Time for another prospect report! I’m surprised I’ve been able to do one per week so far. I was expecting it to be less frequent, but I’ve also been able to watch more games for some prospects than I thought I would. So it’s been easy to switch between different players. There’s still a few I haven’t seen at all so far this year, but for now I have some updates on five of Toronto’s prospects:
This was a very last minute addition, and I’m glad I waited to the end of Thanksgiving weekend to post this. I missed that, last week, Grebyonkin was sent down to the VHL on a more permanent basis by the looks of it. I had been expecting something like this for a bit, between them sending him down to their MHL team and when he was back up, he wasn’t even being dressed.
This is actually good news for him. The VHL is (mostly) better competition than the MHL, which he clearly showed he was too good for in the one game he played during a mini-break of his KHL team. Now he can get regular minutes against better competition. Although from what I’ve seen, he may quickly be too good for the VHL very soon!
Grebyonkin has played two games there, playing 18:12 in his first game and 16:25 in the second. He has two points so far, both assists in his second game. Let’s take a look at the shift leading up to his first assist to see what I mean — Grebyonkin is #15 in blue.
He starts by stealing he puck in the neutral zone, eluding one defender and pulling away with speed. He enters the offensive zone with control and slows down, while surrounded by four defenders. He stops on a dime and loops back to get some space, fakes inside and blows by the one defender in front of him. He lets his teammates get set up in the zone, and passes back to the defenseman for a point shot. They get the puck back, with Grebyonkin supporting the defense up high along the blueline. He gets the puck and fires a perfect pass, across his body, through an open seam to a teammate who curled in around the (admittedly not great) defensive coverage for the goal.
This shift is showing off pretty much everything that makes Grebyonkin so good. He’s quick, he’s powerful, he’s skilled, he’s smart, he’s responsible, and he plays a very pro-style game. None of the above may be at an elite level, but he’s solid across the board. And while not elite, those skills are at a high enough level that whenever I watch any of his games this year I come away so excited. It’s hard for me to not get ahead of myself in thinking about his future potential. But at this point I have a hard time thinking he won’t be an NHLer of some kind. The one thing I would say he is lacking right now is a good shot. Not that his shot is bad, but I’ve yet to see him rip a good, hard wrist shot or one timer. He’s more of a setup guy, or scoring in tight.
He’s not dominant in the VHL yet, merely very good in the two games I’ve seen. So he still has time and room to grow his game there, mainly working on his shot and refining his execution of certain plays. Because while he can pull off the plays that lead to the two assists clipped above, he’s also whiffing/turning it over at times. Not a lot, but something he will need to work on cutting down. I’m just glad I can watch him play meaningful hockey on a regular basis again, after having the KHL pre-season tease and then was barely played.
The last I talked about Niemelä in a full version of these prospect reports, he was playing on the second pair for Kärpät averaging around 18 minutes per game. He was playing a bit on the powerplay, but not as much as the previous season. He was also playing on the top penalty kill unit, and during important situations at even strength. This was also when he had yet to record any points through the first five games, which was disappointing given his offensive breakout the previous system.
At the time, watching him I noted that he was still generating a lot of chances. He was activating on the rush and off the point, setting up teammates for good chances and coming close on his own chances. This was shown by his hilariously low on ice shooting percentage at the time.
This is a classic O-zone shift by #LeafsForever prospect Topi Niemelä (#7 in black). He's always moving, all through the zone. Left to right, deep and back, looking to get open or create an opening, and is Hohnny on the spot for a great scoring chance off a scramble. pic.twitter.com/SIWFVKfbgl— Ale-STAN-dro Kirk (@brigstew86) September 30, 2022
Well what do you know, right after that Niemelä has started to get some points: a goal and an assist to be specific. His ice time also jumped, with all of his last four games being over 20 minutes. He’s not necessarily being used more on the powerplay either, he’s still on the second unit instead of the first. Most of his extra time is just being trusted more during 5 on 5, especially when his team is trailing. I’d say he’s earning more trust from the coaches, so when they really need some offense generated at even strength they will turn to him.
#LeafsForever prospect Topi Niemelä scored his first goal of the season, a snipe after walking it in from the point. He also had 5 shots, was a +2, and played 20:20 -- his second straight game over 20 minutes. His coaches are starting to trust and use him more. pic.twitter.com/xenXtqahOZ— Ale-STAN-dro Kirk (@brigstew86) October 5, 2022
This is probably for two reasons: first, he’s good at driving offensive chances even if he’s not the one getting points from it as much (so far). Second, he’s good enough defensively that they can rely on him to help generate offense without being a total glass cannon that gives up lots of scoring chances the other way. His CF% has dropped by about 2% since my last update, but he’s still sitting in the top 25 in the league for those that have played in more than 2-3 games.
