For the third week in a row, we had a bunch of new leagues for some of Toronto’s prospects start their regular seasons. All the other leagues in Europe that had already begun also had a bunch of games. It was... hectic, trying to watch all of the games this weekend.

Thankfully, I was still recovering from COVID so it was both a welcome distraction and a low-energy activity for me to kill time!

Brandon Lisowsky

Technically, Lisowsky’s season began already, with two games over the previous weekend. I saw the first game and as I said in the notes of my last prospect report, it was a mess. It was full of scrums, minor penalties, borderline cheap shots... just real ugly hockey. I didn’t catch the second game.

On Saturday, Lisowsky played in his third game and it was a much different story. Saskatoon (his team) was clearly much better than Swift Current, and they thumped them 8-3 with a huge lead in shots as well. Lisowsky only had one assist, but he had a fantastic game. He added ten shots on net, a few of them very good chances. He also showed improved passing and playmaking compared to last season, making him a pretty potent dual offensive threat. You have to respect his shot and goal scoring, but he also now is showing a greater ability and willingness to set up teammates for better opportunities.

But what stood out the most was that he was all over the place. I think his skating looks noticeably improved overall. He’s faster, more explosive, and more willing to skate hard all over the place. He was blowing by defenders regularly, pressuring puck carriers to force hasty decisions and turnovers, and was constantly involving himself in play.

Here are some of the better highlights from the game, and there’s a lot for just one game!

If that kind of game becomes the norm for him, he’ll be real fun to follow this season. So far through three games he has four assists, but the goals will come. He still has an uncanny ability to find soft spots on the ice to get his shot off, and it is a weapon that can score from distance.

Ty Voit

Ty Voit is seeing some changes from last year. First, where he was the 1C for Sarnia for the vast majority of the season he is starting this season bumped to right wing — but still on the top line. Sarnia has a much improved roster, with some good young prospects and two good overage imports from Europe. One of those imports is playing as the 1C, as a more defensively responsible center who wins a lot of faceoffs.

That may seem bad for Voit, but it could be a blessing. I did not think Voit was likely to stick as a center long term (i.e., when he turns pro), and while he did an admirable job picking up the position and the responsibility, while still racking up so many primary points, it is still a more difficult job. He’s also not being used on the penalty kill, so more of his team is being focused on 5v5 and the powerplay. Now he can focus even more on what he’s good at: driving play, offensive transitions, and racking up points.

And we saw that in his first two games this weekend, during which he scored two goals and added two assists. I will note, one of those assists is bunk — it was credited to him but I’m pretty sure the score keeper mistook him for his teammate with a similar number (86 vs 96) because it was very clearly not Voit.

Being a winger doesn’t mean Voit can’t play defense, as we saw on his goal. He used his speed to chase down an opponent trying to carry the puck out of the zone, and created a turnover. He then outskated a few defenders and teammates who were all closer to the puck than he was after, so he could clean up the rebound.

His skill is very much still there. There isn’t much new I can say about him. He’s fast and quick, he’s great with the puck with his vision and passing, but he’s showing a better aptitude for scoring. I showed his goal above, and he also added an overtime winner on a two on one snipe. It was a simple goal, but he positioned himself well to take the pass and made no mistake.

Ryan Tverberg

Most of the NCAA began their regular seasons this weekend, and followed a common tradition for NCAA sports. They started by beating up on much weaker teams. This is true for all of the top teams. Ryan Tverberg and UConn opened the season with a back to back against Vermont. Exactly.

That said, it was a good weekend for Tverberg. After playing most of last season as a 2nd/3rd line winger, with a senior-heavy roster, this year he is starting the season as their top line center and on both the top PP and top PK units. UConn appears to be following a similar strategy that the Leafs used to — they have Tverberg alternate taking faceoffs with an opposite-handed player, so they always take draws on their strong sides. But during play, I’d say Tverberg is the one actually playing as the center.

Over the weekend, he had 1 goal and 1 assist, both coming on the powerplay. That’s actually a good sign for him, because last season he only had 5 powerplay points all year. UConn had a pretty terrible powerplay, but they’re showing pretty good results so far, albeit against a weaker school. Some of that is due to the arrival of top 2023 prospect Matthew Wood, who will likely be a first overall pick. He’s a big, skilled forward with a heck of a shot. He scored two powerplay goals over the weekend off wicked snipes.

That’s something Tverberg can take advantage of. He’s being used as a bit of a hybrid, roaming between either the point or the bumper spot, depending on how other players are moving. The other reason he can take advantage of an improved powerplay is because of a an improved ability and confidence in handling the puck and making passes. That came through most often this weekend on the powerplay, but you can see some examples in these highlights from both games:

I still won’t call him a high end playmaker, but last year he was more of a straight line power forward. He skated hard and fast, he had a wicked shot, and he could pull off some dangles. But high end skill was not his strength. It still isn’t, actually, but showing improvements in those areas will only improve his overall game. Because he does still have that straight line power forward in him, playing aggressive on the forecheck, throwing his weight around and taking hits to make plays. Playing such a heavy minute, all-situations role on a younger but more skilled team, he has the potential to have an even better season than last year that isn’t reliant so much on a shooting percentage spike.

