For this month's "Team of the Month", we'll be taking a look at players playing pro hockey and trying to put themselves front and center for the NHL draft in July.
This means we’ll be looking overseas this month, taking a look at some top talent from Finland, Sweden, Czechia and Slovakia. Playing against men often creates difficulties for 17 and 18-year-old players as they are often muted on the scoresheet and then downgraded in draft circles for that.
In reality, we should be looking at their process and habits on the ice to project these players because even being capable of playing against men at that young age is an accomplishment in and of itself. So buckle up, let’s hype up for kids playing pro.
LW Liam Öhgren, Djurgårdens IF (SHL)
Öhgren has looked as comfortable as any player at the pro-level this year among draft eligibles. His offensive output at the SHL level isn’t anything to ride home about but it’s his ability to play up and down the lineup and provide some energy in the bottom-six. He takes great paths around the offensive zone, doing a great job of maintaining good spacing with his linemates.
The young Swede is a workmanlike player who rarely fails to give an honest effort. He doesn’t always give the flash or flair that you see in today’s top prospects but he does a great job of putting the puck in dangerous positions. Whether that’s passing or skating the puck to the home plate area, Öhgren funnels the play to that area. Djurgården has been producing a ton of talent recently and Öhgren is another name to add to the list.
C Brad Lambert, JYP (Liiga)
It might be controversial to include Lambert in here considering his abysmal stat line in the Liiga but as I’ve said many times, sometimes it’s not about the stat line. It’s about the process. We’ve seen this many times. The example that is in front of all of our faces right now is Lucas Raymond. Inconsistent playing time, too good for junior but not quite good enough at the pro-level, and a toolset that puts the upside on display regularly. That’s what Raymond dealt with in his draft year and Lambert is dealing with now in his. He’s driving the play up ice, making good reads off the puck and when he is given the chance, he is finding teammates in dangerous positions.
We got a brief glimpse of what Lambert is capable of at the World Juniors before its cancelation. While I’ll be the first to say that small sample tournaments are not a good place to base all of your evaluations on, it was a nice peek at his potential. Lambert's transition game is elite, with the ability to get the puck from his end to the offensive zone without much issue thanks to his elite skating and puck skills. Lambert is a skilled passer with the touch to find seams through traffic and hit his targets. He’s shown flashes of this at the Liiga level, now let’s hope that he can take some confidence from his short U20 stint and really take his game a step against pros.
RW Joakim Kemell, JYP (Liiga)
You know how I said sometimes stats don’t matter when it comes to 17 and 18-year-olds playing pro hockey against men? Yeah, they matter here. Kemell has skyrocketed up many draft boards thanks to his unreal shooting talent that has netted him 12 goals and 18 points in 21 games in the Liiga. He has work to do outside of the offensive zone, but Kemell is showing signs of being a big-time scorer in the NHL.
As Kemell is not as proficient in transition or as a puck distributor, he is fairly limited as a true play driver, but he can be quite the hired gun in an NHL top-six. He’s played the role regularly in the Liiga, allowing his linemates to find him in excellent spots and the Kemell can use the gifts that he’s been graced with to find twine.
Scoring goals is hard. Joakim Kemell is very good at that difficult task.
D Šimon Nemec, HK Nitra (Slovakia)
The young defender has above-average tools across the board and his biggest flaw at times is that he chooses to play a bit conservatively at times. At the WJC, he was only able to get into two games with Slovakia but he looked quite good in both. He was confident with and without the puck, closing gaps, using his skating to play sound positional hockey and then turn it up the ice. Nemec’s offensive tools are interesting because he has the ability to do so much but often opts for the safe play. When he does decide to go for it though, he really goes for it. Attacking the slot in the offensive zone or driving down the wall to make a pass to the net front, Nemec has a boatload of potential offensively if he can develop the killer instinct.
Nemec reads the oncoming rush well, anticipating where the play is headed and cutting it off before completion. The young Slovak blueliner has the intelligence to match his tools which means there could be an incredibly valuable player in Nemec. It’s not often that you need to push the bravado out of a player at this age but Nemec may be the rare case of that being true.
D David Jiříček, Plzen (Czech)
This might be one of the last times that Jiříček is able to be highlighted this season because of the knee injury that he sustained at the World Juniors so he had to be included here. Jiříček is an aggressive defenseman who will lay the body at one end of the ice and then make a great play to create an offensive chance at the other end. Unlike Nemec, Jiříček rarely has to have the fire lit under him. The Czech defender is not going to shy away from being the catalyst to make a play in any area of the ice. His aggression on defense has gotten him into trouble, being suspended twice in the last couple of seasons for dangerous high hits.
Jiříček is eager to close gaps and cut play off before it gets started but he has a penchant for being a bit overaggressive which can create some misplays. He also has a tendency to be a bit too patient with the puck at times but he can get out of a lot of situations thanks to his tools. Jiříček may need to reign himself in a bit overall but the talent and upside are pretty enticing for NHL teams. He should be a high puck in the 2022 draft, even with the knee injury expecting to take him out for a few months.
G Topias Leinonen, KeuPa HT (Mestis)
Alright, I am cheating a little bit here. There are not many goalies who have played pro hockey as a draft-eligible player are few and far between. Leinonen has played at the Liiga level once this year to quite poor results but he has also played a game at the Mestis level to very good results. Leinonen has had good numbers in junior hockey as well. The 6-foot-5 goaltender has the frame NHL teams are looking for to go with some decent mobility in his crease.
Leinonen was one of the top-ranked goaltenders by NHL central scouting recently. He has shown improved mobility in his crease with a solid base positionally. His reflexes are quite good with active hands and quick feet when down in his butterfly. In a draft class that lacks a standout netminder, Leinonen has done his best to stand out.