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Winter T25U25: #12-10, Topi Niemela, Roni Hirvonen, and Mikhail Abramov

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We finally get to the first of the legit prospects in the Leafs system

Toronto Maple Leafs Headshots Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

I mentioned in my #22 article on Veeti Miettinen that I made my rankings by putting all the eligible prospects into tiers and then picking an order to them within their tier. In years past I tinkered with my rankings a lot and agonized over some specific choices or rankings.

This year I came to realize how futile it is. No one’s going to care specifically what number I personally rank them. You probably won’t even care about PPP’s official rankings. What you want to know is who can expect to be legit contributors to the Toronto Maple Leafs — either directly on the Leafs roster in the future, or as useful trade pieces.

Well, I’m here to tell you that we are now at the point in the T25U25 series this winter where we’re talking about legit prospects. They are guys that we are (collectively), and I am personally, mostly sure on being NHL contributors down the line. There’s no guarantees here, but there is a clear gap between this tier and the one after it.

#12 - Topi Niemelä

RHD - Drafted 2020 - Round 3, Pick #64
2021 Team: Karpat, U20 SM-sarja / Liiga
Stats: 6GP - 1G - 3A - 4Pts / 9GP - 0G - 3A - 3Pts

After the draft, the Leafs’ director of amateur scouting — John Lilley — said that they thought Niemelä had “the best defensive instincts” of the whole draft. That might be a slight exaggeration, but that is exactly what Niemelä’s biggest strength is. He is not a big, bruising defenseman. He uses his stick a lot more to break up passes, knock a puck loose off an opponent’s stick, and get in the way of transitions or passing lanes. He uses very good skating ability and those “defensive instincts” to stick to a player and not let them be comfortable. Basically, he’s exactly the kind of defenseman the Leafs need — and that’s without taking into account his handedness.

Niemelä does have his weaknesses. Offense, mainly. He’s good at making simple passes, but he won’t be a good play maker or be used on any PP unit. He doesn’t have (or hasn’t shown) a great shot, or propensity for jumping into the play. He has not gotten strong reviews for carrying the puck in the Liiga, and it has been noted by people like Will Scouch that he had some trouble handling the puck under pressure. That may be because he was playing a very safe game, and was adapting to playing against much bigger and faster men in the Liiga than against other teenagers in junior.

Time, practice and getting stronger will only help his overall game. His decision making is generally considered to be good, and some of his bigger issues are things that can be worked on. It’s worth noting that when Niemelä plays against his peers of the same age, the rest of his profile does look more normal. At the Hlinka Gretzky tournament in 2019, he had three assists in three games. In 57 other international games for Finland across three different years, he has a 0.46 PPG. So while we shouldn’t expect him to rack up points if he makes the NHL, we can expect him to contribute more than nothing.

His ability to help on offense will mostly come from his ability to drive possession. In the Liiga this year, Niemelä leads all defensemen who have played at least as many games as him with a 63.3% Corsi rating. Now, we can take that with a big grain of salt since he plays only 14:18 per game and likely gets some sheltering. But that is also almost 6 points higher than the next closest defenseman on his team. It is also a sign of improvement on his previous season, where he was 5th on his own team with a 53% Corsi rating while averaging 12:51 per game.

I take this as a general sign of what Niemelä’s strengths can lead to — he won’t have a lot of points, but will ensure his team stays on offense more than on defense. He’ll break up cycles and shut down transitions when his team doesn’t possess the puck, and will help make the simple first pass up to his teammates to start transition to offense. His defensive ability on its own right now makes me fairly confident that he will be able to play in the NHL one day. But how much he can improve on his other skills will determine whether he can play higher than on a third pair basically as a right handed Travis Dermott, or if he can be good enough as a supporting partner on a “top” pair with Morgan Rielly.

