If you care about the team with the maple leaf on its jersey, you’ll be watching Canada at the world junior hockey tournament. If you care about the players who will one day wear the Maple Leafs jersey, you’ll be keeping track of Finland and Russia.
There are six Leafs prospects at the world juniors in Edmonton — three on the Russian team (forwards Rodion Amirov and Mikhail Abramov, and goalie Artur Akhtyamov) and three on Finland (defencemen Mikko Kokkonen and Topi Niemela and forward Roni Hirvonen).
“It’s an awesome opportunity for these young men to play in the best amateur tournament there is, for them to play against their peers, and for us to compare,” said John Lilley, the Maple Leafs director of amateur scouting. “This is the most exciting time of the year for everyone that loves hockey.”
Six is a fairly impressive number. The Los Angeles Kings have nine players in Edmonton, the Detroit Red Wings have seven prospects, followed by the Anaheim Ducks, the New Jersey Devils and the Leafs with six each.
There would have been one more, American Nick Robertson, but the Leafs decided to keep the 19-year-old in Toronto to prepare for the upcoming NHL season, with training camp opening Jan. 3. He would have missed the start of training camp.
“It was in his best interest and the best interest of everybody to give him the best opportunity to make the Toronto Maple Leafs,” Lilley said. “He competed (in the world juniors) last year. Giving him the fairest chance to make the Maple Leafs is the ultimate goal.”
The Leafs have typically not contributed a great deal of Canadian prospects, largely because they haven’t drafted that many, and prospect-rich Canada tends to draw from first-round picks. The Leafs didn’t draft any Canadians among their six picks in 2019, and only two of their 12 picks from 2020 were Canadian.
Over the last 10 tournaments, the Leafs have sent only a handful of prospects to Canada’s team at the world juniors: Nazem Kadri (2011), Morgan Rielly (2013), Frederik Gauthier (2014, 2015), Mitch Marner and Travis Dermott (2016), and goalie Ian Scott (2019).
The Leafs, in recent year, have drawn from all over the globe when drafting players, unafraid as some teams are of drafting Russians. Some teams fear Russian players will choose to play in the lucrative KHL. They can make a good living and not have to learn a new language or new customs.
But the Leafs haven’t drafted a Canadian in the first round since taking Marner fourth overall in 2015.
“With the process we go through, we compile lists, and we have had lots and lots of Canadians on our lists, but the way the lists go, we just haven’t had those guys in the spots where we were picking,” said Lilley, a Leafs scout since 2006. “It’s the luck of the draw. We create the lists without any biases toward country or nationality. These were the players we came up with. Quite frankly, I’m happy with our group.”
Here is a breakdown of the Maple Leafs prospects at this year’s tournament:
Rodion Amirov, forward
Drafted: 2020 (first round, 15th overall)
Relatively unknown to the Leafs fan base, Amirov was a surprise pick. But he has had a good start in the KHL with Ufa-based Salavat Yulaev (five goals, three assists). He scored in all three games and was named MVP at the Karjala Cup as Russia’s under-20 team beat senior teams from Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic.
Lilley says: “Our expectations for him is we’re hoping he has a prominent role in the Russian team. He’s a 19-year-old playing in one of the top leagues in the world. And he’s playing well. He’s a smart player, he’s got excellent speed. He has an offensive game, yet he doesn’t give up a lot of defensively.”
Mikhail Abramov, forward
Drafted: 2019 (fourth round, 115th overall)
Recently named captain of the Victoriaville Tigres of the QMJHL, Abramov has matured as both a scorer and a leader. He led the Tigers in scoring with 76 points, including 35 goals, in 63 games last year, and has four goals and 10 assists in nine games this season. He’s working on his defence.
Lilley says: “He’s made really good strides. We’re excited for him. He’s the captain in Victoriaville this year, which for us is a step in the development department — to not only be a good player on your team but then take that next step to be a leader. We look forward to seeing him in this tournament. He’s got really good offensive instincts.”
Artur Akhtyamov, goalie
Drafted: 2020 (fourth round, 106th overall)
As good as Akhtyamov has been in the KHL and two lower leagues, he’s not expected to get much ice time in the tournament with teammate Yaroslav Askarov seen as the next big thing in goaltending. Akhtyamov is no slouch, though. Through three games in the KHL, he has a .904 save percentage, in eight games in the second division, he has a .935 save percentage, and three games at the junior level, he has a .926 save percentage.
Lilley says: “He’s playing in three different leagues, but quite frankly he’s doing his part in stopping the puck. He’s had a good start to the season.”
Mikko Kokkonen, defence
Drafted: 2019 (third round, 84th overall)
Kokkonen has been regular on Finland’s national junior teams since he was 15, playing above his age bracket and appearing in the world juniors last year at 18. He scored twice, tops among Finnish blueliners. He is as defensively sound as a teenager can be.
Lilley says: “He’s a steady guy. He makes the right plays over and over again. Our expectations for him are to make a little bit of a jump. Get a bit more ice time than he did last year, and take on a leadership role. Looking for him to play more, earn some special teams ice time, become more of a leader as a returning player.”
Roni Hirvonen, centre
Drafted: 2020 (second round, 59th overall)
The 18-year-old has five goals and four assists in 21 games for Assat in Finland’s top league. He has offensive instincts that should land him on the power play.
Lilley says: “It’s a 19-year-old’s tournament. He’s 18 but I think he should be another guy that plays a pretty prominent role on their team. He plays in the pro league as well playing against men. This is a great opportunity to compare him against his peers, the top players in his own age group. I think he’ll earn ice time.”
Topi Niemela, defence
Drafted: 2020 (third round, 64th overall)
Another 18-year-old who will have to earn his ice time. Niemela is a puck-moving defenceman with three assists in nine games for Karpat in Finland’s top league. Like Kokkonen, he’s played above his age bracket most of his teenaged career.
Lilley says: “He just doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. He’s good defensively. He makes a good first pass and jump into the play. Kind of a good all-around player.”