Following European prospects is tough for North American hockey fans.
Whether it's the lack of available and easy to access streams or the early start times, it's understandable. Jumping onto the internet and checking stats can give you a rough idea of how they are doing from a pure production standpoint, but that doesn’t paint the whole picture. Highlights from Twitter are great, but lack context. So which prospects have stood out so far in Europe’s best junior and pro leagues?
Joakim Kemell, RW, JYP Jyväskylä (Liiga), 2022 NHL Draft
Coming into the season, Kemell was pretty unanimously the second-rated Finn after Brad Lambert. While Lambert has had a slow start, Kemell has merely gone on to lead the Liiga in goals and points, as well as put up a historical best points-per-game among U-18 skaters. Better than Barkov. Better than Laine. Through 13 games, Kemell has fifteen points. It's unheard of.
While sustaining this level of play throughout the entire season would be insane, the sample size continues to grow and Kemell continues to produce. His shot is pro-ready and he has found a way to get it off from the home plate area with incredible consistency. Kemell gets to the dangerous areas of the ice with his skating and finishes the play with his vast array of shot types. Whether it be a snapshot, a quick wrister, or a one-timer, Kemell may be the best shooter in the 2022 draft class.
Topi Niemelä, D, Oulun Kärpät (Liiga), Toronto Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs' third-round pick in 2020, Niemelä has done nothing but impress. He led the Finnish world junior squad to a bronze medal en route to leading all defenders in scoring and collecting the top defenseman award. Niemelä's play at the Liiga level last season impressed as he held his own against men as an 18-year-old, even if he wasn’t given premier minutes of any kind.
Niemelä’s start to this year has been even better than he could have expected. The young blueliner has been racking up the points in the scoresheet with twelve points in thirteen games but it has been the overall maturity in his game that has impressed. He still has work to do defensively but he has found a comfort zone in defending with excellent positioning and good mobility all while utilizing a good stick to disrupt play and quickly turn it around.
Leaf fans, you should be getting excited about Niemelä.
Elmer Söderblom, RW/LW, Frölunda HC (SHL), Detroit Red Wings
The big man has been a big deal to start the season. The 6-foot-8 Söderblom has always had a boatload of skill and great hands in tight, but his mobility as a whole was questionable, to say the least. It was the primary reason the Swedish giant lasted until the sixth round of the 2019 NHL draft.
Söderblom has been a key piece to Frölunda’s attack this season as he has proven to be reliable and consistent with a real drive to improve. His mobility clearly hindered him last season as he was extremely reliant on his strong puck protection at the SHL level but against men, it wasn’t as consistently reliable. Söderblom is looking more and more like a productive bottom-six NHLer every day.
Simon Forsmark, D, Örebro HK J20 (J20 Nationell), 2022 NHL Draft
One of Sweden’s most intriguing defensive prospects for the 2022 draft, Forsmark plays a solid two-way game with a long reach and good size. His defensive game has been what caught the eye of many with some very good tendencies defending the rush and quality mobility to mirror the puck carrier before using a smart and controlled stick to break the play up. Forsmark turns play around with smart, safe passes and uses his teammates well on the breakout.
The step Forsmark has taken as an offensive player is what has really caught the eye of scouts and analysts alike to start this season. His J20 Nationell production has been impressive as he’s put up over a point-per-game through 14 games and has looked the part of a good puck mover. While those numbers haven’t translated into SHL scoring (zero points through four games), he has shown the ability to adjust his game against men. His size, skating and smarts are all worthy of his name being mentioned around the back end of the first round, if he can continue to put up some points and play a solid game when given the chance in the SHL, who knows how high he moves up the board.
Dalibor Dvorsky, C, AIK J20 (J20 Nationell), 2023 NHL Draft
There was no way we could discuss hot starts in Europe without bringing up the most Dali-dope prospect in the game, Slovak super-prospect Dalibor Dvorsky. From a summer that earned him some love with a feisty Slovak squad at the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup to his league-leading 23 points in 14 games in the Swedish J20 Nationell, Dalibor has been absolutely dynamite. Yes, he is 16 years old and leading one of the best U-20 leagues in the world in scoring.