On that note, I can add that Niemelä looks like a more complete defensive player this year compared to last. What’s helped a big way is getting older and adding more muscle and strength — he’s put on about 12 lbs since he was drafted. That’s something he can continue to work on, as he could definitely stand to add more muscle and weight. In the meantime, he’s also showing the benefit of more experience to know how to use leverage and positioning. That way he can get more bang for his buck.
If there's something that Niemelä (#7 in black) has had to work on this year, it's adding strength so he can be more effective defensively. He's starting to be able to show he can this year, but still has a ways to go. These two highlights are for @SammyT_51 #LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/tpXK5yHnsM— Ale-STAN-dro Kirk (@brigstew86) September 30, 2022
Hirvonen has also had some changes since the last full update I gave on him. He started the season as the second line LW, then was bumped down to the third line center for a couple of games, then bumped up to the top line LW, and then bumped back down to his original spot as the second line LW. Though it’s worth noting that his overall ice time hasn’t really reflected any big fluctuations as his “role” changed. He’s been around 15-17 minutes each game, pretty much all season.
While his offense was a bit slow to come at the start of the season, his bump to the top line seemed to help get him going. In the 5 games since then, he has 5 points (2 goals and 3 assists) and averaging 3 shots per game.
#LeafsForever prospect Roni Hirvonen with a secondary assist after some good work on the cycle. He had one shot on goal and was +1 to go with the assist in 16:10.— Ale-STAN-dro Kirk (@brigstew86) October 5, 2022
For the season he is up to 5 points in 9 games, with four of them coming in the last four games. pic.twitter.com/2v8vmvp3Ej
Watching him in the Liiga is very different from watching him against his age-peers in international tournaments. His effectiveness is a bit less obvious, which probably makes sense given he’s playing against bigger, faster, and better competition. His skill is not the most flashy, he’s more about being smart and efficient. He’s always been good at driving offensive chances by either setting up teammates in a dangerous area, or getting to the dangerous area himself.
It will be interesting to watch him for the rest of this season. I’ve seen some say he could be ready for the NHL pretty soon, by which I am guessing they mean sometime next year. But I’d like to see him become a bit more dominant in the Liiga before I think he could be ready to do the same over in the AHL, much less the NHL. He’s starting to show it more this season than I ever really saw last season, but he might just not ever really play a style that looks ‘dominant’.
I said as much on Twitter, but it’s been remarkable watching Ryan Tverberg’s development. He was the 5th last player to be selected in the 2020 NHL draft, and as much as I’m sure we’d all like to think Dubas and his team are geniuses for seeing something in him... I’m having a hard time knowing if they saw what he’s become by now.
I remember watching him in his D+1 season when he played for UConn as a freshman. He was pretty unremarkable. He was certainly energetic and a quick skater, but he was used more as an energy/checking forward in their bottom six and that’s about all that was noticeable about him.
Last year, he took a big step forward. He still maintained the same kind of speed, energy, and physical play, but he learned how to start using that more effectively. He started showing some more offensive skill as well, especially a good shot and good stickwork around the net. Even still, last season his offensive breakout still came in the bottom six, on the third line. He did play on the powerplay but had only 5 points — UConn as a whole had a pretty terrible powerplay.
This season, UConn lost a lot of seniors and Tverberg has been asked to step up to lead the team. He’s playing as the top line center/winger, a job he switches between with one of his linemates. He also plays on the top powerplay and top penalty kill units. UConn is a more young team, but have a few interesting and skilled young guys around him. So far, they’ve had great results. UConn is 4-0 for the first time since the 70’s. They have a much improved powerplay (so far).
And Tverberg is a big part of that. He is effective on defense because he’s fast and physical and uses both aggressively. He pressures puck carriers into making mistakes, something that serves him well on the penalty kill. He uses the same abilities on the offensive side to create off the rush.
Here's some more of that Ryan Tverberg (#28 in white) energy and skating in action. He gets two partial breakaways back to back thanks to his speed, and being able to physically push through the defense to get where he wants to go. #LeafsForever pic.twitter.com/YeXyLarf2r— Ale-STAN-dro Kirk (@brigstew86) October 8, 2022
What I’ve noticed so far this season that looks new is Tverberg starting to use, or try to use, more dynamic offensive skill. It’s still not at a very high level, but it makes him more of a threat offensively. Take this short handed assist. Even last year, he’d blaze down with the puck and try and rip a shot — which is a good shot, to be clear. Now he’s learned he can fake it with a subtle pull-back motion, and then make the pass over to his teammate.
