It’s time again for the European Report, the weekly (more-or-less) look at the Toronto Maple Leafs prospects in Europe. This year’s list is thinning out at the top end, like the entire Leafs prospect pool is. Mikko Kokkonen and Kalle Loponen, just drafted and both likely to play in Finland all year, have joined this season.
UPDATE: it’s not very often the Euro Report has the late breaking news, but this morning Kärpät announced that Kalle Loponen has been loaned to the Sudbury Wolves.
It was also announced that Kalle Loponen (TOR) will be playing for Sudbury Wolves this season: https://t.co/R65K5Ga8OA— Lassi Alanen (@lassialanen) September 4, 2019
Meanwhile, I’ve arbitrarily dropped some names off the bottom end. While technically speaking, the Leafs hold exclusive signing rights on some players until they are UFA age, I’m not going to track the next five years of Nikolai Chebykin’s life. He’s joining some of the other older prospects who have established themselves at a level in their home countries that will see them never make the AHL, much less the NHL. At time of writing Martins Dzierkals doesn’t have a job for the coming season, so it’s time to let go of that dream.
The regular season begins in September for all of these players, so today is just a chance to get to know them all. The next report will arrive in mid September, with some game results to discuss.
D - 18 years old- shoots left - third year pro, second in Liiga
Mikko Kokkonen, drafted by the Leafs this summer in the third round, is likely to play the full season for Jukurit in the top men’s league in Finland. He’s going to be the youngest defender on the roster, but he will likely still play second pair. He averaged over 17 minutes per game of all-situations time on ice last season for them and had the second most power play minutes for a defender. He played a very small amount of PK time last season, and I don’t anticipate that changing.
Jukurit is oversupplied with lefties, but Kokkonen is listed as playing the right side last season, and I expect that to continue. That is going to keep him in the lineup ahead of most of the veterans.
A benchmark comparison for Kokkonen’s performance will be Jesper Lindgren, now on the Marlies, who also played a similar role on a similar team in the Liiga at 18 and 19. He showed a big improvement in Corsi results year-over-year, and we can hope that Kokkonen does the same.
While Jukurit’s season begins on September 13, so far Kokkonen has appeared only on their trip to Japan, where they played an Asia League team in a friendly match, and appeared on TV. He was there, but was not on the playing roster. He had a small injury at the WJSS, so that might be the explanation as to why he hasn’t been in any preseason games.
Kokkonen (he’s the one in the middle) looks exactly like I do when I try to google translate Finnish.
D - 20 years old - shoots right - second year in the KHL
With a season almost totally lost to a serous leg injury last year, Eemeli Räsänen is rebooting with another try at making the lineup for Jokerit. He has already appeared in several preseason games, but making the roster of a KHL team at a young age is much more difficult that what Kokkonen is doing in the Liiga.
Jokerit, in Finland, but part of the KHL, does not yet have a VHL team to use as a minor league farm club. If they want to cut players from the KHL roster, they either have to be junior aged and ready to go back to Finnish U20 league hockey, or they can be loaned to a Mestis (Finnish minor league) team. This puts Jokerit at a disadvantage to other teams, since Mestis is a lower-level league than the VHL.
Räsänen was loaned to a Mestis team last year for post-injury conditioning, but this season, we want to see him grab a roster spot on the big club. That’s not going to be any easier, however. Jokerit only has one top-four right-shooting defender, but they’re used to dealing with that. They also have six defenders over 25, who are veteran returning KHL players, and will likely take the six main jobs. Räsänen is in a mix of four defenders 21 and under, who will be challenging for the roles of extras, and injury fill-in players. Two of those are already loaned to the Mestis, one is likely to be cut back to junior, and that leaves Räsänen and a new player who was in the SHL last year. The indications are that Räsänen will start exactly where he did last year, dressing as an extra in some games, but not necessarily playing a lot.
In the first game on Tuesday, he did the old dressed but not played routine in a 3-1 loss.
W/C - 20 years old - shoots left - second SHL season
Växjö, Holmberg’s team in the top Swedish men’s league, are well into their preseason. They made a lot of changes this year, losing NHL-drafted prospects Dominik Bokk and Jonas Røndbjerg but gaining several new and interesting players.
