The World Junior tournament is arguably some of the best hockey fans can watch. It gives them a chance to see the top teenagers from across the world come together in a three week tournament with the prospect of winning gold and glory for their country. Members of NHL teams, as well as fans, also get the opportunity to watch their teams’ prospects and the future stars who have yet to be drafted.
That was where many fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs found themselves throughout the tournament. Being near the bottom of the standings and in a full fledged rebuild, Leafs fans were keeping a close eye on Auston Matthews, Alex Nylander and the incredible Finnish duo of Jesse Puljujärvi and Patrik Laine, among others.
They were also given the opportunity to watch five Leafs prospects who were representing three different countries. Some played incredibly well. Others had their tournament cut short by injury. And of course, one scored the golden goal to win the tournament in overtime.
One of the jewels in the Maple Leafs prospect pipeline, Marner, was expected to be a force in the tournament for the always dangerous Canadians. Marner performed exceedingly well and finished the tournament with four goals and a couple assists. He really raised his game in the third period of the quarterfinals against Finland where he scored two crucial power-play goals in order to keep pace with the Finnish attack.
Marner had some issues with long shifts throughout the tournament, but when the game was on the line, he raised his level of play. Leaf fans can be very excited for the young forward who should only get better after this experience.
Considered a bubble player going into training camp, Dermott, who was drafted 34th overall by the Leafs this past summer, impressed the coaching staff and management so much that he ended up making the Canadian junior team.
Dermott showed great poise with the puck, and despite being a sixth or seventh defenseman, was given ample opportunity to participate on the power-play. He finished the tournament with two helpers.
This was supposed to be Nylander’s tournament. The talented Swede was released by the Toronto Marlies of the AHL in order to head to Finland and dominate play. Early on in the first game, it looked like domination was exactly what would happen as Nylander racked up a goal and an assist.
That all changed when he took a blindeside hit to the head courtesy of Swiss forward, Chris Egli, who was later ejected for the illegal head check. That blow knocked Nylander out of the tournament. In his place, another Leafs’ prospect stepped up his game.
I’ve been really high on this kid since he was picked by the Leafs 125th overall this past June. The slick forward really impressed both fans and Leafs management alike with his speed and offensive prowess. He finished the tournament with two goals and five assists while displaying remarkable consistency for such a young skater.
Many fans were unhappy with the Leafs return after they traded superstar winger, Phil Kessel, to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Kasperi Kapanen was the biggest prospect to come back in the deal. Many believed that it was a mediocre return and that the Leafs got the short end of the stick.
Kapanen has struggled with consistency issues in his short career, but a good tournament would help alleviate some of those stresses. Kapanen didn’t find the score sheet early on, but he was one of the team’s better forwards and did all the little things right.
When Finland needed him to step up, he did exactly that. Against rival Sweden in the semifinal, Kapanen assisted on both goals enroute to a 2-1 Finnish win. Everyone knows how the final against Russia went, but in case you missed it, Kapanen made a gorgeous fake around a Russian defenseman, took the goaltender out of position and slid the puck into the net on the wraparound. It was the overtime winner that capped off a huge tournament for Finland, the host nation.
Kapanen would finish with two goals and three assists. He also really impressed Mark Hunter and Kyle Dubas, two very prominent members of the Maple Leafs front office staff. It was a fairytale ending and the experience of stepping up in big games should benefit Kapanen as he continues to make his way up the Leafs depth chart.