EUROPEAN UPDATE: TOPIAS VILEN GETTING NOTICED
At the time Topias Vilen was drafted by the New Jersey Devils in the 5th Round (129th overall) in 2021, the then 17 year-old was already playing regular minutes with his brother Elias for his professional hometown team, the Lahti Pelicans, in the SM-Liiga. Despite being a late round pick, as a prospect, Vilen has always checked a lot of boxes:
High-defensive on-puck IQ. Check.
Physicality from using his speed to angle attacking forwards towards the boards. Check.
Speed and Skating. Check.
High compete/motor. Check.
The scouting consensus at the time Vilen was drafted seemed to be that Vilen had a high floor, but his ceiling was questioned because of a lack of offensive production. I suggest rereading John’s excellent writeup on Vilen to learn more about what scouts thought of the young defenseman at that time. Despite these offensive concerns, the Devils thought highly enough of Vilen’s defensive play to sign him to an ELC last summer. (Vilen’s currently on loan to the Pelicans from the Devils). So far, that move seems to be paying off.
At the time this article was written, Vilen had six goals and four assists in 21 games for the Pelicans. Last week, those goal totals led the entire low-scoring SM-Liiga for a defenseman. (This past week, 27 year-old Ilves blueliner Les Lancaster scored his 7th dropping Vilen to a tie for 2nd). Perhaps more impressively, Vilen’s six goals is (as of Saturday night) only three goals shy of a tie for fourth for all skaters in the entire league. So what does this newfound offensive production mean for Vilen’s future?
VILEN’S OFFENSIVE RISE
Dobber tracks PNHLe for prospects. Without getting into too much detail, PNHLe is a predictive tool for prospect production, similar to NHLe, but it considers additional factors such as the prospect’s age and position. I highly suggest reading this article on NHLranking.com to learn more, but the basic difference is that NHLe attempts to simulate what a prospect’s production would be right now in the NHL, whereas PNHLe tries to predict how a prospect will develop.
Using the model, which admittedly has it’s share of warts as it does not take factors such as power play minutes, line mates or situational usage into account, Topias Vilen’s PNHLe shot up from 16 last year to 59 as of Saturday night. This increase, according to Dobber, currently puts Vilen’s estimated potential as a hairline below that of a future top-pairing NHL defenseman. [Dobber Prospects]
Caution is warranted. The model projects only offensive production and does not take into account a player’s defensive ability, skating or other factors that may make or break a NHL career. However, as these are widely-considered Vilen’s strengths, that should not be much of an issue for him.
It should also be noted that the PNHLe model is extremely volatile to sudden changes and small sample sizes. Vilen’s PNHLE has been ping-ponging around the low 50s to high 60s all season. A few more points or a few more pointless nights could move the needle quite a bit in either direction, However, the floor for a future 2nd pairing NHL defenseman according to the model is 40, so, barring a very long dry slump, Vilen should stay above that mark.
Vilen’s offensive growth has caught the attention of Director of European Scouting for Elite Prospects, Lassi Alanen. He notes that Vilen’s stock is on the rise in an article published over the weekend on Finnish prospects for EP Rinkside. [EP Rinkside]
In the article, Mr. Alanen notes that Vilen’s skating has also improved and while the defender’s shooting percentage is probably not sustainable, the scout explains that “Vilén could easily have more assists with all the playmaking flashes he’s shown.” As such, Vilen’s point totals do not appear to be inflated.
The report is not all roses; however. Mr. Alanen also cautions that Vilen still has work to do on his game, notably off-puck play, learning when to, and more importantly, when not to pinch to avoid getting caught and “finesse on breakouts.” As Vilen is still only 19 years-old, he still has plenty of time to work on these things.
A CONCLUSION OF SORTS
Vilen is quickly becoming another future option on an already-crowded prospect pipeline on defense for the New Jersey Devils. The Finnish blueliner is likely still a few years away from the NHL and with Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec likely joining the team in the near future the Devils can afford to be very patient with Vilen. Though Vilen is currently averaging over 20 minutes a night in the SM-Liiga, scouts should get a good look at him soon against his peers as he likely skates on Finland’s top-pairing in the upcoming World Juniors.
Though there are still aspects of Vilen’s game that need development, he has made terrific strides towards a future NHL career and his trajectory is very encouraging. The Devils will likely want Vilen to start adjusting to the North American game while he is still on his ELC, so look for Vilen to likely make the jump to Utica sometime over the next few years, perhaps as soon as the end of his season with the Pelicans.
EUROPEAN PROSPECT UPDATE
Zakhar Bardakov has settled in after returning from injury and has been playing occasionally with fellow Devils prospect Nikita Popugaev since a trade brought Big Poppa over from basement dwellers HC Sochi. The gritty Russian winger’s shooting percentage has dropped down to more sustainable 12.1%, which is consistent with his career KHL average of 12.9%. As such, Bardakov’s points per game has dipped a little bit from a high of .5 earlier this year, but should be maintainable at this pace going forward.
Dobber’s PNHLe model currently has Bardakov at 30, which is a little below that of a 2nd line future NHLer. [Dobber] As Bardakov plays a hard-nose defensive game built for the bottom 6 of a lineup, this seems about right for him.
Arseni Gritsyuk has caught fire after a slow start putting up 10 points in 11 games since the last update. His shooting percentage has ticked up to 7.5% from a low of 3.6%, which is still well below his KHL average of 11.3%, so one would expect his numbers to continue to rise. All this has been done with a slight dip in average ice time down from over 15 minutes per game last month.
