Joe Miller, Maple Leafs
Photo: Chicago Steel

Welcome back to another Leafs Prospect Update!

Let’s dive right into what happened this week in the world of Leafs prospects.

Joe Miller extends impressive point streak

It’s officially become a breakout season for 2020 sixth rounder Joe Miller.

The 19-year-old Minneapolis native dropped another five points this week — two goals and three assists — and continues to enjoy the hottest run of his USHL career so far.

On Friday, Miller scored twice on two shots. His first goal, coming off a sweet passing play with lineman Adam Fantilli, opened the scoring for Chicago in the hockey game:

Miller and Fantilli have been a tremendously impactful duo for the Steel this year, especially as of late. The two seemed to have sparked some chemistry, which has played a big part of Miller’s breakout season.

Miller’s second goal of the night was a beauty, receiving a pass with a defender in close proximity and having the presence of mind to delay, toe drag around the goal, and find the back of the net:

Miller followed up that two-goal outing by racking up three assists in a 7-5 loss against the NTDP on Sunday, two of which were primary assists. Both were sweet passes across the zone right into Fantilli’s wheelhouse:

The point totals are starting to look quite impressive for Miller, who now sits fourth in the entire USHL in scoring with 26 points in 21 games. He has 18 points in his last eight games and is on an eight-game point streak. Five of his last six games have been multi-point efforts. To put it into perspective how much of a breakout year this is been for Miller, he only had 18 points total in 48 games (including regular season and playoffs) in all of 2020-21.

A few factors are behind this breakout. For one, Miler has averaged approximately six more minutes of ice time per game this season in comparison to last season according to InstatHockey. He’s also playing with Adam Fantilli as opposed to some of Chicago’s depth players, so the boost in teammate quality certainly has an impact.

In addition to those factors, though, Miller himself has earned this opportunity and has held it down with strong play. Not only have his scoring rates drastically improved, but InStat also shows that his passing percentage, number of passes to the slot, his puck-battle winning percentage, and his shot volume have all seen gains since last season.

It’s no secret that Miller needs to get a lot stronger in order to play at the next level. The USHL’s website has him listed at 5’8 and just 148lbs. Given that he was a sixth-round pick, the youngest player eligible in the 2020 draft, and he was drafted out of high-school hockey, Miller was always going to be a long-term project for Toronto.

However, the first of many positive steps that needed to be taken — being a top player in his junior league — seems to have been accomplished, which is a good sign and something for Miller to continue to build off of as the season progresses and he starts his NCAA next season. He’s got the speed, puck skill, and vision to be an intriguing bet on upside should he pan out.

Side note: It appears as though Miller has possibly changed his commitment from Minnesota to Harvard. Chicago’s game sheets now feature a Harvard logo beside Miller’s name, which you can see here:

Credit to Kyle Cushman for pointing this out on Twitter.

Hirvonen back on track

Roni Hirvonen started the 2021-22 campaign awfully slow from a production standpoint. The Finnish forward mustered just five points in his first 16 games of the season, a lower point-per-game rate than he scored at last season.

That has all changed now, as Hirvonen has been heating up in November, recording six points in his last eight Liiga games, three of which came this week. Wednesday’s game against SaiPa was a dominant showing in which Hirvonen scored a goal and a primary assist. Hirvonen also fired six shots on goal, and HIFK outshot the opposition 15-2 with Hirvonen on the ice at 5v5.

His goal came off a one-timer from the right circle on the man advantage. Seeing him score off a nice shot from distance is a welcome sight given that one of the legitimate knocks on Hirvonen’s game is that his shot has always been underwhelming (he’s a career 4% shooter at the Liiga level, and he always has more than twice as many assists as he has goals). I love how Hirvonen drops down on one knee here while taking this one timer, using an active lower body to generate more downforce on the stick:

His second assist came off of a scoring chance for Hirvonen where he was denied by the goaltender but his teammate was able to corral the rebound:

Hirvonen also recorded a primary assist on Friday, using a deceptive pass to find his teammate near the goal mouth. Watch how Hirvonen’s eyes, head, body positioning, and stick make it appear as though he’s going to pass this puck through the middle but he instead passes down low:

It’s nice to see Hirvonen getting rewarded with some points lately. He’s played well so far this season, but he wasn’t getting as much puck luck early on.

According to InStat, he currently leads HIFK in Corsi For Percentage, and he is fourth on the team in both total scoring chances and total shots on goal despite playing middle-six minutes. It’s clear that Hirvonen has made a conscious effort to get more pucks on the net this season, increasing his shot volume from 2.7 shots per game to 3.9 shots per game.

Let’s hope Hirvonen can continue to shoot the puck as well as he did on his goal this week and we see that shooting percentage rise a little bit. Usually when players shoot in the neighbourhood of 4%, it’s at least in part due to some bad luck, but Hirvonen’s done this consistently over a three-year, 130-game sample despite shooting a lot of pucks from dangerous areas. If he can continue to improve his shot, he’s going to score a lot more goals, especially with the recent increase in shot volume.

Other Noteworthy Performances

William Villeneuve

Another week, another pair of strong outings for William Villeneuve. It’s become a theme over the past couple of weeks.

