Photo courtesy of https://www.kaleva.fi/
Almost every professional hockey league has been forced to adapt this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Liiga is no exception. In December, the league was postponed for over two weeks, and since then all players have been required to wear ‘fishbowl’ visors to lower in-game transmission rates. With that being said, it’s one of the leagues that’s given us the most consistent prospect viewings as we navigate these unprecedented times.
For February’s Liiga report, I watched some tape on Coyotes prospect Matias Maccelli, Maple Leafs prospect Topi Niemelä, and 17-year-old Brad Lambert.
Drafted 98th overall by the Coyotes in 2019, Maccelli isn’t necessarily a highly regarded prospect. With that being said, Maccelli is a highly-skilled, undersized European winger, and oftentimes this is the perfect recipe for out producing a draft position. When we look at his numbers on the surface, 10 goals and 28 points in 38 games is good for 21st in the Liiga, and is a slight improvement on last year’s numbers as well. Of course, there’s far more to a prospect’s game than their stats in half a season’s worth of games.
Maccelli can certainly be labeled offensive-minded. His best game is on full display when he has the puck on his stick both in transition and in the offensive zone, thanks to high processing speed and foot speed. Transitionally, he puts himself in positions to enter the zone and draw opposing players towards him, creating opportunities for his teammates to score off the rush.
In the offensive zone, Maccelli’s vision is on full display. He loves to skate around the perimeter, which can admittedly burn him at times, but much more noticeable is the way he can create passing lanes by placing the puck into empty areas for teammates to collect and fire off high danger chances. I would label Maccelli a playmaker, but he also possesses a shot that gets off quick, and he knows how to hit his spots. For this reason, Maccelli becomes a dual-threat on the rush, something that makes him more dangerous than most. While there are imperfections in his play without the puck and in the defensive zone, his impressive offensive traits make him a high-risk, high-reward prospect who could one day be a piece of Arizona’s top six if all goes well.
The story of the season so far for Niemelä has been his performance at the WJC. He won the top defenceman award with 8 points in 7 games and was a major reason Finland medaled. Sadly, he’s sidelined for 6-8 weeks with an undisclosed injury sustained mid-game on Feb 16, which puts a damper on the overall outlook of his season. On a more positive note, it seemed as though the fans weren’t the only ones to watch his impressive showing for Finland. Based on his ice time splits, his coach was put on notice as well:
Niemelä’s presence is felt heaviest in the defensive end. At times, it may look like he’s bringing himself out of position, but his defensive game is based on quick decision-making and taking away time and space from the opposition. This often leads to him moving up the half-wall or to the top of the circle, but his decisions rarely turn out poorly. He builds on his d-zone coverage by defending the rush exceptionally well, stepping up at a gradual pace until the attacker has no more runway, an underrated defensive attribute.
On the other side of the puck, Niemelä is a capable puck-mover when given a bit of time, however, he does panic a bit under immediate pressure. This can be attributed to the higher level of play in the Liiga and will surely develop over time, given how well he moved the puck at the WJC. Offensively, he won’t be a point-producing machine, but he knows how to walk the line to create some space for his teammates when he has the puck on his stick, and his coaches rewarded him with powerplay chances because of it. He has a tendency to take too many low-danger shots into shins or wide of the net at 5 on 5, but he wasn’t drafted to be a goal scorer, and over time he should learn to pick his spots more.
Lambert’s a player I have a hard time speaking negatively about. Not because he’s a flawless hockey player, but because he’s built himself such a solid foundation at such a young age, that by the time he makes the NHL most of my criticisms will have been erased from his game. An incredibly late 03 birthday, he just turned 17 a few months ago, yet has played in 35 Liiga matches with 6 goals and 14 points to show for it.
A high-end skater, Lambert has a low center of gravity that allows him to gain inside position in puck races and makes him a good puck protector, something he can build upon even further as he continues to grow physically over the coming years. Off the puck, Lambert knows how to be an option for his teammates both in transition and on offense, using powerful strides to dart to open areas before defenders have time to notice. He enjoys shooting, but his shooting talent won’t be fully utilized until he gets to higher danger areas with the puck on his stick as opposed to settling for low-danger chances. To me, this is what has held him back from Lundell/Barkov-esque D-1 point totals, but as previously mentioned, his smaller frame may be what’s stopping him, considering he is playing against men quite literally twice his age.
All in all, there is some incredibly high-end potential for a complete player with Brad Lambert, and if he becomes stronger over the off-season, look for him to dominate the Liiga next season and try to challenge for the top spot in a top-heavy 2022 draft class.
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