All of Toronto's prospects who were playing in Europe have completed their seasons. I've already written larger profiles on some of Toronto's best prospects to summarize their seasons, and a summary of all the other prospects in North America. I will list them for anyone who still wanted to read them:
Position: Center/left wing
Weight: 172 lbs
Birthdate: January 10th, 2002 (21 yrs)
Drafted: Round 2, 59th overall, 2020
League: Liiga - HIFK
Contract Status: Signed, ELC expires summer 2025
Hirvonen is a bit of a weird prospect to watch. On the one hand, he was one of the first picks of the Dubas GM era where we heard a lot about how smart he was. He played his draft year entirely as a pro in the Liiga, with a respectable 16 points in 52 games. Since then, he's seen small increases in his point production: 21 points, then 26 points, and then 28 points this year. This mostly corresponds with his increased role and ice time.
He's also played every year for Team Finland in some capacity, and he's always been one of their top players. In his draft year he had 20 points in 15 games across various tournaments. In his first World Juniors the next year he had 6 points in 7 games, and then captained Finland at the next World Juniors and had 22 points in 18 combined games in various tournaments last year.
I was really curious to see how Hirvonen would fare when he made the jump to Toronto at the end of his Liiga season this year. But he never actually played in any games for the Marlies, as he was nursing an injury he got in the playoffs in Finland.
My issue with Hirvonen's game is a common one I've mentioned for some of Toronto's other smaller prospects. He has a really good shot, he is smart and has good positioning, and he constantly tries to take high danger shots or pass it into high danger areas. His problem is that he's not that great of a skater, and while he does have the inclination to try to go to the dirty areas of the ice, it is a problem for virtually every smaller prospect who doesn't also have really good skating.
There's no guarantee that Hirvonen can't make it in the NHL, but I haven't seen enough to convince me. His shot is at an NHL level, but even in the Liiga the rest of his game was just okay. Next year will be a very interesting season for him and will give a good indication if he really does have some NHL upside. For now he's in the wait and see group.
Position: Right shot defense
Weight: 170 lbs
Birthdate: March 25th, 2002 (21 yrs)
Drafted: Round 3, 64th overall, 2020
League: Liiga - Kärpät
Contract Status: Signed, ELC expires summer 2025
Niemelä, on the other hand, has shown bigger leaps in his development since he was drafted. He was taken as more of a defense-first prospect thanks to his elite skating after playing in the Liiga as a 17 year old for his draft year. That's no small feat. His problem at the time was that he was small-ish in terms of his size and lack of muscle, and that he didn't really show much of an offensive game. He showed some good passing, but he generally kept it really simple.
But time showed that he probably was playing very safe due to his age and the level he was playing. In his D+1 season, Niemelä barely played because of the pandemic shortening the season, the World Juniors and all the time he had to isolate before and after because of the pandemic, and an injury he suffered right after returning to the Liiga after the World Juniors. But at the World Juniors, Niemelä won the Best Defenseman award after putting up 8 points in 7 games. The next season was his big breakout, where he had 32 points in 48 games and set a Liiga record for points by a 20 year old defenseman.
The ironic thing is his defense seemed to not improve as much, but that could be down to his team going through coaching changes and him playing a bigger role for his team with less sheltering. By the end of his Liiga career, Niemelä was playing 19 minutes per game and in all situations: on the powerplay, on the penalty kill, and on the first or second pair at even strength. At the conclusion of his season, Niemelä joined the Marlies down the stretch and stepped onto their top pairing. He had 2 points in 6 regular season games, but 5 points in 7 playoff games.
Niemelä's offense is driven by his activation. He doesn't have a great shot from the point, but has a good wrist and slap shot where he's good at getting them through screens. Generally speaking, he will be very active in the offensive zone – looking to jump into the play off a rush, or off a cycle if he catches the other team napping and sees open space in the slot.
Defensively, his impact is strongest against the rush. He uses his skating to aggressively close on puck carriers or passes to his side of the ice to knock it away and cause turnovers. In the defensive end his defensive impact is more limited, where close quarters strength tends to be more important – which is one area that Niemelä still needs to address.