Dobber PNHLe model currently has Gritsyuk at 36, which is well below the 66 he had last season as the KHL Rookie of the Year. [Dobber] Despite this, Gritsyuk’s numbers are clearly on the rise and the scoring winger seems to be playing with a lot more confidence as of late as can be seen by this blast on the power play:
A trade recently brought Nikita Popugaev from dead last place HC Sochi (16 points) over to first place SKA St. Petersburg (65 points). Before the trade, Big Poppa was arguably the best player for basement-dwelling HC Sochi and his 14 points is still second on that team. Since the trade, the tall Russian winger has seen an expected decrease in ice time and has two assists in six games.
It’s hard to know just how much on the Devils radar, if it all, Big Poppa is given his history, but his return to hockey has been going better than anyone could really have expected. It’s unfortunate he quit hockey last year as that extra year of play could have really changed the conversation about Big Poppa’s future. Popugaev recently celebrated his 24th birthday, so he’s slipping out of the prospect window. These should be Big Poppa’s prime years.
Shakir Mukhamadullin continued his stellar play this past month. Dobber’s PNHLe model currently has Big Shak at 52, which is a hair below Topias Vilen, and projects him somewhere between a potential top-pairing and second-pairing future NHL defenseman. [Dobber]
While Big Shak’s offensive production is excellent for a young defenseman in the KHL, perhaps even more encouraging, is his improvements on the defensive side of the puck that has earned him an increased average ice time of 16:27. Mukhamadullin is quickly becoming a complete package and that should excite Devils fans.
Daniil Misyul and Yegor Zaitsev have both continued playing their defensive-brand of hockey for their respective KHL teams and are both still looking for their first goal of the season.
Artyom Barobosha has continued playing his similarly-styled bruising defensive game in the MHL, but has been much more disciplined, taking fewer penalty minutes than he has in recent years.
Daniil Orlov is still injured and as of Sunday morning has not played since the last update.
To demonstrate the volatility of Dobber’s PNHLe model on a small sample size, it currently lists Daniil Orlov as having a PNHLe of 96, which would be consistent with that of a projected potential superstar, as points for an 18 year-old defenseman in the KHL are quite difficult to come by and Orlov is producing at what would be a record-setting 0.33 Pts/G pace if extrapolated out to a full season. (By comparison, even Mukhamadullin’s record season two years ago only gave him a PNHLe of 75 at the time). [Dobber] Of course, Orlov has not played a full season. He’s played only six games. A longer sample size after Orlov returns from injury should drop that number back to earth.
Petr Hauser has played the lionshare of last month’s games for HC Sparta’s U20 team, where he is absolutely dominating the league with 13 points in 7 games. Hauser’s 13 points puts him in a tie for 6th in the league with most players above him playing more than three times as many games.
Jaromir Pytlik has returned from injury, but is still on the hunt for his first point of the season in both the Czechia and Czechia2 leagues.
Even with a slight regression compared to last month, Topias Vilen is still (as of Saturday night) tied for second in the SM-Liiga in goals for a defenseman. Vilen has been a revelation thus far this season. Finland will be looking for him to continue his improved play in the World Juniors at the end of the year.
After a slow start, Jakub Malek seems to have found his game in the SM-Liiga. After giving up only 1 goal on his last 49 shots in since the last update, Malek’s GAA and SV% have stabilized. Malek also recorded his first career shutout in the SM-Liiga with a 26 save performance against HPK. This comes after a two game stint in the lower-tiered Mestis, where Malek dominated with another shutout, posting a 0.96 GAA and .950 SV% in that span.
Nikola Pasic continues to find success in the second tier Allsvenskan, where he currently sits in a tie for fifth in the league in points with 24 points in 23 games. While that is encouraging, Pasic has yet to suit up in the SHL this season.
As an NHL prospect at 22 years-old, one would like to see Pasic playing in the higher league in order to better evaluate his progress. Highlighting this fact, despite the over a point per game pace in the Allsvenskan, Dobber’s PNHLe model only puts Pasic at 36, which is below that of a 2nd line potential NHLer. [Dobber] While a modeled projection in that range is fine for someone like Bardakov, whose game translates better to a bottom six role, it is less than ideal for a scoring winger such as Pasic. Hopefully, Pasic will earn another opportunity in the SHL soon.
EUROPEAN PROSPECT OF THE MONTH
I considered Jakub Malek for this month’s honors, but ultimately decided on Arseni Gritsyuk, who has been scorching hot after a slow start. Stick tap, Mr. Gritsyuk.
AROUND THE POOL
- Team USA and Team Canada announced their preliminary selection camp rosters for the World Juniors at the end of the year. Devils prospects Tyler Brennan (G - Canada), Luke Hughes (LHD - USA) and Seamus Casey (RHD - USA) have earned a spot at their respective camps. [NHL.com]
- On Saturday, the Utica Comets blasted the Belleville Senators 7-3. Nico Daws earned the first star with a 43 save performance. Simon Nemec had a goal and an assist for the Comets. Here’s a look at Nemec’s goal.
Simon wanted to join the party pic.twitter.com/IUCEFiJ3vP— Utica Comets (@UticaComets) December 4, 2022
Now it is time to tell us your thoughts. Do you think Topias Vilen is another late round gem? What do you think of Jakub Malek or Arseni Gritsyuk finding their game? Tell us your thoughts about these or any other Devils prospects in the comments below.
Next week the prospect update cycles back to the Utica Comets with a spotlight on goaltender Nico Daws.