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It has been an uneven start – to say the least – for the Leafs who have faced plenty of adversity in the first couple weeks of their season. If that hasn’t been enough for the fanbase, the two top prospects in the organization are now on the shelf and expected to miss significant time.
But much like there have been scattered bright spots on the Leafs’ NHL roster during dark times, there are prospects within the system whose performances so far have helped ease the sting of other misfortunes. Before we take a look at some of the standouts from the past week, an update on the status of 2020 first-round pick Rodion Amirov:
Rodion Amirov | W | Salavat Yulaev Ufa (KHL)
Amirov has gotten into just three of Ufa’s 23 regular season contests so far and hasn’t suited up since September 29th due to an undisclosed injury. The exact nature of the injury remains a mystery but thanks to some great investigative work by The Athletic’s Joshua Kloke
, we now have a bit more insight into Amirov’s current situation.
Given the comments from his coach and the fact that he is seeing what one can only assume are some kind of medical specialists in Germany, Amirov’s injury sounds like a serious one. It is another tough blow for the young winger after recovering from an injury that derailed a strong preseason showing and forced him to miss the beginning of the KHL’s regular season. He appeared primed to take on a more prominent role for Ufa this season and is now facing an uphill battle just to get healthy enough to play again.
You can rest assured that the Leafs are keeping a close eye on the situation, and with Amirov already under contract, they will ultimately have the final say in how to move forward with treatment.
Topi Niemelä | RHD | Kärpät (Liiga)
Niemelä just keeps piling up points. He added a pair of assists over three games this week, bringing his season totals up to two goals and 12 assists through 16 games. His current pace of .88 points per game has him on track for one of the most prolific offensive seasons for a U20 blueliner in Liiga history.
Miro Heiskanen’s 18-year old season is the only recent example that comes close to Niemelä’s current rate, where Heiskanen scored at 0.77 PPG in 2017/18.
Past that, Sami Vatanen’s 0.60 PPG in 2010/11 will be the comparable to watch. Vatanen scored 30 points in 52 games that season, captaining Finland’s World Junior team in the process. He’s the clearest comparable to Niemelä’s current season and it will be a treat to see whether Niemelä will be able to top Vatanen’s results.
In addition to his offensive production, Niemelä has taken on more responsibility for Kärpät so far this season and his minutes have continued to climb in recent games. He has played over 23 minutes in each of his last three games and is now averaging 19:52 of ice time per game on the season – a notable increase from the 15:30 he averaged over 15 games in 2020-21. He is also facing tougher assignments in those minutes, starting slightly over 50% of his shifts in the offensive zone compared to almost 60% last season, and has kept his head above water with a 50.3 CF% thus far. It also worth noting that most of Niemelä’s production has come at even strength where he has scored two goals and eight assists.
Matthew Knies | W | University of Minnesota (NCAA)
Knies has continued the strong start to his freshman season with Minnesota. He scored his third goal of the young season last Friday and is up to four points through his first six games.
Beyond his raw offensive production, Knies has been a positive offensive driver for the Gophers early on. He currently owns a 55.0 CF%, is third on the team with 14 individual scoring chances, and has been one of their better players in transition with 30 controlled offensive zone entries according to InStat. He has been getting pucks to his teammates in dangerous scoring areas as well, currently leading Minnesota with nine completed passes into the slot.
Knies is still getting his feet wet at the collegiate level but he has performed well in the early going, staking claim to a second line spot alongside captain Ben Meyers and sophomore Mason Nevers. He was a standout at the World Junior Summer Showcase in July and if he is able to build upon his strong start to the NCAA campaign, his spot on USA’s team for the upcoming World Junior Championships is all but assured.
Mike Koster | LHD | University of Minnesota (NCAA)
A teammate of Matthew Knies, Koster is now in his second NCAA season. He had a decent showing as a freshman, scoring three goals and nine assists while averaging just under 18 minutes of ice time over 31 games. He got his name on the scoresheet along with Knies on Friday night, notching his first goal of the season.
Unfortunately, the rest of the night didn’t go so well for Koster. He was forced to leave the game after taking a hard cross-check before falling into the boards and was unable to play in Minnesota’s next game. According to Gophers head coach Bob Motzko, Koster will not be available this weekend against Notre Dame and there is currently no timeline for his return as he recovers from an upper-body injury.
