Nearly halfway through the NHL schedule, a lot of hockey has been played by the Maple Leafs prospect pool in 2021-22.
As such, it’s time to walk through the progress of each Leafs prospect with a particular focus on how they’ve performed relative to the expectation coming into the season.
This series will be divided into two parts to make it easier to digest: one for the prospects based overseas, and another for the prospects located in North America.
Let’s dive right into how the Leafs‘ European-based prospects have performed so far this season.
F Rodion Amirov – Salavat Yulaev Ufa (KHL), Toros Neftekamsk (VHL)
Status: Holding Steady
Acquired: 2020 NHL Draft, first round (15th overall)
The 2021-22 season continues to throw obstacles into Rodion Amirov’s path. The 2020 first-round pick started the year hot, producing for Ufa inside their top six during the preseason only to fall injured before the regular season began.
Amirov went head-first into the boards, and stayed down for several minutes.
Let's hope he's okay. pic.twitter.com/UDU8pvYDfp
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) August 13, 2021
Amirov eventually drew back into the lineup on September 23rd and played just three games before sustaining another injury that kept him on the shelf for two more months.
On November 28th, Amirov started a three-game conditioning stint in the VHL before getting the call back to the KHL. He was eased back into the lineup, including multiple scratches and just 1:11 of ice time in his first game back in the KHL. It took a few games for the coaching staff to feel comfortable enough to play Amirov over 10 minutes a night.
Just when it seemed like Amirov was finally about to receive consistent ice time, he tested positive for COVID-19 along with a number of his teammates. He’s battled brutal luck all season long that has left him unable to play games with any consistency, which is never beneficial to a player’s development.
I’m still a big believer in Amirov’s upside. His skating ability and puck skill are characteristic of a potential top-six forward — he has the tools to be a really solid two-way player — and he put in a lot of work on a number of different areas of his game with the Leafs when he came over to Toronto in the summer of 2021 (one particular focus appeared to be his shooting mechanics).
It’s worth noting that Amirov also leads Ufa in points-per-60 this season. It would be easy for me to describe him as “trending down” given his lackluster raw production — three points in 10 games — but I’m not interested in punishing a high-end player for factors that are largely outside of his own control (deployment and injuries/illness).
I understand that Dawson Mercer and Braden Schneider are looking like pretty promising players that the Leafs could have selected over Amirov, but don’t get too down on this kid. He’s a player.
We missed you, Rodion Amirov. pic.twitter.com/LCp0ThdKM5
— KHL (@khl_eng) December 22, 2021
G Artur Akhtyamov – Bars Kazan (VHL), Ak Bars Kazan (KHL)
Status: Holding Steady
Acquired: 2020 NHL Draft, fourth round (106th overall)
It’s been a tale of two seasons for Artur Akhtyamov. Here is his save percentage in the VHL this season broken down month by month:
- September: .900
- October: .893
- November: .915
- December: .931
As the weather outside has turned frigid, Akhtyamov has started to heat up, posting the kinds of numbers we’re used to seeing from the 2020 fourth-round pick — Akhtyamov was coming off of a 2020-21 season in which he had a .935 in nine MHL games as well as a .927 in 14 VHL games.
I could have labeled his status as “trending down” given that his numbers are worse this year than they were last season, but given that he’s gotten back on track lately, I don’t think that’s totally fair. Hopefully, he can build on a strong finish to 2021.
— Dan Milstein-Hockey (@HockeyAgent1) December 20, 2021
F Dmitri Ovchinnikov – Sibir Novosibirsk (KHL), Sibirskie Snaipery Novosibirsk (MHL)
Status: Holding Steady
Acquired: 2020 NHL Draft, fifth round (137th overall)
Ovchinnikov has split time between the KHL and the MHL this season, producing impressive numbers in MHL with six goals and 14 points through 12 games, which is around the same pace that saw him post 20 goals and 51 points in 40 games last season. He’s already proven that he’s an elite player in that league.
— Josh Simpson (@joshsimpson77) October 9, 2021
The measuring stick for a successful season for Ovchinnikov is his KHL performances given that he’s got nothing left to prove in the U20 circuit.
So far, Ovchinnikov has controlled the controllables: He scored his first KHL goal this season and has totaled three points through 17 games, tripling his output of one point in 16 KHL games from last season. Per InstatHockey, Ovchinnikov leads Sibir in goals scored per 60 minutes, primary assists per 60 minutes, and he’s been their best offensive play driver this season, leading the team in CF/60 when he’s on the ice.
