Topi Niemelä’s Marlies debut, Minten on the shelf, Abruzzese gets the call: Leafs Prospect Roundup
By Nick Richard10 months ago
After joining the team earlier in the week, Topi Niemelä made his long-awaited North American debut as the Marlies snapped a seven-game losing streak with a decisive 6-2 win over the Belleville Senators. The Marlies also clinched the AHL’s North Division title with the victory, and though his AHL career is just getting started, Niemelä looks like a player who could play a key role in their pursuit of a Calder Cup.
Niemelä was fairly sheltered at even strength in his Marlies debut but looked composed and confident in the way that he moved the puck and joined the rush. The hallmark of his offensive game is the way he activates into open space in transition to create advantages for his team off the rush, and that was on display in Sunday’s contest.
Watch how Niemelä draws the forechecking forward toward him before making a crisp breakout pass into the neutral zone, then jumps into open space around his man to create an odd-man rush that leads to a great scoring opportunity in the slot:
Niemelä also manned the point on the Marlies’ first powerplay unit and registered his first career AHL point with a secondary assist on Logan Shaw’s 20th goal of the season. Even though he didn’t have a chance to practice with the team before playing his first game, head coach Greg Moore liked what Niemelä brought to the powerplay, and that will likely be a big part of him securing a regular place in the lineup down the stretch.
Overall, it was an impressive AHL debut for the Leafs’ third-round pick from the 2020 draft, as he finished with an assist, three shots on goal, and a +1 rating. He showed poise with the puck on his stick, moved it efficiently, displayed confidence in joining the offensive attack, and avoided any defensive miscues.
There are a lot of bodies battling for minutes on the Marlies’ blue line, and he will have to earn his place as a newcomer on a team with championship aspirations, but Niemelä’s first impression was a good one.
Notes from the rest of the prospect pool:
- Fraser Minten has been out of the lineup for each of Kamloops’ first two games of the postseason, dealing with an undisclosed injury. Despite being relegated to a complementary role as the Blazers loaded up through the trade market, Minten has played a big role in his club’s success to this point in the season, but expect them to remain cautious with an early 2-0 lead in their first-round series.
- Roni Hirvonen and his club advanced to the second round of the Liiga playoffs when they disposed of Lukko with a 3-2 overtime win in game six last Monday. HIFK began their second-round series against Tappara on Friday, losing 3-2 in overtime, but bounced back to tie the series with a 4-2 victory on Saturday. Hirvonen scored two goals in the opening game of the first round but has registered just one assist in the seven games since then.
- Pontus Holmberg broke a four-game pointless streak in Sunday’s win, tallying an assist on Zach O’Brien’s second period powerplay marker before sealing the game with an empty net goal in the dying moments. He has had to watch as players like Alex Steeves, Radim Zohorna, and Nick Abruzzese have earned recalls by the big club as of late, but Holmberg could still factor in for the Leafs if injuries mount down the stretch.
- Speaking of Abruzzese, he became the latest Marlie to join the Leafs’ lineup this season when he suited up in Sunday’s 5-2 loss to the Red Wings. With Mitch Marner receiving the night off, Abruzzese got the call and started on the fourth line with Zohorna and Wayne Simmonds, but he was also given a look on the second powerplay unit and tallied his first career NHL assist on Calle Järnkrok’s 19th of the season just as a Detroit penalty expired in the first period. He also drew the penalty that led to John Tavares’ third period powerplay goal with a good effort in the defensive zone. After notching his first NHL goal in last season’s regular season finale, Abruzzese is now riding a mini two-game point streak at the NHL level.
- Ty Voit and the Sarnia Sting began the OHL playoff run over the weekend, taking the first two games of their opening-round series against the Guelph Storm. Voit picked up right where he left off in what was a spectacular regular season, tallying a pair of assists in each game to help lead the offensive charge. If Sarnia is going to go far in the postseason, Voit will be a big reason why.
- Nick Moldenhauer had a big weekend for the Chicago Steel as they played a pair of games against the USNTDP, highlighted by an overtime winner to cap off a two-goal performance on Friday. He added an assist in Saturday’s 7-3 win, bringing him to 27 goals and 36 assists in 49 games this season to lead all 2022 draftees in USHL scoring.
- Semyon Der-Arguchintsev returned to the Marlies lineup over the weekend after dealing with a concussion that had kept him out of action since February 10th. He was held off the scoresheet as the Marlies were shutout on Saturday but notched the game-winner with a great individual effort and finished with three points in Sunday’s 6-2 victory over Belleville. SDA now has 10 goals and 26 assists in 45 games this season.
- Alex Steeves also got back into the goal column for the Marlies on Sunday for the first time since he scored a pair way back on February 3rd. Despite the lack of goal production, Steeves has been contributing offense and has surpassed his point total from his rookie year with 18 goals and 30 assists in 60 games thus far.
- Ryan Tverberg has yet to register a point through his first few AHL games but he was flying on Sunday and had a number of great chances before he was forced to leave the game with an upper-body injury. Hopefully he isn’t forced to miss significant time because he was starting to look more and more comfortable at the pro level, with his speed and tenacity causing problems for the opposition.
- Niemelä wasn’t the only Leafs prospect to join the Marlies this past week as the club also assigned netminder Dennis Hildeby to their AHL affiliate after his SHL club was eliminated from the postseason. Chosen in the fourth round of last summer’s draft, the towering Swede put together an impressive season for Färjestad, finishing with a 2.26 GAA and .918 SV% in 21 games. The move could be coming at just the right time, as a crowded Marlies crease might become a little less crowded after Matt Murray left Sunday’s game against Detroit with another unfortunate injury.
- One of the goaltenders that Hildeby will be competing with for playing time down the stretch, Keith Petruzzelli, had a great game as the Marlies snapped their losing streak on Sunday. He stopped 40 of the 42 shots that Belleville directed his way, bringing his save percentage through 23 games on the season to .910. His most notable moment of the game, however, may have been the penalty he took on a vicious two-handed slash to Belleville’s Matthew Boucher that was barely picked up on the broadcast.
- Brandon Lisowsky and Josh Pillar find themselves in an early hole to open Saskatoon’s first-round series against Connor Bedard and the Regina Pats. Pillar managed a goal in Sunday’s overtime loss, but Lisowsky has been held off the scoresheet through two games despite firing eight shots on net. Lisowsky has been a lethal scoring threat all season long, so the goals should start to come if he is able to continue generating chances, but the Blades are in tough after dropping the first two games of the series.
(Statistics from EliteProspects.com)
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