Over the past week, ending on Saturday, the Americans hosted Sweden and Finland for a small World Junior Summer Showcase tournament. Team USA fielded two split squads, I believe to make up for the lack of Canada who stayed home to play their own intrasquad exhibitions because of COVID restrictions.
The Toronto Maple Leafs had three prospects playing in the tournament: Roni Hirvonen and Topi Niemelä played for Team Finland, and Matthew Knies played on one of the Team USA rosters.
I wound up watching all of their games over the past week, and in the process learned how to make gifs. I decided to write some summaries of what I saw in all of their respective performances.
Hirvonen played on the top line for Finland as a winger, next to Aatu Raty and Kasper Simontaival. Raty was the leader for the line, despite being a year younger, and led the tournament in total points with 14 in six games. Second in points for the tournament, and first in goals scored, was Roni Hirvonen with eight goals and two assists in six games — including two hat tricks. He also finished third in the tournament in shots on goal with 18, two back of the leader.
So, obviously a 44% shooting percentage ain’t exactly sustainable, but a few things helped him get to those eight goals that are a good sign for him in the future. First, he did score four of his eight goals on the powerplay, where he was set up at the side of the net. He scored a few powerplay goals by being smart with his positioning to be open for a cross ice pass or to pounce on rebounds, and displaying a very good shot. Hirvonen is #22 in white in the first gif below, and in blue for the second one.
At even strength, Raty did the heavy lifting for the line. However, Hirvonen played well off of him in a supporting role. Off the puck, Hirvonen was effective but I wouldn’t say spectacular. His forechecking was where he was most impressive, and he was surprisingly physical, like this hit he threw in the neutral zone.
Defensively, I would not say he was that active. Mind you, he didn’t necessarily need to be. I’d be curious about the possession numbers for the tournament because I’d bet that his line spent the majority of their time in the offensive zone. So if I can’t really think of any great defensive plays, it might just because I saw him in the defensive zone so rarely.
All respect to Roni Hirvonen’s impressive goal totals, but Matthew Knies was the surprise of the tournament for me. Team USA had two split squads, and if this tournament was for teams to get a better idea of players to use at the World Junior Championship in the winter, Knies likely entered this summer as a bit of a longshot to make their final roster. He started the tournament on the fourth line, but wound up being used on their top lines, top powerplay unit, top penalty kill unit, and on the ice late in the game when they trailed by a goal.
He finished the tournament with four goals, three assists, and 21 shots in six games. The points were good for a tie for third, and tied for most out of any of the American players. His 21 shots were also the most out of anyone, so his 19% shooting percentage is a bit high but not that out of whack. And the thing is, I think he could have easily had a few more goals and points. He was stopped on two breakaways, and had a goal in the final game called back due to an early whistle that the goalie never had covered. He also set up his teammates for chances they could have scored on as well. He was just a scoring chance generating machine, either for himself or a teammate.
In short, he may have made the decision for Team USA a lot more difficult after this tournament — and their coaching staff agrees.
Nate Leaman spotlighted Matthew Knies (TOR) as one of the surprises of camp. Thought he showed he can score from distance, played a power game down low, good touch with the puck. Finished camp with four goals and seven points.— Chris Peters (@chrismpeters) July 31, 2021
Knies played a similar role as Hirvonen, in that he wasn’t the guy carrying the line but playing a very effective supporting role for the likes of Thomas Bordeleau, Matthew Coronato, and other centers he was used with. The same things I wrote about in his post-draft profile were on display this tournament, but all of his strengths were turned up to 11. He looked much better against top international opponents than I saw even in his late-season USHL games, where he had been playing his best hockey of the year.
First, his shot looked very dangerous. In his USHL games I watched, he’d have a pretty long wind-up, which limited how effective it could be. Goalies would have a lot more time to get square and read when he was going to shoot. In this tournament, his wrist shot was just as hard and heavy, but he was a lot better at getting it off quickly. He scored two goals off of absolute snipes that had me blink in surprise because it seemed to come out of nowhere.
The other element of his game that stood out was his puck protection, forechecking, and general offensive zone play. Like in the USHL, when he got the puck in the offensive zone and turned his back into the defender, it was almost impossible to get it off of him. The new wrinkle he added was better deception with the puck, and little moves like this little spin to shed the defender:
His defensive play was a pleasant surprise to me. With his size and skating, he could be a terror for his opponents when they had the puck. More than a few times he’d use his reach to poke pucks away, lift sticks, intercept passes, and then turn it back the other way. He had a few short handed chances in the tournament, as well as this little pick pocket out of nowhere. The fact that he pantsed the defenseman (sorry Topi...) and almost the goalie on a spin-o-rama as well would have made it the goal of the tournament.
And then there’s his skating. He had the same straight line speed, which helped him keep up with or even blow by other top skaters in the tournament. But he was also a bit quicker and more explosive, which helped him get by Topi Niemelä below — who is no slouch in the skating department.
But he was also more agile and maneuverable outside of straight-line speed. In a few of the clips I already shared above, Knies pulled off some quick cuts and lateral shifts to add a bit of an elusive element to his game. That is part of what I thought was the best takeaway as far as Knies’ future.
In his post-draft profile, one of the weaknesses I mentioned for Knies was his lack of any real high-end skill or ability. From his USHL games I saw, he was a good skater, had a good shot, was a good forechecker, was good at protecting the puck, was good on offensive transitions, and so on. The key word for all of that is “good”. Being good at so many different things is good, but the lack of anything I would call elite is something I thought would limit his upside.
