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European Report: Stretch Drive in the KHL

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The season overlap has European teams driving for playoff spots while the NHL is just starting.

Finland v Sweden: Quarterfinals - 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship
My favourite Niemelä shot from the WJC
Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

With the WJC over, the participants are dispersing back home, and some have already played a league game again. With the NHL season about to start, the European seasons are trying to finish. The KHL is at more than 45 games played by most teams out of a 60-game season. Their trade deadline has passed, and they are in the thick of a stretch drive.

Meanwhile, in Finland and Sweden, particularly the Liiga in Finland, the exodus of NHL and AHL prospects who had overstuffed the teams has left them in re-tool mode, and also ready to play their own young talent coming home from the WJC.

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Drafted Prospects

Rodion Amirov

LW - 19 years old - shoots left - second pro year with mostly KHL time

Back from the WJC where Russia had a disappointing final pair of games, Amirov was back in action on Sunday, playing on the third line in a big win for his team. While he was gone, Salavat Yulaev traded Nikita Soshnikov and acquired KHL veteran Geoff Platt, so there isn’t more room in the top six.

The team is currently in a hunt for the two to four position in their conference, so the motivation to rest their hot top lines is just not there. When it gets closer to the end of the regular season, Amirov’s ice time could increase.

In 25 games played, Amirov has five goals and three assists in just under 14 minutes per game.

Roni Hirvonen

C - 18 years old - shoots left - second pro year in Liiga

Hirvonen returns to Ässät with a bronze medal and to a team that wants to climb higher in the standings and succeed in the playoffs. With some delays in their schedule — Finnish hockey was shut down for most of December — the Liiga isn’t quite halfway through their 60 game season, and their playoffs will be deep into April now.

Hirvonen hasn’t played yet, but he should be back soon. In 21 games played, he has five goals and four assists on just under 16 minutes per game. His lines have not had great Corsi for his team, and he is in the bottom third of his regular teammates by that measure.

Topi Niemelä

D - 18 years old - shoots right - Liiga for one year, back in U20

Niemelä came back to Kärpät with a bronze medal and a lot of impressed fans after being named top defenceman of the WJC. That raises a question, because he’s only played nine games in the Liiga this year. He’s been in junior, but only played six games there. How can he be put back in junior now, though? Even on a deep team. He really needs the grind of a regular season. He played 43 Liiga games last year, but this year, he’s got almost as much tournament play as league play.

Kärpät is right with Ässät in points and has the same goal through the back half of their season. They want to improve and solidify their position. Sometimes that’s not conducive to ice time for younger players. This isn’t the AHL after all, they’re not there to develop NHL-drafted prospects.

In his nine games, Niemelä has three assists in only 14 minutes per night. His Corsi is massive, but that’s meaningless in so few games. Meaning will come when he actually gets to play night in, night out. Making matters worse, the team announced on Wednesday that Niemelä is out for three to four weeks with an unspecified injury.

Mikko Kokkonen

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

The third man with a bronze medal, Mikko Kokkonen, comes back to Finland and Jukurit ready to turn 20 next week. This is crunch time for him. His Finnish contract is up at the end of this season, and if the Leafs want him, you’d expect that to be this coming offseason. He’s got nothing left to prove in the Liiga with 126 games played over five years. The only thing he hasn’t got is playoff experience. That’s hardly his fault, since he’s not the one making the team bad.

They’re bad again this season. Currently in 12th place out of 15 teams, which puts them out of a playoff position, but the points are so close between fifth to 13th, any outcome is possible. However, they are tied for the most goals allowed with the team in 14th place, so unless the goaltending changes dramatically, they aren’t making a move up.

In 19 games played at 21 minutes per game (no power play, all the PK minutes he can handle), Kokkonen has three assists. It’s hard to make a big positive impression on a bad team, but Kokkonen has cast himself as the solid dependable defensive stalwart — they put him right back in the lineup as soon as possible — and that might be a trap as much as necessary skillset. He looked to me at the WJC like a player that needs to be challenged.

Filip Hållander

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

Hållander is rolling along as the 1LW on Luleå, and he now has four goals and eight assists in 29 games played. He only plays 16 minutes a game, belying that top line status a little. Luleå tends to use situational ice time more than some Swedish teams that just roll out the units, so when it’s a game for the grinders, the grinders grind.