The issue is that he’s yet to receive ice time on a consistent basis at this level, averaging under six minutes of ice time per game. I’d argue that this is a situation where a player has earned more ice time but he’s at the mercy of a coaching staff that prefers to lean on more experienced players.
This is often the case for a lot of younger players in the KHL. It’s hard for me to give Ovchinnikov the “trending up” tag until we see what he can do in a legitimate role, but he’s played just about as well as he could given the circumstances.
Good things happen when you give Dmitri Ovchinnikov ice time.
— Josh Simpson (@joshsimpson77) October 28, 2021
G Vyacheslav Peksa – Irbis Kazan (MHL)
Status: Trending Up
Acquired: 2021 NHL Draft, sixth round (185th overall)
Peksa, a sixth-round pick in 2021, is putting up video-game numbers right now in the Russian Junior Circuit. He’s posted a .934 save percentage, allowed under two goals per game on average, and has posted six shutouts through 43 games.
While Peksa’s performance this season has been spectacular, a ridiculous stat line as a goaltender in the MHL is not as uncommon as you might think. Peksa’s numbers look sterling at first glance, but he’s still just seventh in the MHL in save percentage among all goaltenders with at least 10 games played.
Peksa is loads of fun to watch. I’m no goalie expert, but he appears to be quite athletic. He gives up a lot of rebounds and has the tendency to swim in his net a little too much, but he comes up with some highlight-reel saves (and the occasional big celly).
It's been a strong week for #LeafsForever 2021 6th round pick Vyacheslav Peksa in the MHL.
Here he is turning away all 5 shootout attempts in Monday's SOW: pic.twitter.com/nQsLaSktyY
— Josh Simpson (@joshsimpson77) November 7, 2021
F Semyon Kizimov – Gornyak (VHL)
Acquired: 2018 NHL Draft, seventh round (211th overall)
Kizimov is enjoying his best season yet with 21 points through 36 games for Gornyak in the VHL. The winger entered the year with just 48 points in 128 career games in the same league. There has been steady progression for Kizimov throughout his time as a Leafs prospect, with his point-per-game average climbing in each of the last three seasons.
However, at 21 years old, you’d like to see him really dominate the league. His NHL prospects are extremely dim, and while it’s nice to see that there’s been some progression happening, Kizimov is still fading off into obscurity in the Leafs prospect pool.
Here’s a clip of his shootout goal: pic.twitter.com/dLqbrpU3U9
— Josh Simpson (@joshsimpson77) October 2, 2021
F Vladislav Kara – Yugra Khanty-Mansiysk (VHL)
Acquired: 2017 NHL Draft, fourth round (124th overall)
A 2017 fourth-round draft pick, Kara has traveled a development pathway filled with ups and downs.
He put himself onto the prospect radar in 2019-20 by lighting up the VHL with 21 points in 25 games and showing well in the big leagues with eight points in 27 KHL games for Ak Bars Kazan in a depth role.
2020-21 was a much different story, though. Kara didn’t seize the opportunity to stick in the KHL with his new club, Severstal Cherepovets, and was promptly sent down to the VHL, where he struggled mightily to produce.
Kara started 2021-22 without a contract, but he ended up with Yugra part way through the year. He’s back on track with an impressive 13 goals and 19 points through 19 contests so far.
At 23 years old, Kara probably won’t ever end up in North America at this point, but it’s nice to see him bounce back after a trying season.
He's really not much of a #LeafsForever prospect anymore, but it's nice to see Vladislav Kara having success again in the VHL after a trying 2020/21 season. He's got 13 goals so far through 19 games for Yugra after starting the season without a contract in any league. pic.twitter.com/vMq6uRQNTP
— Josh Simpson (@joshsimpson77) January 14, 2022
F Nikolai Chebykin – Spartak Moskva (KHL)
Acquired: 2016 NHL Draft, seventh round (182nd overall)
Chebykin has accumulated 11 points in 34 games in his first full season in the KHL. He started the year with Dynamo Moskva and was traded to Spartak in October despite a hot start that saw Chebykin score six goals in six games, including a hat trick on September 12th.