And it’s worth noting that the USHL games I watched him play were only from a month or two ago, late in the USHL season and playoffs, when he was playing his best hockey. What I saw in this WJSS tournament compared to then is significant. Everything I said was good is noticeably better, both his strengths and his flaws.
While I don’t think this means Knies is a lock to become the NHL’s greatest power forward, seeing the improvements in so short a time and at a high level is reassuring. It gives me an indication that his potential to be a supporting power forward in the NHL that could play in the top 6 as more of a realistic possibility, even if it’s still a long shot.
Also, he BEEG and he HIT.
Where Hirvonen had the goals and Knies had the highlights, Niemelä was bit more quietly effective. And yet, he a bit sneakily had a very good tournament as well. He tied for the tournament lead in points by a defenseman with six in six games and in goals by a defensemen with two. If we’re really going to grasp at straws for statistics, Niemelä also finished with a tournament leading +10 rating.
And like Knies, Niemelä became an all situations top player for Finland. He anchored the top pairing at even strength, even if his partner changed at times. He played on the top powerplay unit, where he had two assists. He also played on the top penalty kill unit. If they showed the most total and average ice time for the tournament, I’d bet that Niemela was among the leaders if not at the very top.
But the reason why I say Niemelä was more quiet or sneaky than the other two doesn’t have anything to do with point totals, or even his +/- rating if you can believe it. It has more to do with watching him. I can tell you that he was good, I could even tell you he was very good. But describing how or making a gif of a play he made that illustrates it is difficult.
Niemelä showcases excellent skating, that much has been known about him since he was drafted. He’s fast, he is agile and maneuverable, and can be explosive as well. I do think he can still work on the last part, which will come from adding more muscle and strength to his frame. But his skating is easily something that stands out the most about him, and if there’s one clip that shows how his skating can have an impact on the game, it’s this highlight reel goal he scored. He takes the puck behind the net, eludes the defender pursuing him, then just out-skates everyone else to turn a 2-on-1 into a 3-on-1, and he’s Johnny on the spot to score on the rebound.
This is just Niemelä in a nutshell. His skating is a standout skill that you can see, but watching him for a while he’s just smart. He can read plays, he can use subtle fakes and maneuvers to carry the puck past and through defenders. He can make a good pass, even if he isn’t Marner-esque with creativity, he’s just effective at it. His points come through assists that don’t look spectacular, but he can let loose a wrist shot that’s quick and accurate even if he will never be mistaken for a sniper:
Topi Niemela (TOR) picks up where he left off at the World Juniors pic.twitter.com/VtIcvX0Fbo— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) July 25, 2021
The other way that Niemelä was true to his type is on transitions. On the offensive side, he was very effective at starting the breakout from the defensive zone. He could do it with his passing, but also with his skating. The first gif above of his goal shows how he does it: elusive and quick skating to elude forecheckers, then make a pass to an open forward. Sometimes he may just take space given to him and keep skating with it, but he will often pass it to get it up quicker.
Here’s an example of Niemelä using his skating plus a simple but well timed pass to drive through the neutral zone and pick up an assist:
Defensively, Niemelä was nice and effective in his own end and that’s about all I’d say. He still needs to add some muscle to be able to break up cycles and keep opposing players from skating around unimpeded. His positioning can also be weird at times, where he’s standing somewhere and you’re not sure why. Where he shines is defensive transitions, where he uses his skating and smart reads on the play to break up passes and poke the puck away to stop them from entering the Finnish zone with control.
Here’s an example of how he does it — reads a pass going to a forward with a lot of ice to carry it out, or dump it out at least. Close quickly on them, angle them to the boards, and just take the puck from him. Then flip it back to a teammate to go back into the offensive zone and keep the pressure on. He snuffed out a transition attempt before it even got to the neutral zone.
I still see Niemelä topping out as a utility-knife second pair defenseman, or third pair if he can’t reach his potential. He can be an effective but not necessarily spectacular PK defenseman, PP quarterback, and even strength defensemen who can drive play through two-way transition effectiveness. I’m not sure that any of his special teams utility are at a high enough level to be a top PP/PK unit at the NHL level, but I think he’ll at least serve as another kind of Travis Dermott type. Good 5v5 numbers at even strength on the third pair.
The Future Looks Good... Eventually
What I take from this tournament is that the Leafs have three potentially impact players that they took in the second (or very early third, in Niemelä’s case) rounds. None of them are truly elite, blue chip prospects but could all potentially be valuable in supporting roles. Hirvonen is a smart, offensively-minded supporting winger. Knies is a fast, offensive zone supporting power winger. Niemelä is a good all-situations defenseman. None of them necessarily have single elite skill, and none seem like they’ll ever carry a line or a pairing. But they all offer interesting utility.
The other question is: how soon can we see them on the Leafs? And to that I say: probably 2-3 years at least. Hirvonen and Niemelä will be in the Liiga this year. One or both of them may come over to North America after to play in the AHL. Neither are likely to jump directly from Europe to the NHL, and the Leafs don’t rush their prospects like that anyway. I’d expect them to at least start one season in the AHL and play well enough to steal a spot when they’re in their early 20’s.
Knies, as a year younger, is committed to the NCAA. He will likely play at least two seasons there before turning pro, and maybe as many as three. At that point, he’ll follow the same path as the other two: start in the AHL, refine his play, break into the NHL when he’s ready to steal a spot from someone.
So the future looks bright. Not supernova bright, but bright. Bright enough that you think the Leafs could seize it.... in a few years!
Which Leafs prospect had the most impressive performance at the WJSS?
This poll is closed
Roni Hirvonen, most goals in the tournament
Topi Niemelä, tied most points by defenseman
Matthew Knies, 7 points and most shots