Last week, I wrote a report on the Maple Leafs’ prospects playing in the Russian leagues. Since then, more of the European leagues are a few games into their seasons, so I got to watch some games of Niemelä, Hirvonen and Hildeby.
Niemelä’s situation on Kärpät has changed since the peak of his offensive breakout last season. Their head coach was replaced, and their style changed to one more on defense. Niemelä’s role has also changed, both because of the coach’s roster makeup, new acquisitions, but also because of all the injuries his team had last year.
So far this season, Niemelä is playing on the second pairing RD. He is still on the top penalty kill unit, but no longer on the top powerplay unit as well. He gets PP2 time occasionally, but I’ve seen him not get used on the powerplay at all — likely due to him getting rested from a PK/5v5 shift. As a result, his average ice time through four games is 17:31 after averaging 19:50 last year. Generally speaking, I’d say that drop in total minutes is coming mostly from his lack of powerplay time. At even strength and on the PK, he’s being used about the same.
The lack of a top PP role is also hurting his point production, as through four games he has yet to record a point. While that will be disappointing to people who expected him to be an offensive juggernaut after last season, there are a few things to keep in mind.
First, Niemelä’s offensive growth is just the gravy. His strength has and will always be at driving play, both by moving the puck and playing good defense. This is something where he is showing improvement from previous season. Through four games, Niemelä has yet to be on the ice for a goal against at even strength, and just one against while killing a penalty. He also has 61.2% CF% at even strength while on the ice. That’s good for 28th in the league among all players, and 11th for defensemen by comparison. His team overall has a much stronger CF% than last year and it’s also very early so don’t read that much into it, but a strong start in that regard is a good sign.
Second, his lack of production is hiding the process. Four games is a pretty small sample, and there are good things going his way. He’s still showing the same offensive skills that drove his point production last season. In the offensive zone, he has very good movement with and without the puck. While the Liiga overall sees a lot more point shots from defensemen than most others, Niemelä has a good chunk of his come from in close like this:
Niemelä loves to creep in from the point to get a shot from the top of the faceoff circle, making it a bit more dangerous. His movement also helps him draw defenders to him and create chaos/scrambles, which opens up better chances for his teammates when he can hit them with cross ice passes.
Compared to the rest of his team, Niemelä has the lowest on ice shooting percentage (5v5) at 4%. His chances are coming, the finish is not. If he keeps up that same process, however, the points will come. Especially if he starts getting more regular powerplay time.
My entry about Hirvonen will be shorter than Niemelä. The streaming options for his games have been either nonexistent or may as well have been a video camera pointed at a CRT monitor. Good enough for me to get a general idea of his usage and actions, but not much more.
So, let’s talk context. Hirvonen has played in five games so far and has only one point, an assist. He started the season as the second line left winger, but the past three games he’s been moved to the third line center. To be honest, I don’t really know the reasons behind the decision (injuries, wanting to reconfigure the lines to better suit various strengths/weaknesses, etc) but in my opinion Hirvonen is a better winger than he is a center.
That said, despite being dropped down a line he’s actually getting more ice time. His first two games as a winger he played in 14:04 and 12:31. Since he was moved to center, he’s played 15:03, 16:45 and 16:19. In those games, he’s averaging 3.6 shots per game so he is getting his chances. His CF% is at a decent 57% — and I say decent because the whole league has pretty extreme swings compared to the NHL, and that’s about middle of the pack both for his team and the league as a whole. It is comparable to his previous season, however, where he was 6th in the whole league — that’s how crazy a small sample the early season can be.