The young Slovak, playing for AIK J20 in Sweden, combines an incredible sense of timing with high-level shooting ability to ensure that he is dangerous on every rush into the offensive zone. Dvorsky has been displaying a bit more playmaking than expected to start the season as well. Putting some nice touch on his passes, Dvorsky has been a threat on nearly every shift.
Everyone already knows about Matvei Michkov and Connor Bedard for the 2023 draft but Dvorsky has been excellent and should be near the top of every board should he keep up this level of play.
Aleksanteri Kaskimäki, C, HIFK U20 (U20 SM-Sarja), 2022 NHL Draft
The Finnish U-20 league's leading scorer has been a goal-scoring machine thus far. With 11 goals on the season including a four-goal effort, Kaskimäki has put himself on the 2022 draft map with authority. The 6-foot-0 Finn doesn’t boast a massive frame but he gets to the front of the net and into the slot without fear.
Kaskimäki's spatial awareness and anticipation are what drive his ability to score. His shot is above average but it’s not the kind of shot that you expect from a draft-eligible player leading the Finnish junior circuit in goals but he has a quick release and puts the puck in whatever space the goalie gives him. There is rounding out that will need to be done in his game as a playmaker, but Kaskimäki has arrived.
Juraj Slafkovsky, LW, TPS (Liiga), 2022 NHL Draft
Another Slovak star from the Hlinka-Gretzky Cup, Slafkovsky has solidified his place early on as a top-10 player for the draft next summer by blowing the competition out of the water at the Finnish junior level.
Representing Slovakia at both the men's and junior levels in the past, the 6-foot-4 Slafkovsky has established himself as one of the best players from his nation. He is a true dual-threat as a passer and shooter with a penchant for getting the puck to the middle of the ice.
Slafkovsky has used his physical advantages at the junior level quite well but still has room to grow against men. While he has collected 12 points in five games at the U-20 level, Slafkovsky is stuck on a lone assist in Liiga play. The room to grow here is pretty massive, but there are some raw elements to his game that need refinement. Still, a top prospect for 2022, nonetheless.
Dmitri Rashevsky, RW, Dynamo Moskva (KHL), Winnipeg Jets
The Winnipeg Jets selected Rashevsky in the fifth round this year in his final year of eligibility and do they ever look smart for it. With 13 goals and 19 points through as many games, Rashevsky is just outside the top ten in KHL scoring. After playing for five different teams across three levels of Russian hockey last year, it’s safe to say that no one saw this coming. He’s had a massive shooting percentage bender to start the year at 29.5% which is likely unsustainable but the start is hot nonetheless.
The 21-year-old Russian plays with a seemingly endless motor. He attacks every shift as if it’s his last, pressuring on the forecheck with consistency, wanting the puck on his stick to make something happen offensively. Rashevsky has no issue with getting back into the play defensively either, bringing the same zest he plays with in all other facets of the game. The Jets’ prospect has a nose for the net and has found a way to fill it this season in one of the best leagues outside of the NHL.
Alexander Perevalov, LW, Loko Yaroslavl (MHL), 2022 NHL Draft
Many criticize the MHL, Russia's top junior league, because of its lack of structure or translatability when comparing it to the pro-game. Those concerns certainly have their validity, but when you’re a 17-year-old and leading the league in scoring with 27 points in just 15 games, it’s worth mentioning.
Recently making his KHL debut, Perevalov looked fairly good for his first game at the men’s level. He certainly wasn’t a major difference-maker and played less than seven minutes on the night but he looked like he was a capable pro. His passing was what really stood out as he was a bit hesitant to get to the inside against the older competition. Perevalov gets to the high-danger areas at the junior level without issue so some added strength and experience are likely all Perevalov needs to find success at the KHL level as well. Keep an eye on the underrated Russian winger as the 2022 draft season heats up.