Here's the assist. Tverberg faked pulling it back like he was about to rip a shot, and when the defense and goalie both bought it hook, line and sinker he passed it over for one of the easier goals I'm sure his teammate will score this season.#LeafsForever https://t.co/7OrVjYdDrn pic.twitter.com/ozOT4f8tqK— Ale-STAN-dro Kirk (@brigstew86) October 8, 2022
I’m still not sold on Tverberg having the offensive skill to execute on these kinds of plays often enough to make him an NHL impact forward. But I think he has a good foundation of abilities to become a bottom six, energy/checking line forward not unlike new Leaf Nicolas Aubé-Kubel. How much better he can develop his offensive skill and execution will be what determines how good he can be as a pro.
Speaking of guys who have been asked to be everything for their team, Ty Voit was in the same shoes last year for Sarnia. They were a below average team and Voit had to carry them in all situations, but especially offensively where he generated tons of primary points without much support.
This year is different. Sarnia has improved and built a better roster around him, and Voit is not relied upon as much to carry the team. He’s still on the top line at even strength, and still on the top powerplay. But he’s been moved to the wing, where he can focus on creating offense and not being defensively responsible. He also hasn’t been used on the top penalty kill unit, so he has more time/energy for even strength and the powerplay.
When I saw this, I thought this could unlock more of his offense. Having better options on his line and less responsibility could lead to more points — and boy has it to start the year. In 4 games, he’s had 2+ points in 3 of the games. He’s averaging 3 shots per game, and is tied for the OHL lead in both goals (5) and points per game (2.5).
Here’s highlights from his four point game, and you can see his strengths. First, his two assists both involve making nice and simple passes to a teammate in the slot. Both his goals were off good shots, with the first one displaying good patience and skill to get around a defender and change the angle slightly.
His shooting percentage is 42%, so obviously not sustainable. So we may not see him score at more than a goal per game, but being close to 2 points per game may not be out of the cards. At the very least, him racking up so many points could put him more seriously on Team USA’s radar for the World Juniors this winter. He was invited to their summer camp, so he already has their attention. But he could have better odds of making their final cut with a strong start to the OHL season and a good winter camp.
- Dmitri Ovchinnikov — No major updates for Ovchinnikov. He scored his first goal of the season on Saturday and had a season high 11:03 of ice time. He has two points in 17 games this season, and by comparison he had three points last year while playing far less in total ice time. I have not really been that impressed by the games I’ve seen overall, though he’s had some good games and moments. He’s finally getting the ice time but he’s not showing any growth.
- Artur Akhtyamov — Hard for me to provide much in the way of scouting for goalies, so just some quick notes on our various goalie prospects. Akthyamov still having a very strong season. He has a .940 sv% and a shutout in 7 games in the VHL, with some just okay games in his last two starts. Still a good turnaround for his pretty mixed results season last year. More consistency is good, but it’d be nice to see him play well enough to start getting a taste of some KHL games.
- Vyacheslav Peksa — Peksa entered this season under different circumstances as Akhtyamov. He has a .921 sv% in 8 games, so not as good but still quite good. This is also his first season in the VHL, after having a great MHL season... but it’s still the MHL. Both of them have their rights owned by the same Russian club, so they’re still technically competing with each other for potential KHL time... even if they’re playing on different VHL teams right now.
- Dennis Hildeby — Not as good a start to the season for the newest goalie prospect in Toronto’s system. In the Champions League, playing against far weaker competition, he’s done great: a .942 sv% in three games. In the SHL he’s been bumped to a solid 1B, with the emphasis on B, with an .843 sv% in two starts. It’s just two starts, and the main starter hasn’t been excellent either but he’s definitely been better. With few starts to follow so far, there’s no major updates for me to provide. I want to watch another SHL game before I make a full update on him.
- No notes on Matthew Knies, Veeti Miettinen, Mike Koster or Joe Miller yet. Or even Nicholas Moldenhauer. They’ve either not started their season yet (Miller) or I haven’t been able to watch a game of theirs due to conflicts with other games or a streaming service crapping out on me. I hope to watch them more in the next coming months, including replays of earlier season games so I can see if they’re improving or not.