Niemelä is definitely one of Toronto's top prospects. I can see him being part of a sheltered third pair that can drive play at even strength and run a powerplay unit from the point. If he works on adding more muscle so he can be more effective in the defensive zone, he could form part of an effective second pair as well. The added muscle could also help add more power to his shot and top speed. He'll have a full off-season healthy and all of next season with the Marlies to work on those areas, and he should be a lot of fun to watch work his magic in the AHL.
Position: Center/left wing
Weight: 163 lbs
Birthdate: August 19th, 2002 (20 yrs)
Drafted: Round 5, 137th overall, 2020
League: KHL - Sibir Novosibirsk
Contract Status: Signed, ELC expires 2024
Ovchinnikov was a pick I loved back in 2020. As a fifth rounder, he was a roll of the dice but it felt like a worthy one. He was a very young prospect with such a late birthday – less than a month from not being eligible until the 2021 draft – so he had more room to grow. He was also already a top scoring prospect in Russia's junior league, with 55 points in 54 games. The next season he had 51 points in just 40 games, but also got his first taste of the KHL with 1 point in 16 games.
That season started his long process of really breaking into his KHL team's regular lineup, as even the "games" he played would often have a total ice time of less than one minute. The next year, he played in only 17 games with his KHL team but was "dressed" for many more where he didn't play at all. It was a frustrating time to be an Ovchinnikov fan. This season he finally became a regular. He averaged 9:43 of ice time on their fourth line, and he had career highs of 5 goals and 13 points in 68 actual games.
The problem with why it may have taken him so long to really get regular ice time in the KHL is down to his strengths and weaknesses. He is more of an offensive talent, and a speedster. He is a good playmaker and has a good shot. The problem is he doesn't really have a lot of high end skill outside of maybe his skating, and he doesn't offer much in the way of a two-way impact. He's not all that dynamic carrying the puck, and in junior he simply got away with being able to speed past most defenders. He doesn't get away with that in the KHL, and as of yet he hasn't added any skills or improved on other areas to a significant degree.
In the past two years, he has played in 11 total games for the Marlies and has 2 goals in that time. In short, his offense is just not good enough to carry him to the NHL, and he hasn't yet learned how to use his strengths to have an impact in other areas of the ice – like forechecking with speed or causing turnovers on defense. We'll see if he joins the Marlies full time next year, after he was loaned back to the KHL this season. I think it could be good for him as one last shot, where he can maybe be used in a role more fitting for him as opposed to being with fourth line grinders.
Weight: 234 lbs
Birthdate: August 19th, 2001 (21 yrs)
Drafted: Round 4, 122nd overall, 2022
League: SHL - Färjestad BK
Contract Status: Signed, ELC expires 2025
The first of three goalies from Europe, Dennis Hildeby is our most recently drafted goalie prospect – though since he was taken as an overager, he's not even the youngest. He is, however, definitely the biggest of the three at 6'6" and 200+ pounds. He emerged as a late blooming goalie prospect last year after putting up some good looking numbers between the U20 junior level and the SHL pro level, but in only 19 total games.
This year he played entirely in the SHL as a backup, or 1B goalie behind Färjestad's main starter. In 21 games, Hildeby finished with a .918 sv% – better than their starter, who had a .911 in 32 games. In fact, Hildeby finished 5th in sv% in the league, among goalies with 10+ games. He did very well for himself.
From what I saw from his games, Hildeby is good at using his size to get in the way of pucks. He isn't really that flashy or all over the place in his crease, but does have some athleticism to keep himself in front of the shot. He has decent rebound control, but at times looked somewhat weak on higher shots to his glove or blocker sides. While that may sound bad, it wasn't something that led to him letting in tons of goals... at least not in the SHL.
At the end of his season in Sweden, he joined the Marlies and played in parts of two games for them towards the end of the regular season. He got lit up, but from what I saw Species mention, the Marlies played like complete ass in front of him. We'll see if he returns to Sweden to start next year, or stays in North America full time.
If he stays here, it will be a very crowded depth chart in net... just based on who Toronto still has control of, or under contract, they have: Matt Murray, Ilya Samsonov, Joseph Woll, Keith Petruzzelli, and then maybe Vyacheslav Peksa who just signed an ELC, and maybe Dryden McKay and Luke Cavallin on the Growlers. We do expect that the Leafs will move on from Murray if they can, and maybe give Woll the opening shot as the backup. If Murray is dealt, it could leave Hildeby and Petruzzelli as the main starters for the Marlies, with McKay, Cavallin and maybe Peksa fighting for spots between the AHL/ECHL.
