It is just about that time folks! The most wonderful time of the year, a holiday tradition, one of the most electric tournaments in sports is back just in time to satisfy that hockey hunger before the NHL season begins. The 2021 World Junior Hockey Championships are coming to Edmonton in an all too familiar form, without fans and all players and personnel will be restricted from leaving the downtown arena complex or hotel, otherwise known as the “BUBBLE”.
With the tournament about a week away, and as always keeping the Maple Leafs at front of our brains… let us take a look at the Leafs’ six prospects that will be participating in the World Juniors over the holidays. Keep in mind that the most exciting prospect that we expected to be there from the Leafs system, Nick Robertson, was not made available to USA Hockey by the club because it would interrupt his involvement in training camp for the 2021 season. Clearly, the Leafs want to give Nick every chance possible to make the main roster so it makes sense that they want to keep him in Toronto over the holidays. I for one, disagree with not loaning him to Team USA because it would have given him a chance to be a marquee player on a team who has a legitimate shot at a medal and it would get him some game action which is few and far between during these COVID times. Nonetheless, let us move on to the six players that will be representing the hockey club who are actually spread out only amongst the two countries of Finland and Russia (data provided by eliteprospects.com).
The Kasperi Kapanen trade looks better and better every passing day. The Russian winger is already showing signs of top-six forward potential in both his games in the KHL and for the Russian national team. A little bit like Robertson in a way where he is a tenacious puck dominant winger who is great on his edges. However, his best tool is his mind, he is well known for seeking out plays even before they develop which allows him to play with high-level skilled linemates (I think the Leafs have a few of those…). He projects to be a top line forward for Russia and play in all situations. If Russia were to make a run at a gold medal, don’t be surprised if Amirov’s name is voted to the tournament all-star team.
The Leafs stayed true to their methodology at the 2020 draft, when someone is willing to give you another pick to trade down a few spots, you take it! Roni Hirvonen is one of the products of that method, and he has rewarded Kyle Dubas with his play this season in the professional Finish hockey league “Liiga”. Roni is known for his two-way game down the middle of the ice, especially when defending the cycle in his own end. For a smaller sized centre, he combines his skating and HockeyIQ to leverage his positioning in all situations around the ice. I always have time for a forward who can find his way to middle ice and put himself into situations to get high danger scoring chances. Roni should find himself in a middle-six role with every opportunity to perform on special teams as well. He doesn’t have the name brand value of his fellow countrymen like Anton Lundell, Ville Heinola, Brad Lambert or Roby Jarventie. However, Finland consistently seems to have under the radar players step up in the big moments and help them go home with a medal, I see no reason why that player can’t be Hirvonen this year based off his current form.
Now enter the final product of that subtle move that Kyle Dubas made on Day 2 with the Ottawa Senators. The smooth puck-handling Finnish defenceman is known for being smart with the puck on his stick and consistently making clean passes to his teammates under pressure. His skating is slightly underrated and he is not afraid to shoot the puck when he has the chance. All of these attributes combined with his ability to play within a strong defensive structure have got him on the national team. I expect Topi to find himself in a 4/5 defenceman role on Team Finland with a possible chance to play on the second power-play unit over the course of the tournament. Ultimately, I believe his spot on the team is significant simply because it allows us to project him in a much larger role at next year’s tournament where we will really be able to see his development come to fruition.
Funny enough, the player who should be able to speak quite honestly from his own experience about Niemalä’s current role will be fellow Leafs prospect Mikko Kokkonen, who was in the same shoes at last years tournament. Kokkonen played just over 13 minutes a game as an 18-year-old for Team Finland en route to a 4th place finish at the 2020 World Juniors. Now at the age of 19, Mikko looks poised to play a much bigger shutdown role for Finland which should allow his ice-time to skyrocket to one of the leaders on the team. It should be implied, given that this is a ONLY a 10 day tournament in a BUBBLE with NO FANS, but I kindly ask that Leafs Nation not strictly judge these prospects on their surface stats (i.e Goals and Assists). Shooting Percentage is a real thing, the big club got burned by it over a 5-game series against Columbus not too long ago. Nonetheless, I think this mantra is especially true for a prospect like Mikko who’s critical asset to his team this tournament will be trying to shut down the other teams best players. In other words, the less highlights you see Kokkonen on the ice for a goal against… the better.
This past fall the Leafs dipped into the lucrative pool of Russian goalie prospects when they drafted Akhtyamov. He would be wise to take advantage of wearing the Russian jersey this tournament as these chances might not come so often for him as he develops into a full-time pro. Unfortunately for Leafs Nation, Artur will likely be kept in a backup role for Russia as they look to ride the next heir-apparent to the Russian goalie kingdom in Yaroslav Askarov. It should be noted however, that Askarov struggled mightily at last years tournament and although Russia will not be coached by Valeri Bragin this year, I’d imagine Igor Larionov will also not be afraid to pull their #1 goalie in favour of Akhtyamov. It might be a lofty comparison, but the newly appointed New York Rangers star goaltender Igor Shestyorkin was also a 4th round pick back in 2014 and played only 6 KHL games in his 19-year-old season. With that being said, it should not go unnoticed that Artur has already played 3 KHL games to this point in his 19-year-old season.
Like many other Leafs forward prospects, Abramov does not wow you with his height or his weight but will absolutely be sure to be a pain in the rear end for opponents. He is puck hungry when he doesn’t have it but when he does get it, he likes to keep it on his stick and almost let the opponents come to him. I really like his ability to change the pace of play to whichever suits him in that situation. He will certainly be on one of Russias top lines during this tournament and will be expected to score just about as often as he has in Victoriaville this year in the QMJHL. It says a lot about his development off the ice as well that he was named captain of the Tigres this season. Similar to Amirov, Abramov and a few other core pieces will be leaned on heavily to carry the load for the Russians in Edmonton.
I think it says a lot about the job that Kyle Dubas and his staff have done at the draft table these past two years to be able to have SIX prospects expected to play key roles for their country at the World Juniors. Especially after you consider the average draft position that was used on these players was 74.83 ADP and that probably the most valuable eligible prospect for the Leafs has been training hard in Toronto with professionals for the last few months to try and make the big club out of camp instead of training with players his own age at USA Hockey. I am sure looking forward to the electricity that this tournament brings every year, and it makes it even more interesting that we will be able to follow multiple Leafs prospects throughout the tournament.