With the World Junior Hockey Championships over, now is a great time to evaluate how the prospects representing the Toronto Maple Leafs fared at the tournament. While no gold medal was won by any of the Maple Leafs prospects, there was still a lot to be proud of and excited for.
Maple Leafs management and fans got a first-hand look at a potential top-pairing defenseman, a high-end, creative, speedy winger, and a steady two-way minded defender. 2018 first-round pick Rasmus Sandin led the charge by being a major tournament standout for Team Sweden. Meanwhile, Team USA forward Nick Robertson and Team Finland defender Mikko Kokkonen had strong tournaments despite their team’s placements.
There’s so much to be said about these prospects. In case you didn’t watch the tournament, here is a recap of their play.
Rasmus Sandin- Team Sweden
Stat line: 3 goals, 7 assists, +3, bronze medal, top defenseman, tournament All-Star.
There wasn’t any doubt that Sandin was one of Team Sweden’s top players during the tournament. He was a key factor for a strong and deep defensive unit for the Swedes, while increasing his point production from the previous year. Sandin recorded three goals and seven assists this year (fifth in tournament scoring), earning one of the top three player spots for Sweden.
As an assistant captain, he embraced a leadership role on the blue line. Sandin was on the top pair with Victor Soderstrom and played a pivotal role on both the power play and on the penalty kill. Heading into their semi-final game against Team Russia, Sweden’s defense, much in part to their stellar goaltending from Hugo Alnefelt, allowed only eight goals against. Sweden’s defense was based on puck mobility and it was evident throughout the tournament.
Sandin got the scoring started at 16 seconds into the semi-final game. With Vancouver Canucks’ 2019 second-round pick Nils Hoglander ejected, Sandin led the offensive charge helping Sweden come back from being down 3-1. He scored another goal, a great slap shot from the point on the power play, and added two more assists. Despite being on for the game-winning goal, Sandin wasn’t to blame as Sweden was caught on a line change and Ivan Morozov scored to put Russia through to the gold medal game.
Sandin had a tremendous tournament but it didn’t come easy. There were injury concerns after he endured back-to-back slashes on his wrist, which didn’t sit well with Team Sweden or the Maple Leafs. The first one came against Slovakia, where Martin Fasko-Rudas slashed Sandin and was given a two-minute penalty. The second came against the Czech Republic where Jan Mysak got another one in.
When the Maple Leafs loaned Sandin, they knew that he was going to be a dominant player. Even though it wasn’t the result Sweden wanted, they still took home a bronze medal. Sandin was phenomenal and earned individual accolades as he was named the top defender and selected to the main all-star team for the tournament. With his performance and maturity as a player, could a recall be inevitable? Based on his impact with Sweden, he should be.
Nick Robertson- Team USA
Stat line: 2 goals, 3 assists, +2, sixth-place finish.
While the United States didn’t have the tournament they wanted with an early exit in the quarterfinals, Robertson himself did.
Robertson finished the tournament tied for fourth in team scoring with two goals and three assists while playing on a line with Shane Pinto and Oliver Wahlstrom. This was probably the most consistent line for the Americans during the tournament in terms of offensive production.
Despite the disappointing result where expectations were high after winning silver last year, Robertson gave Maple Leafs fans something to be excited about. He dazzled with his speed, creativity and tenacious ability to attack and locate loose pucks. He was always noticeable whenever he was in the offensive zone and always made something happen to generate a scoring chance, including this snipe against Team Canada.
Aside from Robertson using Jacob Bernard-Docker as the screen, he was also able to get his shot through between his legs and over the glove of Nico Daws. While it may have been a one in one million chance, that split-second toe-drag worked to his advantage to have enough space to work with to get the shot off and cut the lead to one.
While the Americans were expected to lean on players like Cole Caufield, it was Robertson that rose to the occasion and proved to be a key contributor for the team. While his play at the World Juniors provides some reassurance to his production in the Ontario Hockey League, he has proven to be more valuable than just a second-round pick. The Maple Leafs struck gold by selecting him and we can see why after the tournament.
Mikko Kokkonen- Team Finland
Stat line: 2 goals, -1, fourth-place finish
While he didn’t wow the fans like Sandin and Robertson, Kokkonen managed to have a good tournament for Team Finland. He wasn’t an impact player but he provided strong depth on the team that had great balance on defense. The team ended with a fourth-place finish.
His defense-first mentality was on display every game and was relied on in that shutdown role on Finland’s third line pairing. While he isn’t known for his offensive side, he managed to find the score sheet twice. Kokkonen even managed to get player of the game honours in a 5-0 loss to Team Canada in the semi-finals.
The fact that he managed to find some offensive production in the tournament is a good sign. If he can continue to improve his offensive output, Kokkonen has the potential of being a viable top-four option for the Maple Leafs. He already has a strong defensive game, which the Maple Leafs lack. If his development can trend in the right direction, then he could be an impact player on the blueline.
While Sandin had the most success of the three Maple Leafs prospects, all three showed the key components of their game that made them successful. For the fans, it is was a great chance to see the future on display and to get a glimpse of what could be for the future of this organization.