Weight: 163 lbs
Birthdate: August 27th, 2002 (20 yrs)
Drafted: Round 6, 185th overall, 2021
Contract Status: Signed, ELC expires 2026
Peksa was a surprise ELC signing only a couple of weeks ago. He was drafted as a late round swing as an overager, when he had barely played even in the MHL. What Peksa had going for him was his age – he was a very young prospect with an August 27th birthday. He was coming off a season as the backup for Irbis Kazan's junior team, and had a .909 sv% in 17 games. But the next year he returned as their main starter and had a .936 sv% in 56 games – good for third in the league, while playing a lot more games than the two ahead of him.
This season, Peksa got the bump to Bars Kazan's VHL team as their primary starter. Playing on a not very strong team, he had a .921 sv% in 40 games, good for 22nd in the league. Earlier this season, I wrote this summary of what I saw when watching Peksa that still holds true now:
When I’ve watched Peksa, I’ve mostly noticed two things in comparison to Akhtyamov. First, he doesn’t quite have the same level of rebound control and calmness in the crease. Second, despite not being as “calm” I wouldn’t say he’s just chaos. He definitely seems more active and willing to move around, but it does have an element of control. He is quick with his movements and still good at getting square to shooters. He is very athletic and better able to fall back on emergency/recovery saves. The downside is that, without the tight rebound control, he has to rely on that a lot more often than Akhtyamov.
I would say that Peksa has better physical tools, and if he can improve on his reads of the play and rebound control more then he could have a higher ceiling as a result. He is certainly having a better rookie-VHL season than Akhtyamov did last year at the same age.
Now that he's signed an ELC, we'll see if he gets loaned back to their Russian team or if he jumps to North America right away. Considering the issue I've mentioned before for him and Akhtyamov being blocked from getting a shot at the KHL level, he may either try to be loaned to a different KHL team or decide playing in the AHL/ECHL is still a better opportunity.
Weight: 168 lbs
Birthdate: October 31st, 2001 (21 yrs)
Drafted: Round 4, 106th overall, 2020
Contract Status: Unsigned, rights expire 2027+
Speaking of Akhtyamov, he is the slightly older Russian goalie from the same Kazan organization. He's consistently played one level up ahead of Peksa, until this season. However, this season Kazan loaned him to Neftyanik Almetievsk in the VHL so both he and Peksa could get as many starts as possible. While Peksa did very well, and better in fact than Akhtyamov did at the same age and level last year, this year Akhtyamov had a big breakout. He led the entire VHL in save percentage with a .943 in 39 games.
Here's what I wrote about Akhtyamov back in December:
When he’s on his game, he looks very calm and in control and doesn’t give up almost any rebounds. He’s been very good at seeing pucks through traffic and gloving/smothering shots before the other team even has a chance to create a chaotic scrum in front of him. He’s also been excellent positionally, so the shots he faces are easier to control. Off the rush, he’s good at handling more difficult shots to again avoid juicy rebounds. The team in front of him also seems to do a good job at limiting more dangerous chances against, relatively speaking. So from what I’ve seen it hasn’t looked like he’s faced a highly difficult workload, but part of that can also be down to him not giving up second, third, and fourth chances off rebounds.
The other thing I’ve noticed is that if you can get a chaotic scrum going in front of him, his control breaks down and he can get happy feet. He’ll stray out of his net trying to stay square to a shooter and get caught in no mans land. He can try to use his stick to poke pucks away or block passes, but leave his five hole open as a result. This is something I noticed a lot more earlier in the year, but not as much now. It may be that he’s just really dialed in of late so he doesn’t allow himself to get in those situations. But when things get more difficult, against tough opponents down the stretch or in the playoffs, can he keep that same level of control?
One thing that I think really helped Akhtyamov is that the team in front of him was a very defensive-minded team. They did a pretty good job making his job easier in terms of keeping more dangerous shots away, and clearing away rebounds. That said, Akhtyamov definitely made a lot of saves that got through to him and seemed very in control in his crease, which has not always been the case for him in past years.
But at this point, I do think it's telling that Peksa has been signed to an ELC while Akhtyamov has not. We'll see if that means anything in the end, but for now we'll still be waiting to see if he can break into the KHL at all.