He’s since cooled off, scoring only twice in 18 games for his new club and recording just one point in his last 10 outings. The 24-year-old is barely eligible to be considered a “Leafs prospect” at this point in time, but he technically fits the bill as a U25 player who is on the club’s reserve list.
Chebykin has surpassed my expectations for him by becoming a full-time KHL player, but I wouldn’t expect him to progress a whole lot further than what we’ve seen to this point.
— This is the KHL (@KHLreplays) September 16, 2021
D Topi Niemela – Karpat (Liiga)
Status: Trending Up
Acquired: 2020 NHL Draft, third round (64th overall)
Niemela’s stock has risen more than any other Leafs prospect this season — and for good reason. At just 19 years old, the third-round pick leads all defenders in scoring in the Finnish Liiga with 26 points in 34 games. He has emerged as one of the best U20 players outside of the NHL, dominating a strong pro league that most 19-year-olds prospects are just beginning to get their feet wet in.
He’ll need to bulk up and garner some experience playing on the smaller ice sheet in North America before he’ll be ready to be a full-time Leaf, but this is a player with high-end hockey sense and an intriguing skill set. Niemela’s tendency to activate in the offensive zone and his ability to create shooting and passing lanes with high-end manipulation habits are traits that Leafs fans should be excited about.
Toronto just may have landed a future top-four defender outside of the top 60 picks in the 2020 draft.
#Leafs Topi Niemela is so good at off-puck reads/offensive zone timing. Love the way he is always on the move, looking to create a passing option for his teammates. Really helps him improve his shot locations. Good clip of it here: pic.twitter.com/dENhwB4ihh
— Josh Simpson (@joshsimpson77) January 15, 2021
F Roni Hirvonen – HIFK (Liiga)
Status: Trending Up
Acquired: 2020 NHL Draft, second round (59th overall)
Hirvonen’s move to HIFK is panning out quite well so far. He’s currently rocking a career-best point-per-game and goal-per-game average this season despite starting the year slowly. He’s also taking 3.9 (!) shots per game — a huge leap from his 2.7 shots per game clip last season.
This increase in shot volume is part of what’s driving his increase in production, but so is Hirvonen’s improved shot. His game has featured a new-and-improved one-timer that he’s been taking from the right circle on the power play. He’s doing a much better job of incorporating his lower body and transferring his weight through his shot. This has translated to a career-best 5.2% shooting percentage (which is still low, but it has been on the rise as of late).
Hell of a pass on the PP by NYI second-round pick Aatu Raty to set up Roni Hirvonen for his second goal of the game. I believe that's 9 points in 5 games for Raty at the WJSS so far 😬 pic.twitter.com/0uFvAp6wtm
— Adam Herman (@AdamZHerman) July 30, 2021
Positionally and situationally versatile, Hirvonen profiles as a potential middle-six option down the road. He’s enjoying an encouragingly strong season to date.
D Mikko Kokkonen – Lahti Pelicans (Liiga)
Status: Holding Steady
Acquired: 2019 NHL Draft, third round (84th overall)
Kokkonen looks to have improved his mobility this season, which is a welcome development for a prospect who has never been the best skater.
I’ve always appreciated his hockey sense — especially his reads in his own end — he’s got some good offensive-zone habits as well. He still struggles with adapting under pressure, often preferring to make a simple, short pass or a boards-and-out play when pressured on the breakout.
I believe Kokkonen could be a nice complement to a strong puck mover at the next level. His results haven’t been amazing in his first season with the Lahti Pelicans, but I see him more as a complementary piece than a true play-driver anyway. I still see him as having NHL upside as a depth defenseman.
#15 Mikko Kokkonen (#LeafsForever) had a pair of🍎's on Friday against KalPa
1st: patiently walks the line, fakes, and floats a shot through traffic that is tipped by a teammate
2nd: looks as if he's shooting, freezing Kalpa defenders, then sends a sweet high-to-low feed: pic.twitter.com/eJNij6LoPM
— Josh Simpson (@joshsimpson77) December 21, 2021
D Axel Rindell – Karpat (Liiga)
Status: Holding Steady
Acquired: 2020 NHL Draft, sixth round (177th overall)
Rindell was off to a dreadfully slow start to his season with Jukurit, scoring no goals and just five points through 16 games as an offensive-minded defenseman. After the sluggish start, he was traded to Karpat, where he’s since posted 12 points through 20 games. The right-shot defenseman got off to a scorching hot start immediately after the trade, but he’s since cooled down with just three points in his last 10 games.