Nikita Grebyonkin

No big update about how Grebyonkin is now getting regular minutes in the KHL, sadly. He’s still getting one or two minutes in the games he actually plays at all. However, this past weekend his KHL team (Metallurg) was off. They played Friday, and don’t play again until Tuesday. So they sent him and another young(er) prospect, Danila Yurov, down to their MHL team to get some heavier minutes. This is something that Sibir did with Ovchinnikov a lot the past two seasons.

In that one game on Sunday, Grebyonkin was just hilarious. He is a D+2 player, 6’2”, and just so clearly too good for the level — it didn’t help they were playing one of the worst teams in the league. He played 17 minutes and had three primary assists, one on the powerplay and the other two at even strength. He almost had a fourth, but for a very nice save by the goalie. He also had a couple of good scoring chances too.

Grebyonkin was simply too big, fast, skilled, and experienced for his opponents. He could almost literally do whatever he wanted. Pretty much every shift was spent in the offensive zone, skating around or through them all, turning his back to the defenders before cutting back into the middle.

This was very likely just a one off for the weekend to get him and Yurov playing time, I don’t think it will be a long term thing. Yurov, for example, was a regular third/fourth liner playing around 10 minutes a night for the KHL team. If he’s sent down from the KHL for a long term period, I think given Grebyonkin’s age and ability he’s better served going to their VHL team. That was never an option for Ovchinnikov with Sibir, who does not have a VHL team, but it is an option for Metallurg.

Anyways watch all these highlights (there’s a lot) and laugh with me.

Topi Niemelä

The last I wrote about Niemelä, he was playing well but had no points to show for it. He was playing less on the powerplay, but still getting good minutes at even strength and on the penalty kill. But from what I saw, it was just a matter of time before the points started coming because he was getting his chances — for himself, or setting up teammates.

Since then, he had his best game of the season. He played a season and team high 23:19 in a WILD 7-6 overtime loss, where his team was constantly playing from behind. He had six shots on net, was a +1 and not on the ice for any goals against. He also finally got a point, a bit of a nothingburger pass that turned into a primary assist. It’s funny that the point he finally got was pretty tame, given how many other good chances he already had and especially in that game. Like this:

He’s also showing a better ability to defend using physical play. He’s not a bruising stay-at-home defenseman by any means, but he can use improved strength with his good positioning, skating and anticipation to shut a play down against mostly older and bigger opponents. That will be a key for him to succeed in the NHL as a defenseman.

That kind of play, combined with his offensive ability to create scoring chances for his team, is why his underlying numbers look so good this year. If you remove players who have only played 3 or fewer games this season, Niemelä has the 9th best CF% in the league with 62.7%. Of all those ahead of him, he has by far the lowest on ice sh% at 5v5 (6.2%). The next lowest is 8%, with six of the nine ahead of him being at least double.

Miscellaneous notes

  • Matthew Knies — Streaming issues were plentiful this weekend for a bunch of NCAA teams, including Minnesota. He had three points over two games, with two of them being goals. What’s interesting about both goals is they were deflections. That’s a kind of goal he didn’t really score last year, but being able to add it to his offensive repertoire would bolster his strength as a power forward playing around the net. He also had 5 shots in each game playing on the top line, giving him an excellent showing to start the year./
  • Veeti Miettinen — After a real tough sophomore season, Miettinen already has four points through the first two games. For reference, he didn’t record his fourth point until his seventh game last year. I wasn’t able to watch anything but the highlights from the second game, but the bit of context I can add is that he can REAL close to scoring another goal last night./

What’s funny is he then scored again on the same powerplay right after, off another wicked shot — this one a one-timer.

  • Mike Koster — With Knies making his debut, so too did his teammate and fellow Leafs’ prospect Mike Koster. He had a quiet first game, but had a two point outing last night. At some point yesterday an update said that his assist was changed to a goal, but as of now the official boxscore still has it as an assist. Both points came from point shots, with the second being a blast of a one timer./
  • Roni Hirvonen — Boy did he have a weird week. He started the season playing on the second line as a left winger. Then he got bumped to the third line, but playing center for a few games. Then this week he got bumped way up to the first line as a left winger again. In his two games on the top line, he played over 17 minutes in both and had three points. Weirdly, two of those points came with him on the bench — he passed the puck in the offensive zone, immediately got off the ice and then the teammate he passed it to eventually shot and scored. His most recent game on Saturday saw him bumped back down to his original second line left wing spot. Overall I do think he is still playing well, but I’ve never really seen him play at a higher, impact level like he has against his peers in international tournaments. That’s to be expected, but I see more from Topi Niemelä, as an example, when both play against Liiga competition. /

That’s the vast majority of Maple Leafs prospects who have started their seasons by now. The only ones who haven’t, at this point, are Fraser Minten (hurt playing in the Maple Leafs’ pre-season camp) and Toronto’s prospects playing for Harvard (Miller and Fusco) in the NCAA, who for some reason play in a conference that starts their regular season until October 20th, much later than the others. In the meantime I’ll be watching what games I can for all the rest.