Roni Hirvonen | C | HIFK (Liiga)
Hirvonen has had a bit of a slow start to the season but tallied a pair of assists in his last game to break a seven game pointless drought. He now has a goal and four assists through 14 games but his underlying numbers show that he has probably deserved better on the scoresheet.
For the season, he has registered 48 shots on goal but is shooting just 2.8% – a number that is sure to rise if continues to generate chances. Hirvonen has also been a positive play driver for HIFK, currently sitting second on the team with a 63.9 CF%. Even when the pucks aren’t going in, Hirvonen’s play style allows him to be a positive contributor for his team. His tenacity and intelligence help to keep his team playing on the right side of the puck more often than not and it seems like a matter of time before that begins to pay off in the form of offensive production.
Joseph Woll | G | Toronto Marlies (AHL)
After suffering an injury during Leafs training camp, Woll returned to action with the Marlies and made his first start of the season on Sunday. He was rock solid, stopping 33 of the 35 shots he faced and shutting the door on four of five shooters in a 3-2 shootout victory over Cleveland.
He was back between the pipes on Wednesday night but was unable to withstand the barrage of shots from the Laval Rocket and he was pulled in the second period after giving up five goals on just 29 shots. The contrast in his first two starts is somewhat symbolic of Woll’s AHL tenure thus far. He has had flashes of impressive play but has been unable to find consistency behind a team that has struggled for large parts of his career.
The Marlies as a whole have had a bit of an up-and-down start to their schedule and they are going to need solid goaltending if they are going to have any success this season. With Erik Källgren off to a rocky start himself, Woll will be given a chance to solidify himself as the Marlies’ number one goaltender but Michael Hutchinson’s impending return could eat into his playing time.
Pontus Holmberg | C | Växjö (SHL)
Holmberg hasn’t quite picked up where he left off last season when he was named SHL Playoff MVP in Växjö’s championship run, but he isn’t far off. He scored a pair of goals on Thursday to bring his overall numbers on the season to seven goals and five assists through 15 games – good enough to be tied for third in team scoring.
Holmberg has become one of Växjö’s most trusted forwards, playing around 18 minutes per game and coming out with a positive shot attempt differential with a 55.24 CF%. Växjö is once again one of the top teams in the SHL and Holmberg is a key part of their roster. Already under contract and playing on loan in the SHL, look for him to join the Marlies whenever the Lakers wrap up their season.
Dmitri Ovchinnikov | C/W | Sibir Novosibirsk (KHL)
It appears the listless Sibir squad has finally relented and have started to give Ovchinnikov a chance to show what he can do at the KHL level. After spending the first part of the season as the 13th forward and going most games without a single shift, his ice time has crept up into the 10 minute range in Sibir’s last three contests.
He scored his first career KHL goal last week and has added a pair of primary assists in the four games since, giving him three points in the nine games where he has actually seen the ice. Keep in mind that he has played more than five minutes in just six of those games. Sibir has also controlled the flow of play by a significant margin when Ovchinnikov has been on the ice, generating 65% of the shot attempts.
Sibir’s current leading scorer is former Leaf Nick Shore who has 12 points through 23 games so their reluctance to utilize the offensively gifted Ovchinnikov has been puzzling. Things are trending up in that regard, however, and if Ovchinnikov can continue to make good on the minutes he is given, he could put himself in the conversation for a roster spot on Russia’s World Junior squad.
Check out Ovchinnikov’s primary assist from earlier this week:
Ryan Tverberg | W | University of Connecticut (NCAA)
Tverberg is quickly making a name for himself in the Leafs’ prospect ranks. He is off to a fantastic start in his first full season of college hockey, already with three goals and four assists through six games. With a pair of assists against Northeastern University on Tuesday, he has matched last season’s point total and in eight fewer games than he played after joining UConn for the second half of the 2020-21 season.
An energetic player who isn’t shy about throwing his weight around, Tverberg is beginning to display legitimate pro potential early on in his NCAA career. He is tied for first in team scoring, tied for second in hits, is second in individual expected goals, and owns a shot attempt share of 52%. He has flown under the radar to this point but if can continue to play like he has through the first part of his sophomore season at UConn, Ryan Tverberg is a player that Leafs fans will come to know and love before long.
(Statistics from InStat, EliteProspects.com, SHL.se, & Liiga.fi)