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Happy Monday! Especially if you happen to be a Rams fan, huh? Whether or not you’re basking in the glory of a Super Bowl win for your team, you’ve come to the right place to check in with a few potential future Leafs who are on their own pursuit of glory.
Even without NHL players participating in the Olympics, the Leafs have been well represented in the men’s hockey tournament. 2021 second-round pick Matthew Knies and 2019 fourth-round selection Nick Abruzzese have been key figures in Team USA’s strong start, 2018 sixth-rounder @Pontus Holmberg is suiting up for Sweden, and Josh Ho-Sang, currently under contract with the Marlies in the AHL, is representing Canada as he continues to work his way back to the NHL.
There is plenty to chew on in this week’s edition of the Leafs Prospect Roundup, so let’s get to it.
Leafs at the Olympics
For many Leafs fans, the opening games of the Olympic men’s hockey tournament have been their first opportunity to see Matthew Knies and Nick Abruzzese play. Knies, in particular, entered the tournament with substantial hype and both players have delivered for Team USA early on.
Team USA went 3-0 during the preliminary round, earning a bye to the quarterfinals. Playing together on a line centered by 2021 second overall pick Matty Beniers, Knies and Abruzzese have been playing big minutes and chipping in on the scoreboard.
Knies got on the scoresheet with an assist in the Americans’ tournament opening win over China, making a nice play to drive the net before coming up with the contested puck and finding Vegas Golden Knights prospect Brendan Brisson for a clean look.
Knies was held off the board in USA’s 4-2 win over Canada but picked up his first goal of the tournament in Sunday’s game, positioning himself in front of the net and capitalizing on a strong effort from Abruzzese.
Besides chipping in offensively, Knies has been a noticeable presence in each game for Team USA. He has been engaged on the forecheck, helping to create and sustain offensive possessions for his team, and has racked up 12 shots on goal through just three contests. His motor and willingness to battle for contested pucks in all three zones has been evident so far.
For his part, Abruzzese has racked up three assists while displaying his well-rounded offensive skill set through three games. He has been used a bit more sparingly than Knies despite playing most of his minutes with him, but has shown that his combination of speed, intelligence, and work ethic can more than keep up at this level. Set to turn 23 in June, Abruzzese was already a pretty safe bet to sign with the Leafs this spring but his performance early on at the Olympics has made it a no-brainer from Toronto’s perspective.
Abruzzese wasn’t officially credited with an assist on this play but the goal doesn’t happen without him breaking up the attempted breakout pass:
Ho-Sang’s play in the AHL this season was enough to warrant a spot on the Canadian Olympic roster and much like he has done with the Marlies, he has taken advantage of the opportunity. His speed and offensive creativity make him one of the more dynamic players on a roster that features former NHLers like Eric Staal, David Desharnais, and Daniel Winnik.
Through three preliminary round games, Ho-Sang has tallied three assists and sits in a tie for the second-most points on the Canadian team. It was always going to be a long road back to the NHL for him but this unexpected step of the journey has given him a chance to put his talents on display for the world to see. Even if he is unable to ultimately earn a contract with the Leafs, a strong showing at this tournament will make the rest of the league take notice as well.
Holmberg broke out in a big way during last year’s SHL playoffs, earning playoff MVP honors as he helped lead Växjö to a league title. He has carried his strong play into this season, earning a spot on the Swedish Olympic roster, but has been used in a limited role so far.
After picking up an assist in over 13 minutes of ice time in Sweden’s opening game of the tournament, he has played less than 10 minutes in each of the two games since.
Topi Niemelä | RHD | Kärpät (Liiga)
Following a blazing start to his season, Niemelä’s production slowed down a bit after returning from the World Juniors as he tallied just three points in eight games – still solid production for a teenage blueliner in one of the best professional leagues in the world.
He got back on the scoresheet on Sunday, however, scoring his eighth goal of the season and adding an assist to go along with seven shots on goal.
After leading Liiga defenders in scoring for most of the season, Niemelä now sits in second place, four points back of Vili Saarijärvi. His 29 points on the campaign are still good enough for a share of first among all U20 Liiga players with New York Islanders prospect Aatu Räty, though Räty has played six fewer games than Niemelä.
With a little over a month to go in Liiga’s regular season, Kärpät is in the thick of the playoff hunt. Playing a significant role down the stretch and into the postseason will be a valuable experience for Niemelä as he continues his ascension up the prospect ranks.
Ryan Tverberg | W | University of Connecticut (NCAA)
Speaking of ascending up the prospect ranks, there might not be a player in the Leafs’ system who has done more to increase his stock within the organization this season than Ryan Tverberg.
He has been especially hot as of late, picking up three goals and three assists during a four game point streak.
Tverberg’s recent surge has propelled him back into the goal-scoring lead for UConn and he sits just two points back of Nashville Predators prospect Jachym Kondelik for the overall team scoring lead. Kondelik is three years older than Tverberg and in his fourth NCAA season, making Tverberg’s production during his first full season of college hockey that much more impressive.
Late-round picks are always long-term projects at best but it looks like the Leafs might have a player in Tverberg, and they still have plenty of time on their side as he heads into the second half of his sophomore season with the Huskies.
Notes from the rest of the prospect pool
- Roni Hirvonen scored his seventh goal of the season on Thursday, bringing him to 20 points in 35 games. He currently sits eighth in scoring among all U20 Liiga players.
- @Ty Voit continued his strong season, picking up four assists in four games last week. For the season, he has 13 goals and 36 assists for 49 points in just 37 games. He is currently tied for fourth in scoring among all OHL players drafted in 2021, behind the likes of first-round picks Wyatt Johnston and Brennan Othmann.
- Bobby McMann has put together a nice first half for the Marlies, with his 10 goals through 27 games being good for fifth-most on the team. After scoring just twice in 21 AHL games last season, he has emerged as a reliable offensive contributor for the Marlies in 2021-22 and he was recently signed to an AHL contract extension. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Nick Barden’s piece on McMann:
- Axel Rindell got off to a hot start with his new team after being moved to Kärpät earlier in the season but has struggled to produce at the same rate in recent weeks. He picked up eight points in his first four games with Kärpät but has added just four assists in 18 games since then. If Rindell is going to prove worthy of earning an entry level contract with the Leafs, it will be because of his offense. The fact that his production has tailed off the way it has this season certainly isn’t going to help his chances.
(Statistics from EliteProspects.com)