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Robertson making his case, Knies headlines hot starts for Leafs prospects: Leafs Prospect Roundup

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Photo credit:Nick Barden
Nick Richard
2 months ago
We’re back! Welcome to the first edition of the Leafs Prospect Roundup for the 2022-23 season. Every Monday, we’ll bring you up to date on the latest from the Leafs’ prospect pool, including news, stats, and highlights.
Prospects from several leagues have gotten their seasons underway already, but all eyes have been focused on training camp and the battles for positions on the Leafs’ opening night roster. One of the top prospects in the organization, Nick Robertson, has been building his case for an NHL job through the early part of the preseason and appears to have taken his game to a new level so far.
If Robertson is going to make this team, he is going to have to prove that he can produce offense, and he has done just that through three preseason appearances, notching three goals and an assist. On top of the offensive production, Robertson looks more composed with the puck on his stick, and added strength from the offseason has made him more effective at playing through traffic and battling for contested pucks.
Robertson’s next opportunity to show what he’s got will be Monday’s clash against the Canadiens, and he will be given a chance to skate in a prominent role alongside Alex Kerfoot and William Nylander. Finding chemistry with Nylander, in particular, would go a long way towards securing a place on the opening night roster, with the third spot on Toronto’s second line still up for grabs.
The one thing working against Robertson is the fact that he is exempt from waivers, unlike most of the players he is competing with for a spot on the opening night roster. The club obviously won’t want to lose a capable NHL forward on waivers, but if Robertson continues to perform the way he has to this point in camp, they will have to weigh that risk against what is best for Robertson’s long-term development.
There are just three preseason games remaining for the Leafs, so we’ll soon know Robertson’s fate to begin the season, but in the meantime, let’s catch up with some of the organization’s up-and-comers who could find themselves battling for spots with the big club in the future.

Matthew Knies | W | Minnesota (NCAA)

Knies wrestled with the decision to turn pro following a fantastic freshman season with Minnesota that saw him earn a place on Team USA’s Olympic roster, and after opting to return for his freshman season, many were wondering what Knies might do for an encore.
Well, it’s early, but he has been a force through two games and looks to have picked up where he left off last season when he nearly willed the Gophers to an appearance in the National Championship. Minnesota kicked off their campaign with a weekend series against Lindenwood, and Knies wasted little time getting on the scoresheet. He scored his first goal of the season and added an assist in game one, and followed that up with another tally in the second game. He also fired five shots on goal in each contest.
Along with the scoring, Knies has continued to be a menace for the opposition with his physical play. It’s not just the big hits either, though he still delivers his share of them, and the way he uses his body to protect pucks and get them off the wall or create space for his teammates is a big reason for Minnesota’s success when he is one the ice.
Knies considered joining the Leafs last spring but ultimately decided that another year of growth at the college level would serve him well. He will have to continue to round out his game and build upon the strong start, but with his wealth of physical tools and raw skill level, he looks like a player who is ready to contribute at the NHL level in some capacity. With another year of development under his belt, Knies could find himself making an impact for the Leafs as early as next spring.

Topi Niemelä | RHD | Kärpät (Liiga)

Niemelä had a prolific offensive season in 2021-22, finishing with one of the most productive seasons from a U20 blueliner in Liiga history. The points have been harder to come by through the early part of the 2022-23 campaign, with Niemelä notching a lone assist through Kärpät’s first six games, but he has been the victim of the lowest on-ice shooting percentage on his team, and his underlying numbers have been solid, currently leading Kärpät defenders with a 62.7 CF%.
It’s worth noting that he has been receiving favorable deployment, starting a high percentage of his shifts in the offensive zone, but if he is able to continue driving play the way he has, the points will come eventually.
Touted as a defense-first player coming out of the 2020 draft, Niemelä’s offensive growth has elevated him towards the top of the Leafs’ prospect pipeline. He is as proactive offensively as he is defensively, often one step ahead of the competition, and the way he activates and hunts space from the point in the offensive zone presents problems for opposing defenses. That he has been able to impact the game in the offensive end so consistently without sacrificing much, if anything, on the defensive side is reason for optimism in terms of his NHL projection.

Nicholas Moldenhauer | C/W | Chicago (USHL)

The Leafs were thrilled to land hometown boy Moldenhauer at the end of the third round in this past summer’s draft, and they have to be just as pleased with how he has started the season. Through the Steel’s first four games of the season, he has already scored three goals and added a pair of assists. Moldenhauer is surely pleased about the strong start as well, especially after a mystery illness and a severe laceration from a skate blade to the face disrupted the first half of his draft year.
Perhaps more impressive than his production to start the season is the fact that he is doing it playing in the middle of the ice after lining up on the wing for most of last season. Moldenhauer is a hardworking, shifty forward with good speed whose skill set works well at center. Though he can still be a bit too straight-line oriented off the rush, he handles the puck well and has good vision to move the puck up ice in transition. He competes hard on the forecheck to sustain possessions, and he combines slick hands with great contact balance to play through traffic and get pucks into dangerous areas.
Already a dual-threat offensively, showing he can handle the defensive responsibilities that come with playing in the middle of the ice would be big for Moldenhauer’s development and standing in the organization. With his health issues hopefully behind him, Moldenhauer is primed for a big year in the USHL and is a prime candidate to outperform his draft slot.

