost the starting gig to Akhtyamov at the start of the playoffs when he was sent down following the elimination of Kazan’s VHL affiliate. Then, after two subpar games from Akhtyamov, Peksa got back in the crease and didn’t look back.
In the fifth and final game of the semifinal series against SKA-1946, Peksa did just about everything he could to will his team to victory. He stopped 32 of 34 in a 2-0 loss in the deciding Game 5 as Irbis bowed out of the MHL playoffs.
Overall, Peksa posted a .919 postseason save percentage in 13 appearances. This comes after a stellar regular season in which he had a .936 SV% in 56 games as well.
An overage draft pick in 2021, Peksa was an unexpected pick by Toronto in the sixth round. He was largely a backup at the MHL level as a DY+1, having mediocre numbers as well with a .909 save percentage in 17 games. His emergence this year has been very impressive all things considered.
Going into next year, not only has Peksa set himself up for a promotion to the VHL, he’s closed the gap to 2020 fourth-round pick Artur Akhtyamov significantly with this postseason run.
The Newfoundland Growlers are set to finally begin the defence of their inaugural season’s Kelly Cup championship this week as they begin the ECHL playoffs against Trois-Rivieres.
I’m interested to see which players are made available to the Growlers for the playoffs. Ryan Chyzowski and Keith Petruzzelli were sent down over the weekend, with short-term call-ups Zach O’Brien, Noel Hoefenmayer, and Ben Finkelstein certain to join them prior to Game 1.
What I’m keeping an eye on is whether Leafs prospects @Pavel Gogolev and/or @Dmitry Ovchinnikov are sent down for the postseason run. Gogolev has already spent time with the Growlers recently and has not been getting into the Marlies lineup since being recalled. He would add a major offensive spark to an already dangerous Growlers squad.
For Ovchinnikov, I don’t think he’ll be sent down as he hasn’t played for the Growlers at all since signing his entry-level contract, but I could see it making sense. Back in 2019, @Semyon Der-Arguchintsev joined the Growlers after his season in Peterborough was complete. The difference here is that Der-Arguchintsev played three regular-season games with Newfoundland before playing nine in the Kelly Cup playoffs, whereas Ovchinnikov or anyone else such as Ty Voit would be coming in cold.
Be sure to check out the Growlers run. They won the Kelly Cup in their first season of existence, then had the 2020 playoffs cancelled and did not play in 2021 due to COVID travel concerns. Returning players from the 2019 championship squad are Zach O’Brien, Marcus Power (currently out), Todd Skirving, Derian Plouffe, Garrett Johnston, James Melindy, and Evan Neugold, who will all be looking to remind the ECHL what Newfoundland has got alongside a fun, young roster.
Other notes from around the pool
- It has been a rough stretch for @Mikhail Abramov, so it was good to see him find the back of the net again over the weekend. Over the past 20 games, Abramov has just two goals and four points. After a promising middle part of the season, it has been a disappointing rookie season in the AHL for Abramov.
- On the flip side, @Nicholas Robertson continues to put on a show with the Marlies. He’s now on a six-game point streak and registered 11 shots on goal in two games last week. As much as I’ve disliked the “yo-yo” Robertson has been on so far in his professional career, I wouldn’t hate him getting one more look on the Leafs’ fourth line before the season’s over.
- Following HIFK’s elimination in the first round of the Liiga playoffs, Roni Hirvonen joined Finland for the U20 Four Nations Tournament over the past week. In three games played, Hirvonen finished tied for the tournament lead in goals (3) and points (6). The next question for Hirvonen is whether he comes over and joins the Marlies on an amateur try-out for the rest of the season.
- Finally, @Rodion Amirov returned to Ufa last week. He posted a video on his Instagram of his return to the Salavat facilities again after being in Germany for chemotherapy. Once again, it’s incredible to see him in such good spirits given all he’s gone through over the past few months.
- Breaking down the Toronto Marlies five NCAA free agent signings by Kyle Cushman
- Relax, Auston Matthews is going to win the Hart by Jon Steitzer
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