Holmberg has been playing centre with Filip Cederqvist, a 2019 draft pick of the Sabres and Marcus Sylvegård, an undrafted 20 year old. He’s also had one game on the wing with better players, and scored an actual goal in the game.
As some of the other younger players were moved down to the fourth line in more recent preseason games, Holmberg moved to left wing, and stayed on the third line, where it looks like he’ll start the season (position to be determined), but how his season progresses from there is largely up to him.
His regular season begins on September 14.
D - 18 years old - shoots right - second year pro
Last season, Kalle Loponen played a typical young man’s season in a European club: 2 games with Kärpät’s U18 team, 18 with their U20 team, 1 game on the big club, and 30 games on loan to a team in the Mestis.
Now, just drafted by the Leafs, this defender has to try to move up a level. But what will that look like? He played well in the Mestis, so a return to U20, while possible, seems less than ideal. Can he crack the big club’s lineup?
Kärpät is a very good team that is usually a contender in the Liiga. They won the championship two years ago, and lost in the finals this year to Jesper Lindgren’s team. They had one of the hottest defence corps in the Liiga. While they lost a couple of defenders (one was Teemu Kivihalme), they added a couple of imports. The way up to the men’s team was blocked.
Loponen played some preseason with the U20 team in a tournament in Russia, so he could have played junior again in Finland, or possibly played on a Mestis team all year. The choice to got to the OHL, which I assume came at the urging of the Leafs, is interesting. The competition level there is somewhere between the Finnish U20 league and the Mestis, but he’s also very handy to the Leafs development people. It’s clear this new Leafs team takes their late round picks much more seriously than the old one did. They are planning a meaningful level of development with Loponen.
While Kokkonen might make the Finnish WJC team, I don’t think there’s any chance Loponen will.
RW - 19 years old - shoots left - second year in the VHL
Returning to the report is the youngest prospect in Russia.
Overlooked by most fans due to playing in obscurity, Kizimov is somewhat stuck by his contract to a team that was moved to the VHL mostly for financial reasons. He would likely make many a KHL team, albeit in a lesser role, so maybe the situation is working for him so far in giving him top line ice time.
He needs to have a season even better than last year’s excellent one for someone his age in the VHL to force KHL teams to go after him. His season begins in the VHL on September 6.
Winger/C - 21 years old - shoots left - third pro season, first in the KHL/VHL
Kara is still under contract to Ak Bars, a team fully embracing their “window to contend” period, which makes it hard to grab ice time. He played 41 games on the team last year and 25 in the VHL, and his goal this season has to be to grab a regular roster spot in the KHL. He’s got his work cut out for him, though, as the team just doesn’t have room for prospects right now.
With a contract through to 2021, he seems committed to the club system he’s in, and it seems a bit of a long shot now that he’ll ever come to Toronto. His season, on either team, starts in early September.
There are a few European prospects who play in North America, and you can follow them via seldo’s regularly scheduled prospect report. Semyon Der-Arguchintsev plays in the OHL for Peterborough. Filip Kral, who played last season in the WHL, seems to be undecided yet where he will play, but a few days ago, he was quoted in the Czech press as saying he hoped to play in the AHL or ECHL for Toronto. He is also on the roster for Traverse City this weekend. The just-drafted Mikhail Abramov will return for another season in the QMJHL with Victoriaville.
Jukurit, Jokerit and all things Finnish
With three Finnish defence prospects all playing in Finland, this can get confusing.
Jokerit is a KHL team. But Jokerit is also a Finnish club. That means they have junior-aged teams that compete in the Finnish junior leagues. So far, Jokerit does not have teams in the VHL (KHL feeder league) or the MHL (Russian and surrounding area junior league). Junior players under contract to Jokerit the KHL team play in the Finnish junior leagues. Tweeners get loaned to a Mestis (second level league in Finland) team they have an arrangement with.
Don’t confuse Jokerit and Jukurit. The two aren’t linked in any way. Jukurit’s men’s team plays in the Liiga, the top league in Finland. They have an affiliation with a Mestis team and they have their own junior-aged teams.