Roni Hirvonen has been in the Leafs system for 10 months, and yet because there’s been another draft, he’s not new and shiny anymore. Since he was drafted — in the middle of a Liiga game — he’s finished that Liiga season, played in the WJC, and is just about to start another pro season on a better team that’s expecting to go deep in the playoffs. He’s already scored an OT goal for that team in Champions Hockey League play. Life comes at you fast when you’re 19.
Who he is now
Last winter, Brigstew said this about him:
Everything Hirvonen does on offense, with or without the puck, is focused on high danger scoring chances. He doesn’t have an elite shot, but he will go to the front of the net to take high danger shots in close or clean up rebounds. He will fight to stay there, tip pucks to cause chaos for the goalie, and shove around to get in a better position to pounce on rebounds. When he has the puck on his stick in the offensive zone, the passes he makes are also focused on getting the puck to teammates in high danger areas so they have a higher percentage scoring chance. As he gets older and stronger, he’ll be even better at all of this — especially when he parks himself in front of the net.
He gets good reviews as a reliable two-way center, but there are some limits to his game currently. They are mostly tied to his size (5’9” and 170 lbs) and lack of strength. He has good top speed in a straight line, but doesn’t have a lot of explosiveness to get to full speed all that quickly. He’s not slow by any means, but it’s not something where he stands out. He does have good instincts and awareness of the ice and players around him, but both his strength and quickness can prevent him from making plays at times.
That description sounds a lot like Filip Hållander, who is older, bigger, stronger, and doing that net-front job as a winger in a harder league to play in. It’s telling that Kyle Dubas targeted Hållander in the Kapanen trade, but was also willing to give him up this summer. Dubas does have a type, but it isn’t small. He is collecting forwards where smarts and assertiveness are as important as shooting skill.
Most of what we know about Hirvonen now, that we didn’t know then, comes from his very good WJC performance. Finland was a joy to watch in that tournament, and Hirvonen was very good. He ended up with six points in seven games, and played an effective offensive role in exactly the way described above. He’s played in some U20 friendlies since then where he’s piling up points in a very satisfying way. He’s a lock for the WJC again, and then when that’s over, he turns 20, and he’ll be looking at the potential of a deep run in the Liiga with his new team.
The future’s so bright, he’s gotta wear shades.
Last season Hirvonen played 54 games for Ässät, who finished well out of the playoffs, and he’s shortly going to start a season with HIFK, who finished second in the regular season and ended up wining the bronze medal game in the playoffs. The Liiga makes the semifinal losers play off for bronze. Unless HIFK promotes some juniors, he’s going to be the youngest forward on the team.
What does this all mean?
A Continuum of Prospects
Let’s go back to the WJC. Fortune gave us a really easy way to set Hirvonen’s ability level right now. Team captain, first line centre, and my choice as the best player in the tournament, Anton Lundell, was right there playing as the 1C ahead of Hirvonen. Lundell, only three months older than Hirvonen, was drafted 12th overall last year, and he is likely to play in the AHL this season, with the potential of some NHL time. That’s a big, big step up from a top Liiga team. He looked ready to join the AHL last year.
On the ice with Team Finland, that gap was clear. But Hirvonen was still one of the top echelon of WJC players. He’s not down there with Ovchinnikov and Miettinen in terms of level right now. Those junior players, one a little younger, one a little older, are, at this moment, much lower in ability as seen in their results. This isn’t a question of forecasting and uncertainty, it’s an objective measure of who they are right now.
In the other direction, Rodion Amirov is, like Lundell, three months older, and is about to play his second full season in the KHL. That is also a big step above Hirvonen’s pro team. And while at the WJC itself, Amirov was not quite the shining light we wanted him to be, his pro results and ability to hold that roster spot in a much tougher league puts him ahead of Hirvonen by a meaningful amount.
You can’t quantify this with precision. Don’t come to me for NHLe comparisons, I won’t give them to you. But I believe it’s absolutely correct to say the gap between Amirov and Hirvonen is meaningfully smaller than the gap between Hirvonen and Miettinen and Ovchinnikov — right now, based on nothing but what they can accomplish today in the leagues they are in.
Amirov to Hirvonen to Ovchinnikov is a continuum of talent, all at the stage where they can be expected to make big leaps. These aren’t the 21 year olds who will make smaller, more subtle improvements, this is when pounds, er kilos, of muscle get added on guys built like them. This is when their leg strength improves, improving their skating, where they just get enough reps as they finally play full seasons on a good team to start laying down patterns in elastic young brains. This is the most volatile period in their development, and all three are in good systems to have growth happen in a very positive ways.
Next year at this time, with another Liiga system ripe with opportunity open to Hirvonen, another WJC behind him and a 20th birthday party in the can, he’ll be at the point in his career where it will be time to start asking when he might be slotted into the AHL.
The conventional wisdom on when that should happen has been blown wide open by fantastic seasons from a host of players not even 20 this past year. So it’s impossible to predict what the Leafs will do this time next year with Hirvonen and the others at his age and level of advancement.
Life in the Liiga
These are the recent Liiga highlights for Hirvonen.
You’ll see all the scouting reports come to life, and no one can ever call him a perimeter player. But you can also see that the Liiga affords more time and space. The checking is not as vigorous as in the AHL, the decision time is stretched out, and when you drive the net, it’s easier to find a place to park. It’s not news, but this is why it’s a lot easier to judge AHL players than European pros.
There’s no downside to Hirvonen that stands out. No big negative. His future is very bright, and he’s going to have a long pro career. But like all players not quite Lundell, but much better than the bulk of the drafted players, which league that’s in fits into a very wide distribution of outcomes. Browse the players drafted over recent years in the 45 to 65 range, and you’ll find all the anecdotes you need to support any argument about a future for Hirvonen. But only time will really tell.
Votes and Comments
|Spread in Votes
We’re in the midst of a section of the list where there is extreme agreement about which players belong below the top four, and mild disagreement about order. Hirvonen’s place at eighth puts him very close to tied with his usual ranking twin, Topi Niemelä, and a few others.
Brigstew: Hirvonen may wind up as a 3C or a top 6 winger. Nothing about his play necessarily jumps out at you, but he works and forechecks hard, he has a good shot, and is pretty smart with his positioning. He is all about creating dangerous chances. If he shoots, he mostly does it in close. If he passes, he tries to pass to a teammate in a dangerous area. He does not just fire shots from distance, nor does he just settle for passes to the point all the time. I like his style of play, even if I don’t quite know what to make of him. He’ll be a leading player for Finland at the World Juniors, and is moving to one of Finland’s top pro teams last year.
Hardev: I really like Hirvonen. That’s it, that’s the tweet.
It’s not giving too much away to say the Community Vote had Hirvonen a little lower, and below Travis Dermott. That doesn’t mean everyone agrees, however, so let’s go right to the answer that matters most with top-10 prospects: Will he make the NHL?
What do you think the chances are that Roni Hirvonen makes the NHL?
|He’s a lock
|Much better than 50-50
|Flip a coin
|Much worse than 50-50
|Longest of longshots