Here’s what other voters have to say:

Katya: He’s got some buzz, hasn’t he? Is he short? Not really. A zippy winger? Nope. Plays men’s league in the country where it’s easy? Yup. On a top team, where he looks good? Well, they were, I do not know what’s happened to them this year. Did prospects fandom love him? You better believe it. That’s the ingredients for a ranking for a player I’ll get back to you on when I’ve watched him on the same team as Ville Heinola. For now, I’m saying the two Finns drafted in the “Robertson Zone” of the draft have a bigger chance of being something special than the Malgin/Anderson/Engvall continuum. This is me taking a leap on them taking a leap big enough to bridge the gap to the NHL.

#11 - Roni Hirvonen

C/LW - Drafted 2020 - Round 2, Pick #59
2021 Team: Ässät, Liiga
Stats: 21GP - 5G - 4A - 9Pts

Everything Hirvonen does on offense, with or without the puck, is focused on high danger scoring chances. He doesn’t have an elite shot, but he will go to the front of the net to take high danger shots in close or clean up rebounds. He will fight to stay there, tip pucks to cause chaos for the goalie, and shove around to get in a better position to pounce on rebounds. When he has the puck on his stick in the offensive zone, the passes he makes are also focused on getting the puck to teammates in high danger areas so they have a higher percentage scoring chance. As he gets older and stronger, he’ll be even better at all of this — especially when he parks himself in front of the net.

He gets good reviews as a reliable two-way center, but there are some limits to his game currently. They are mostly tied to his size (5’9” and 170 lbs) and lack of strength. He has good top speed in a straight line, but doesn’t have a lot of explosiveness to get to full speed all that quickly. He’s not slow by any means, but it’s not something where he stands out. He does have good instincts and awareness of the ice and players around him, but both his strength and quickness can prevent him from making plays at times.

His projection for the future depends a lot on what position he plays. He won’t stick at center unless he can get strong enough to handle the middle of the ice, though his decision making and positional play is generally good enough. He isn’t necessarily the most skilled guy you will see, but his approach and instincts are all conducive to driving high danger scoring chances. I can see him being either a top six winger in a similar vein as Zach Hyman (good support for the Leafs’ big four), or a third line center who is solid on offense and defensively for his role like Alex Kerfoot.

Here’s what other PPP voters have to say about him:

Katya: Once I decided to be bold and rank Topi and Roni high, I just had to figure out who to put first. Draft position plus legit playing as a centre made this guy the winner.

Jared: I would be lying if I wasn’t drawn towards Roni because every time I hear his name I’m reminded of Ronnie James Dio, or that he’s from Espoo, which is just so fun to say, but that’s beside the point. Who doesn’t love a little fella who’s a hard working guy with a defensive reputation and can still put up some points?

#10 - Mikhail Abramov

C/RW - Drafted 2019 - Round 4, Pick #115
2021 Team: Victoriaville Tigres, QMJHL
Stats: 9GP - 4G - 10A - 14Pts

I have made no secret about how much of an Abramov fan I am, or how remarkable I think his development has been. He went from a very thin, physically weak but very skilled and gifted playmaker to an average-sized very skilled playmaker AND goal scorer. His main strengths are his skating, puck handling, and play making abilities. He can set up goals, or score them on his own. For most of last season he was on pace to finish the year having scored more goals than his next closest teammate had in total points. He was his team’s entire offense after transforming his offensive game. He wasn’t playing on the outside looking to set up his teammates, he was looking for scoring chances himself as well.

His weaknesses still tie into what was said about him when he was drafted. He needs to become stronger and he can work on his defense to be more reliable at center, if he wants to stick there and not ultimately move to the wing. His faceoffs are pretty average for the QMJHL considering his age as well, which makes it less likely he’ll be any good at it in the NHL. Roll your eyes at faceoff win percentage all you like, but if he’s regularly losing more than half of his attempts there he’s not likely to stick at center in the NHL.

Projection wise, he has the skill and overall make up to be able to stick at center. Getting physically stronger will help there, as will making a concerted effort to practice in that area.

