With the European leagues well into their playoffs, some teams have already been eliminated. That means it's time for those already signed to NHL contracts are ready to come to North America for the end of the regular season and playoffs here.
For Toronto, two prospects have recently been announced to be joining the Marlies.
The first is Topi Niemelä, Toronto's top defense prospect. After being eliminated in the Liiga wildcard series, Niemelä reportedly waited to see if he would be chosen to be part of Finland's World Hockey Championship roster. But now he has officially been announced to be coming to Toronto.
Niemelä had a down season offensively compared to last year's breakout. After he had 10 goals and 32 points in 48 games last year, this season Niemelä had just 8 goals and 18 points in 58 games. While there are some good reasons for that – his team under a new coach didn't use him as heavily in offensive situations, and he saw his ice time drop almost a full minute from 19:50 to 18:57. But he also wasn't necessarily playing as well.
But beyond his point totals, Niemelä did improve in other areas. He improved his on ice possession from 50 to 52.6 CF%, and reportedly worked a lot this year with his team to become more of a complete two-way defenseman.
Fitting in Niemelä will be tough on a very crowded blueline. The Marlies, when healthy, could have a defensive roster that includes: Jordie Benn, Carl Dahlstrom, Filip Král, Marshall Rifai, William Villeneuve, Noel Hoefenmayer, Victor Mete, Mac Hollowell, Mikko Kokkonen, Matt Hellickson, and Tommy Miller. That said, Niemelä is very likely the best powerplay quarterback of that lot, and a righty to boot.
It will be interesting to see how Niemelä's very activation-heavy offensive style fits in on a North American pro team, and how his defense holds up as a smaller but smart defenseman. I think it's likely that Toronto tries to make a spot for him in their regular lineup over other options, and they're not all fully healthy yet.
After his SHL team was eliminated on the 29th, Hildeby very quickly was on the transaction list to join the Marlies as well.
Hildeby had a very good pro season in Sweden this year. He got into 21 games, and had a .918 sv% with three shutouts. His save percentage was good for 5th in the league among goalies who got at least 10 games.
But as the backup, he didn't really get into any playoff action. He played in relief for one period during a blowout loss, though he did stop all four shots he faced.
If Niemelä faced a logjam on defense to compete for a lineup spot, it'll be even worse for Hildeby in a crowded goalie group. The Marlies already have Joseph Woll, Erik Källgren, and Keith Petruzzelli who have all played 20+ games. Down in the ECHL, the Growlers have Luke Cavallin and Dryden McKay, who were both signed to AHL deals last off-season. Hildeby is arguably the top goalie prospect in the organization, and an older goalie already at 21 years old since he was drafted as an overager.
Hildeby is a big boy at 6'6" and has done well to use that size, and has good athleticism for his size without being too chaotic in the crease. The one complaint I had when I watched him this season is it seemed like he was prone to having shots up high just go through him on his glove and blocker side. But that didn't happen all the time. He's another guy where I hope he gets into a few games in the AHL to see what he can do here.
Welcome to Toronto, Topi and Dennis!