The 21-year-old is on the verge of having his NHL rights expire — he is in the last year of his contract in the Liiga — so this is a big “prove-it” year for him. I’m not sure he’s done enough quite yet; he’s already 21 years old, has yet to dominate at this level, and there are still red flags in his game.
— Josh Simpson (@joshsimpson77) November 5, 2021
D Kalle Loponen – KooKoo (Liiga)
Status: Trending Down
Acquired: 2019 NHL Draft, seventh round (204th overall)
Loponen’s first full Liiga season hasn’t gone as planned. He’s been KooKoo’s worst defenseman in terms of play driving to go along with just four points through 35 games.
The right-shot defenseman is still only 20 years old and is just one year removed from winning defenseman of the year in Finland’s top junior league, but he’s yet to put it together as a professional. At 20 years old, you’d hope to see him at least gain traction at the Liiga level.
I’ve never been overly high on Loponen as a prospect, but he doesn’t look to be on the NHL track to me.
— Josh Simpson (@joshsimpson77) October 24, 2021
F Pontus Holmberg – Vaxjo Lakers (SHL)
Status: Trending Up
Acquired: 2018 NHL Draft, sixth round (156th overall)
Holmberg has carried over his strong play after winning SHL playoff MVP last year, increasing his point-per-game average from 0.51 to 0.84 this season. His production this year — his 22-year-old season — is on par with what Buffalo Sabres forward Victor Olofsson did at the same age and ahead of players such as Mattias Janmark, Melker Karlsson, and Marcus Sorenson, who were/are all established depth players in the NHL.
After posting strong underlying numbers in the SHL for multiple seasons, Holmberg’s scoring numbers have now caught up to the point where he is set to represent Sweden at the upcoming Winter Olympics.
He looks like he could contribute in a depth role in the NHL sooner rather than later, which is a lot more than anybody could have expected from an overage sixth-round pick out of HockeyEttan.
5th goal and 11th point of the playoffs. He’s played 13 games. pic.twitter.com/wmkuOfF2Al
— Josh Simpson (@joshsimpson77) May 8, 2021
F Denis Malgin – ZSC Lions (NL)
Malgin is an NHL player. He leads all U25 players in the Swiss National League in scoring, sits ninth overall in the league in points per game, and his production is in line with Dominik Kahun, who was a useful third liner in his short NHL career.
Set to star on Switzerland’s top line at the upcoming Winter Olympics, Malgin is also a veteran of nearly 200 NHL games at 24 years old. As Kyle Cushman mentions below, he could have joined the Leafs this season, but he opted for more ice time in his home country, where he could focus on his development.
Two notes on Denis Malgin today in the roundup:
“I had an offer from Toronto, but I wouldn’t have played there often. I’m only 24, I need a lot of game time. Moving to ZSC is the best step in my career to show what I can do.”
Also has an NHL opt out clause in his Swiss contract https://t.co/T8TpHHUlmk
— Kyle Cushman (@Kyle_Cush) January 10, 2022
I have his status down as “unclear” because I’m not sure if he’s a player that is going to factor into the Maple Leafs’ future plans. They still hold his rights, and it does seem like he wants to return to the NHL if it comes with an opportunity to play real minutes. Will that opportunity ever arise with the Leafs? I am far from certain.
Malgin seems like the type of player that could receive an opportunity on a team lacking in forward depth, but the Leafs aren’t that team right now. That said, if the Leafs didn’t think they could ever afford him the opportunity, wouldn’t they have traded his rights by now?
Kyle Dubas has a tendency of trading depth players that aren’t factoring into the Leafs future plans in order to do right by them with a new opportunity elsewhere (see: Josh Leivo, Alexander Barabanov, Mikko Lehtonen). You’d think that the same scenario would have played out with Malgin if the Leafs didn’t think there was any chance he could crack their lineup at some point.
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
#LeafsForever Denis Malgin with a beautiful overtime winner yesterday to put Lausanne up 1-0 in their series against Zurich!
Malgin also had an assist in the game
— Josh Simpson (@joshsimpson77) April 14, 2021
That’s my take on all of Toronto’s European-based prospects so far this season. Make sure to keep an eye out for the next edition, where I’ll take a look at Toronto’s North American junior and NCAA prospects.