Notes from the rest of the prospect pool

  • Toronto’s first selection from the 2022 draft, Fraser Minten, had his first NHL training camp cut short due to a wrist injury. He was almost certainly ticketed for a return to junior regardless, but any time spent skating with the big club is valuable for a young player, and he showed well in his lone preseason outing. Suiting up against the Senators, he saw just over 12 minutes of ice time, won 57% of his faceoffs, fired a shot on goal, landed a couple of hits, and finished +4.It remains to be seen just how much time Minten will miss to begin the season, but he is destined for a prominent role with Kamloops whenever he gets healthy. He attended Team Canada’s summer evaluation camp for the upcoming World Juniors, and the hope is that he can get back on the ice with enough time to ramp up and earn a spot representing his country this holiday season.
  • Pontus Holmberg has also made a name for himself through the early days of his first NHL training camp, regularly centering William Nylander and looking the part of an NHL player in the process. He has been held off the scoresheet through three games but his effectiveness on the forecheck and efficiency moving the puck have stood out in a positive way. Holmberg may never be a big time offensive contributor in the NHL, but he looks like a solid two-way pivot who can chip in with a bit of secondary scoring down the road.
  • Roni Hirvonen set career-highs in both goals and assists after moving to a new club last season, and he has been productive early on for HIFK again this season. Through eight games, he has tallied a goal and three assists, with most of that coming since he was moved up the lineup. He began the season in a third line center role but has since been elevated to a top-six wing spot, and that’s where he appears more comfortable.
  • Ryan Tverberg was one of the biggest stories in the world of Leafs prospects last season, and he is off to another strong start so far in 2022-23. After lining up as a winger almost exclusively last year, he has been playing center so far this season as he takes on a larger role in his junior season. The move has worked through two games, and Tverberg picked up a goal and an assist in two games on the opening weekend of UConn’s season.
  • Another bright spot from last season, Ty Voit has picked up where he left off last year with the Sarnia Sting – with one key difference. He played center for much of last season but has been moved back to the wing so far this season. Voit has the skill set to play in the middle of the ice, but his lack of size and strength is less of a hindrance on the wing, where he isn’t relied upon so much defensively. Through two games, it hasn’t affected his offensive output, and he already has a pair of goals to go along with two assists.
  • Veeti Miettinen had a great freshman season for St. Cloud State in 2020-21 but took a bit of a step back last year. He is off to a scorching start so far in 2022-23, however, with a goal and three assists in his first two games. Now a veteran with the Huskies, Miettinen will be looked to as a primary contributor in his junior season. If he is able to live up to that and return to the form he displayed as a freshman, he will be a candidate for an entry level contract with the Leafs next spring.
  • Mike Koster, a 2019 fifth-round pick and teammate of Matthew Knies at Minnesota, is also off to a hot start offensively. He picked up a goal and an assist in Sunday’s 6-4 win over Lindenwood. Koster is now in his third college season and this will be a big season for him in terms of his chances of earning an entry level contract. The Leafs hold his rights until the summer of 2024, but with fresh faces joining the Leafs’ system, Koster will be looking to stand out this season.
  • Netminder Artur Akhtyamov had a difficult ending to his 2021-22 campaign and lost his starting job to fellow Leafs prospect Vladislav Peksa early in the MHL playoffs after spending most of the season playing up a level in the VHL. He has been loaned to another VHL club this season and has been fantastic through the early part of the season for Neftyanik. He is 3-3-1 through seven appearances, sporting a stellar 1.70 GAA and .940 SV%.
  • Peksa has been nearly as good taking over for Akhtyamov with Bars Kazan in the VHL. Through the first six VHL appearances of his career, the 20-year-old Peksa is 3-2-1 with a 2.21 GAA and .929 SV%. He was one of the top netminders in the Russian junior league last season, and he has been able to carry that over to the pro level so far this season. Like most goaltenders, Akhtyamov and Peksa are long-term projects, but the Leafs appear to have a couple of viable goaltending prospects in the pipeline with these two.
  • It hasn’t gone as well for 2022 fourth-round pick Dennis Hildeby thus far in 2022-23. He has only gotten into two games for Färjestad, but he has given up eight goals on just 51 shots and has ceded most of the playing time to Canadian Olympian Matt Tomkins. It’s still early, however, and there is plenty of time for Hildeby to get on track and find the form that saw him put up a .931 SV% through seven SHL games last season.
  • 2022 seventh-rounder Brandon Lisowsky was a big-time goal scorer for Saskatoon in the WHL last season, but he has been getting it done as a playmaker so far this season. He hasn’t found the back of the net through his first three games, but he has managed four assists. Learning to better utilize his teammates and diversify his offensive attack was an area of focus for Lisowsky heading into the season, and the early returns have been encouraging.
 
(Statistics from EliteProspects.com, CBSSports.com, and Liiga.fi)
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