#Leafs prospect update (1/3):— Kyle Cushman (@Kyle_Cush) September 14, 2022
• Roni Hirvonen recorded a secondary assist on the game-winner as HIFK took their season opener 4-1. Hirvonen lined up at 2LW and played 14:04 TOI. Also had 4 SOG pic.twitter.com/oiDbz90yOZ
In the (very pixelated) two games of Hirvonen’s that I’ve seen, both as a center, he’s looked okay. He plays differently as a center than he does as a wing, as he should. He can play a responsible two-way game, but he winds up less involved in the play offensively as a result. While he’s good defensively and playing more safe, responsible positioning I don’t think that’s his biggest strength — hence why I think he’s a better winger than a center. If he can get more comfortable in that role to the point he can be more aggressive and involved offensively that will only be a good thing, but that’s important to keep in mind when assessing him rather than just paying attention to the box scores.
Dennis Hildeby is big. And now for further quality analysis!
So far, Hildeby has been playing for Färjestad BK as the 1B goalie. They’ve played in four Champions League games against other European pro teams, and in three SHL regular season games. Hildeby himself has started in two of the Champions League games, and in one SHL leage game.
In the Champions League, they are playing the early round robin. Färjestad has been playing against pro teams from Germany and other lower tier European leagues. In Hildeby’s two games, he’s 2-0 with a .950 sv%. In his one SHL game, he has an .885 sv%.
I’m no goalie expert, but there’s a few things I’ve noticed. First, he seems to use his size well — he has smart positioning and quick movements to keep himself taking up as much of the net as possible. But he can also make quick reaction saves when needed. You can get a good idea of his movement in the highlight below.
A good flurry of saves by #LeafsForever prospect Dennis Hildeby on the penalty kill. Not great rebound control on the first save, but stayed in control in the middle of his crease so he was in solid position for the second. Didn't show any panic or wild movements to recover. pic.twitter.com/JdlE2y7sMI— Ale-STAN-dro Kirk (@brigstew86) September 9, 2022
He wasn’t tested very much in the Champions League games, but in his SHL game had a harder time. Two of his three goals against came through a screen that beat him high-blocker. The other goal was a glove-side snipe. One of the shootout goals that got by him was also a glove side snipe, but he also made some good saves down the stretch to keep them in the game — especially in overtime where he stopped a breakaway and made two nice stops killing a penalty.
So, it’s mixed bag to start for him but generally positive. I want to see him play some more SHL games to see how he fares against tougher competition than the Champions League.
- Nicholas Moldenhauer — he’s had a good start to his USHL season as Chicago’s first line center, but I haven’t signed up for their streaming service yet. Trying to save some money for a while, but I hope to get to it later in the year where I can rewatch old games./
- Brandon Lisowsky — somewhat of the same situation for Lisowksy in the CHL as Moldenhauer, but I was able to catch some of his first game. He’s also had a good start playing as Saskatoon’s first line LW. The first game was... something. You’d think it was a playoff game between two heated rivals... so many penalties, scrums, dirty hits. It was a slow slog of ugly hockey to watch, so it was hard to really take anything from it. /
#LeafsForever prospect Brandon Lisowsky (#8 in white) with 2 assists, 5 shots, and was a +3 in his first game of the regular season.— Ale-STAN-dro Kirk (@brigstew86) September 24, 2022
His second assist was a great solo effort. Stole the puck, fought off two defenders and got the puck to the net for a point shot goal. pic.twitter.com/9fY9fgwqKS
- Dmitri Ovchinnikov — I wrote that his start to the season was a bit disappointing, but his games since then have looked better. He’s looked more aggressive, skating very hard, and having more of an influence on the play than he was before. I am more willing to chalk up a lot of the problems I saw to start the season was early-season rust./
- Nikita Grebyonkin — more of the same for Grebyonkin, unfortunately. He did not suit up for their most recent game, but did get into bits of three of the four previous games. Still only 2~ minutes, so not a lot. It’s hard to say what their plans are for him, because they also have been dropping the ice time for Danila Yurov. Yurov is younger than Grebyonkin but a higher rated prospect, and likely one of the players Greb is competing against for ice time as another young kid. So if they’re cutting ice time for him and Greb at the same time, I’m wondering if he gets sent down to their VHL team soon./