The defender had a huge game on Thursday, scoring a goal and adding a pair of helpers. In addition to the points, Villeneuve logged 27:00 of ice time, took five shot attempts himself, and posted a 66.67% Corsi For Percentage in a dominant 9-2 victory.

His goal, which made the game 6-1, came off a nice activation into space followed by a accurate finish:

His third and final point of the night — a primary assist — can be seen below. Villeneuve recovered the puck in his own zone, started the rush with a breakout pass, continued skating up the ice to make himself a passing option, got a pass back, and then slipped a return feed to Carter McCluskey to make it 8-1:

Villeneuve followed up that three point outing with a pair of secondary assists on Saturday. He’s scorching hot lately, with points in six of his last seven games and eight points in his last three games. His play was strong enough to earn him a spot on the QMJHL’s team of the week:

Like Hirvonen, Villeneuve started slow but has really started to rack up the points lately. Andy Lehoux, who scouts the QMJHL for FC Hockey, shared a data visualization using Instat’s statistics to demonstrate what Villeneuve has done well this season and where he needs to improve:

The numbers suggest that Villeneuve has been an elite playmaker and puck mover throughout the season, but he hasn’t been generating primary assists at a high rate. This is likely because of a bit of bad luck (which we have been seeing turn around as of late) and possibly in part due to poor finishing talent from his teammates.

The main areas of improvement for the Leafs prospect based off of these numbers appears to be reducing the number of turnovers and winning more puck battles. It definitely matches the eye test.

Alex Steeves

College free agent signing Alex Steeves continues to be electric for the Toronto Marlies to start the 2021-22 season. The winger followed up a game in which he recorded an assist and managed six shots on goal on Friday with a goal, assist, and five more shots on Saturday.

His goal was a big one — an overtime winner in the last minute of the game in front of the home crowd:

Steeves is second on the Marlies in shots on goal and is just two tallies off the team lead in goals despite missing training camp and the first few games of the season with an injury. Over half of his shots on goal have come from the slot or directly in front of the net.

This looks like a player that could possibly contend for a spot on the Leafs next year. With Adam Brooks and Michael Amadio departing on waivers and Nick Robertson still injured, the number of forwards outside the Leafs’ clear top 12 that are ahead of Steeves on the depth chart has to be rather slim, too.

Kirill Semyonov and Joey Anderson are definitely ahead of him, and Brett Seney — who has played in the NHL for New Jersey and has 13 points in 16 AHL games this season — could be as well, but I can’t imagine the list being much longer than that.

Pontus Holmberg

Pontus Holmberg is up to 22 points in 30 games (SHL regular season + Champions Hockey League play) with a pair of assists this week. Both came on Saturday against Farjestad BK.

His first assist was nothing special — a secondary assist off a faceoff win:

His second assist, though, was a skillful play. Holmberg threaded a seem pass over to Flyers prospect Olle Lycksell to tie the game at 3-3. We’ve seen Holmberg make a few nice royal-road passes from the left wall on the power play as of late.

Despite Holmberg’s helpers, the Lakers did go on to lose this one, which unfortunately eliminates them from the Champions Hockey League tournament. Holmberg finished with four points in eight games.

Topi Niemela

I feel like Niemela is mentioned in every single one of these prospect updates. It only makes sense given how great of a season he’s having.

He continued that impressive season with a two-assist outing on Saturday. The first assist of the night for Niemela was nothing special — he found former Carolina Hurricane Saku Maenalanen with a pass on the power play after some nice puck movement from his teammates. Maenalanen was able to pick a corner from the right circle:


Niemela’s second assist, however, was something to behold. Niemela showed ridiculous coordination, kicking a bouncing puck up into the air before batting it over to his teammate with his stick to keep the play alive:

That’s now 22 points in 25 games for Niemela this season.

Nick Abruzzese

2019 fourth-rounder Nick Abruzzese dropped a four-point game on Tuesday for Harvard, scoring a goal and adding three assists.

Abruzzese opened the scoring by potting a rebound chance early in the first period:

His assist were mostly simple one-touch passes to his teammates. Here’s one of them, which came on the power play:

It’s a relief that Abruzzese has started the year off so hot, with 12 points in nine games thus far. He was hurt last season, and he was unable to return to play after his injury due to Harvard not having a season as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Any time a prospect falls injured or misses a significant period of time for any reason, there’s always concern about how it will impact their development, but so far Abruzzese seems just fine in his first season as the Crimson captain.

Other News and Notes

  • It appears as though neither of Dmitri Ovchinnikov or Vyacheslav Peksa will represent Russia at the World Juniors, as none were named to Russia’s camp roster on Tuesday. Ovchinnikov’s omission is a bit surprising and unfortunate. Sibir has gone back to limiting his ice time again now that they’re healthier up front. It would have been nice to have him play real, meaningful minutes this holiday season.
  • As a number of Marlies reporters have pointed out on Twitter, G Ian Scott is finally back and practicing with the team. Fingers crossed that he can finally get back to full health and stay there.
  • The Marlies just sent G Keith Petruzzelli back to the ECHL a few days after he won his first game in the AHL. Maybe a sign that Erik Kallgren — or Ian Scott — are getting closer to playing.

That’s all for this week. Thanks once again for reading!