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European Report: Pre-season update

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Our year of strangely staggered seasons is about to begin.

Toronto Maple Leafs v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

The European report is going to be a busy place this year after last year’s rather dull look at Mikko Kokkonen recovering from a concussion and some players no one remembers or votes for at T25 time. This season, with many players from all the North American leagues moving to Europe either for a full season or until the AHL or NHL seasons begin, the list is longer than it’s been in years.

There are two broad types of players of interest to Leafs fans here. The actual prospects who have been drafted or were received in trade from their original drafting club, and the players signed to NHL deals who have been loaned to a European team for an unknown time. So far there’s only three of this type, but it won’t be a surprise if those numbers grow. There is a problem with players wanting very short loans to the SHL, though:

The European seasons are largely starting near their usual times in September and October, and so far, while they are in training camp and preseason, the Coronavirus problem has been very marked in Russia, and not remarkable anywhere else. Don’t confuse the KHL with Russia. There are several teams in that league in other countries — notable to us, Jokerit in Helsinki, Finland. Most leagues outside Russia are starting off play assuming they will have no fans in the stands, or very limited numbers. But that may change, and will vary from country to country as the season progresses. Setbacks seem almost inevitable in this hockey outside of any bubble.

Today’s list is just to get you up to speed on who’s who and where and when they’re playing. I’ve started ordering the prospects by age this year since there’s so many, and it might help us keep track of who should be doing well and who is still developing.

NOTE: Jukurit is a team in the Finnish top-level league (Liiga). Jokerit is a team in Finland in the KHL. They aren’t related in any way but by a coincidence of spelling, after all, you don’t assume Lehtonen and Kokkonen are the same guy because they’re both named Mikko, do you?

Drafted Prospects

Mikko Kokkonen

D - 19 years old - shoots left - fourth year pro, third in Liiga

Mikko Kokkonen missed all of last year’s training camp with a concussion, and this year, he’s getting to start the season properly. He’s wearing the A for Jukurit, should play in the top four, and has seemed himself in preseason from all reports. He’s also played in some junior camps for Finland, a reminder that he’s likely to be on their WJC team this year.

In a “normal” season, I think we would have seen him sign an ELC by now and potentially be on the Marlies after his Finnish season is over.

The Liiga begins regular season play in early October.

Kalle Loponen

D - 19 years old - shoots right - first full pro year in Liiga after one OHL season

Last season Kalle Loponen played in the OHL for the Sudbury Wolves, reportedly at the behest of the Leafs. This season, he’s back in Finland on his home club Kärpät, one of the perennial top teams in the Liiga. He’s still junior eligible, and given his team’s depth at defence, he’ll likely play some U20. He’s an outside chance to make their WJC team.

Filip Hållander

W/C - 20 years old - shoots left - fourth pro year, third in SHL

The newest Leaf prospect is slotting right back into the top line of Luleå in the SHL, where he spent last year as the left wing on a very, very successful line. He plays with veteran American centre Jack Connolly, who has been in Sweden since Hållander was 12, which is about the perfect development set-up for a very young player in men’s hockey.

We should expect very good things from him when the SHL gets going in late September. He’s actually straddling the border between prospect and signed player on loan. Kyle Dubas has said he will honour the Penguins’ loan deal, and if Hållander doesn’t make the Leafs, he’ll go back after training camp.

Semyon Kizimov

RW - 20 years old - shoots left - first year in the KHL after two in VHL

I called Semyon Kizimov stuck last season, since he was trapped on a VHL team that had no KHL affiliation. His contract was up this summer, and he found a very promising spot to continue his pro career with the KHL team that is now affiliated with his old VHL team. He’s now with Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod, a team coached by Toronto-born David Nemirovsky. They were pretty bad last year, and they’re being remade to improve, with some interesting imports and some new young talent.

Kizimov played on the fourth line in preseason, and now he’s just got to hang onto that job. The KHL starts up on September 2.

Eemeli Räsänen

D - 21 years old - shoots right - first year in Liiga after two in KHL

After spending two seasons either hurt or searching for the right place to play like a very tall Goldilocks, Räsänen has landed where he might belong in the Liiga. With a spot on the defence corps of HPK, he is moving onto the team Jesper Lindgren called home two seasons ago and has played in some preseason games already. Lindgren, traded to Pittsburgh in the Hållander deal, is playing in Allsvenskan this year, so if Räsänen matches his Liiga play, we’ll have a clearer understanding (finally) of his level.

Pontus Holmberg

W/C - 21 years old - shoots left - third SHL season

After spending a season on a team with bad goaltending and no one to score the goals, Pontus Holmberg should be expecting slightly better things this season. Växjö doesn’t stay bad long. The team has added Hurricanes’ draft pick Jack Drury, who walked away from Harvard to keep playing high-level hockey. He’s unlikely to be the last NCAA player to do that. He goes from getting set up for one-timers by Nick Abruzzese to playing in a new country and a different system. It will be very interesting to see if Drury ends up with the very steady Holmberg on his wing, but in preseason they have been playing as 2C and 3C respectively.

Vladislav Kara

Winger/C - 22 years old - shoots left - fourth pro season, first full KHL season

Vladislav Kara was also a bit trapped on his very good KHL team last year, struggling to get ice time as they pushed for another cup win. He was traded this summer to KHL club Cherepovets in Severstal, and has played all the preseason games in the top six, so this move seems to have been very good for him in that respect. Like Kizimov, he just needs to keep that job.

Vladimir Bobylyov and Nikolai Chebykin

Both are 23, and the Leafs have indefinite rights to them since they were drafted out of Russia. They are established VHL players who keep wandering from team to team together, and are currently without contracts as the season is nearly ready to begin. These two are exactly the sorts of marginal pro players who will be squeezed out by the influx of North Americans and returning Europeans at the start of this season. They aren’t at even an AHL level in North America, and I plan to ignore them as I did last year.

Signed to NHL Contract and Loaned to European Team

Filip Král

D - 20 years old - shoots left - first pro season after three in WHL

Král, drafted and then signed to an ELC, was set to play on the Marlies this year, but until there is an AHL season, he’s playing in the second-level Czech league for HC Prerov. He technically has some pro experience from when he was still in the Czech club system as a teenager, but it’s a few games here and there.

Yegor Korshkov

RW/LW - 24 years old - shoots left - sixth year in pro hockey KHL/AHL

Expecting to challenge for a depth role on the Leafs next season, Yegor Korshkov was welcomed back with open arms by Lokomotiv, his old KHL team. He should be expected to play there until the Leafs want him back — possibly for training camp, but maybe not until the KHL season is over. He should move right back into the middle six on Lokomotiv and fit right in.

Mikko Lehtonen

D - 26 years old - shoots left - eighth pro season of some kind, second year in KHL

After a very successful season in the KHL with Jokerit last year, Mikko Lehtonen was right at home again on a loan from the Leafs. He’s playing the second pair left side in preseason, and seems to be in on a lot of the goals. He’s playing with a Swede — newcomer to the KHL, Jonathan Pudas, so he’s getting used to life in Toronto without actually being in Toronto.

We should expect him to be recalled for training camp, but in the interim, Jokerit opens their season in Belarus on Thursday, and the pressures in Finland to refuse to play that game are strong. Jokerit risks forever tarnishing their reputation as a Finnish team first, KHL team second if they play that game during a tumultuous season of protests over unfair elections.


And that’s the list this week, from Mikko to Mikko and all the names in between. With so many players to track, and potentially more to be added, some will get the barest of mentions as the season rolls on, but after there’s a few KHL games in the books, I’ll check back on how they’re doing in real game action.