The top line has 56% Corsi, which is as much about usage as anything else. Luleå went through a phase where they all shot like they’d forgotten how, so they lagged in goals-for, but that tide has turned, and they now shoot with a percentage that’s worthy of their hot goalies on the other side of the equation. They sit fourth in the league and have to be pushing for a top two finish again this season.

The SHL has had no widespread pauses, but almost every team has had games rescheduled. Even so, they are over the halfway point, and have 22-23 games each to set themselves up for the playoffs in March.

Artur Akhtyamov

G - 18 years old - catches left - first pro year in KHL/VHL, will play some MHL

Akhtyamov played one game in the WJC, which means he last played in December. He needs to get in some games, so I’m assuming he’s going to the VHL. He hasn’t played anywhere yet, but sat as backup in the KHL for one game. We’ll see where he bounces around to for the remainder of the season. Any experience is good for him.

Dmitri Ovchinnikov

F - 18 years old - shoots L - MHL, with some KHL appearances

Now completely forsaken by Leafs fans by some Finn in the NCAA, Dmitri Ovchinnikov will keep scoring goals, even if you’re not watching.

In 32 games played in the MHL, he has 16 goals and 28 assists on almost 24 minutes per game. Someone is getting in the work around here.

Because he was called up to the KHL for a five-game stint, he has played as much as 11 games fewer in the MHL than some of the points leaders. Nonetheless, he’s fifth in the league right now.

Axel Rindell

D - 20 years old - shoots R - second year pro in Liiga

Since Rindell is just Kokkonen only on the powerplay, I’ll be brief with him. He’s a few months older and on the same team, and he has skitched his Corsi up over 50 — the only one on his team.

In 23 games played, he has four goals and 13 assists, with six of those points coming on the power play. He plays 20 minutes per game, the same as Kokkonen.

Semyon Kizimov

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

After a rough start, he’s settled in on his VHL team and has six goals and seven assists in 21 games played.

Kalle Loponen

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

Likely stuck in junior for the rest of the season, Loponen has 21 points in 25 games, with eight goals. He’s going to end with more points than he had in the OHL last year, but that’s about it.

Eemeli Räsänen

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

Räsänen has played 15 games on the worst team in the Liiga and has zero points. He played almost 20 minutes in his latest outing a few days ago.

Pontus Holmberg

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

Everyone was hot for Holmberg when he was on a scoring tear early. He had a minor injury, came back, and slotted right back into his third line centre job.

Now with 27 games played, he’s on a normal-for-him pace of five goals and six assists. He’s got great Corsi again, with over 55% on a grinder line, so you might be wondering if his team is good this year.

Växjö is in third place with a hope of moving up, but Luleå are breathing down their necks.

Vladislav Kara

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

While we weren’t looking, Kara was traded to Spartak Moscow. He has played one game there in January, so there was some period of adjustment, perhaps.

Signed to NHL Contract and Loaned to European Team

Yegor Korshkov

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

Clearly playing out the season for Lokomotiv (good timing, they’re the best they’ve been in years) Korshkov has 26 points in 43 games, topping his 25 points in 44 AHL games last year. One more point, and it’s officially his personal best KHL season.

Lokomotiv is in third place in their conference with a serious chance to finish ahead of SKA for second (not sure this is legally allowed, however). They have 16 games left, and then playoffs, and Korshkov should have this all wrapped up before the end of April, when the AHL season will be about six weeks old.

Update:

Filip Král

D - 20 years old - shoots left - first pro season after three in WHL, loaned to Prerov, Czech2/Kometa Brno, Czech

Král is up to 13 points in 25 games in the Czech league.

Denis Malgin

F - 23 years old - 5 years in NHL, loaned to Lausanne of NL

Malgin is up to 22 points in 19 Swiss league games. For reference, Joe Thornton had 11 in 12 games.

Kristians Rubins

D - 22 years old - shoots left - 2 years in AHL, loaned to Frederikshavn, Denmark

Rubins has five points in 21 games in Denmark.

Semyon Der-Arguchintsev

C - 20 years old - shoots right - first pro year after 4 in OHL, loaned to Torpedo, KHL

Der-Arguchintsev was injured in late November in a kneeing and hasn’t played since. He has five points in 10 games.