Fulemin: Nice enough prospect, but I’m not going to get too starry-eyed over forwards who beat up on the QMJHL in their D+1. You’d rather he do it than not, and it’s not like Abramov had a ton to work with last season, but it feels like everyone’s a bit ahead of me on this one. It’s a rare player who’s so outstanding in junior after being drafted that I feel comfortable projecting them as a quality pro—Nick Robertson, for example. Just a wait and see for me.

Katya: I ranked Abramov really high. Likely too high, but I decided I’d rather be optimistically wrong about a good prospect than plausibly correct on some fourth line grinder. I didn’t rank him on his points, surprisingly. I ranked him more on the Russian national team getting over their antipathy to players who leave for Canadian junior to put him on their team. And he’s good there. A Russian junior good enough for Team Russia is not the same as some guy potting them past crappy Canadian goalies in the Q. I feel like Robertson’s meteoric rise has maybe given us all a skewed time scale too. Misha is only 19, he’s got time to hit the AHL and roar up the ranking, potting goals against bad former junior goalies. We’ll find out then if there’s enough else going on there, but I felt like picking a winner.

Jared: I love him.

I respect Fulemin’s more conservative approach to assessing prospects. It’s probably more right than wrong in the long run than my method, because of how infrequently prospects drafted outside the first round ever really make an impact in the NHL. However, there is one thing I would argue with him here. I can agree that his D+1 season last year was not so outstanding to put him in the same tier as Robertson. But I do still think that his season was remarkable, not just for how he changed his game but the major progress he made.

Statistically for D+1 prospects in the same league, Abramov was only behind top prospects drafted in the first round or second round: Samuel Poulin, Jakob Pelletier, and Raphael Lavoie. But none of those three led their teams in scoring like Abramov, and played on much better teams and/or with much better linemates. This is not me saying that Abramov is better than any of those other prospects. My point is more that Abramov had a big leap forward beyond what we should expect from a D+1 prospect. He closed to gap between himself as a fourth round pick and others as 1st and 2nd round picks, and did it while almost single-handedly leading his team’s entire offense.

Do I think Abramov is a blue chip prospect who will certainly be at least a 2nd line center that can score 50-60 points per year? No. He still has a long ways to go for that and may never get there. But I do think that he has a better chance than not of making the NHL in some capacity. It may be more likely that he does it as a 3rd line winger and PP specialist. But I think he could do that role very well, rather than having to be carried by better linemates — rather, he could be the one carrying a third line. With an outside shot at being able to be a third line center, or maybe a good offensively supportive 2nd line winger, that makes him a legit prospect to me. He’s not just one of many lottery tickets we have ranked from the teens to the 20’s who will likely top out as very good AHL players.

How We Voted

Top 25 Under 25: 10, 11 and 12

Player Mikhail Abramov Roni Hirvonen Topi Niemelä
Player Mikhail Abramov Roni Hirvonen Topi Niemelä
Summer 2020 Rank 14 N/A N/A
Birth Date March 26, 2001 January 10, 2002 May 25, 2002
Nationality Russia Finland Finland
Position C C RD
Species 8 11 9
Brigstew 8 11 9
Katya 7 10 11
Hardev 17 11 12
Fulemin 19 14 16
Kevin 12 9 10
Jared 9 12 10
Adam 7 17
Rahef 17 12 10
Weighted Rank 11.6 11.90 12.60
Lowest Rank 19 17 16
Highest Rank 7 9 9
Spread in Rank 12 8 7
Total Votes 9 9 8

Coming up next week, we break into the top 10 of our rankings and wrap up the T25U25 series for the winter. We have two shiny new prospects to the system to look at as well!

How did you rank these three prospects? Did you have them higher or lower? Let us know in the comments.

Poll

Who do you think will have a better NHL career?

This poll is closed

  • 44%
    Mikhail Abramov
    (204 votes)
  • 13%
    Roni Hirvonen
    (60 votes)
  • 32%
    Topi Niemela
    (147 votes)
  • 9%
    None of them will make the NHL
    (44 votes)
455 votes total Vote Now