As we move through the month of December, the hype around the 2022 World Junior Championships is starting to rapidly increase. Teams are starting to release their final rosters, and the discussion around the decisions to keep or cut certain players is growing. The 2022 tournament is shaping up to be a big one. Team Canada will boast the likes of both 2022 projected first overall pick Shane Wright along with 2023 projected top pick, 16 year-old phenom Connor Bedard. Meanwhile, Team Russia will be icing a phenom of their own in fellow 16 year-old Matvei Michkov, who’s projected to be a top-two pick in 2023 along with Bedard.
One of the most fun parts about watching the World Juniors, aside from supporting your home country, is paying attention to the performance of your favourite team’s prospects. Some teams, such as the Carolina Hurricanes, had as many as ten prospects sent to selection camps. The Toronto Maple Leafs, on the other hand, only have three players representing at the tournament after 2020 seventh round pick Ryan Tverberg was one of Team Canada’s final cuts.
While three players isn’t a lot, rest assured the Maple Leafs’ representation is going to be heard throughout the tournament. All three players the Maple Leafs are sending to the tournament will be playing big roles for their teams, and they all have their own unique storyline. If you’re a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, here’s the scoop on who the team is sending and what to expect from each prospect at this year’s tournament.
Roni Hirvonen (Team Finland)
After seeing a considerable amount of time on Finland’s top line along with Florida Panthers prospect Anton Lundell and Los Angeles Kings prospect Kasper Simontaival, Hirvonen will return to represent Finland one final time at this year’s festivities. He finished fourth on the team in scoring last year with six points in seven games, including the goal to punch Finland’s ticket to the semi finals.
This year, Hirvonen will be serving as Finland’s captain. With the departures of Lundell and Winnipeg Jets prospect Ville Heinola, who served as captain last year, Hirvonen will have some extra responsibility. But given his style of play, I think he’s capable of handling it. Hirvonen was one of Finland’s more clutch players last year and scored some crucial goals for them, and he’s relentless on the puck to the point where it gets under his opponents’ skin.
Hirvonen has had a great season to date with HIFK of Finland’s SM-Liiga, with 18 points through 26 games thus far. He finished last season with 21 points in 54 games for Assat of the same league, and he’s on pace to crush his career high, so it would appear switching teams was the best thing for the Maple Leafs’ 2020 second round pick. Expect him to slot right back into his role on Finland’s top line and improve on last year’s tournament.
Topi Niemela (Team Finland)
If there’s any prospect Maple Leafs fans are going to be watching closely this year, it’s Niemela. The Maple Leafs’ third-round pick in 2020 first made a name for himself at last year’s tournament, when he finished with eight points in seven games. His performance was good enough to earn him defenseman of the tournament honours, and he was a huge factor for the bronze medal-winning Finns.
With the departure of Heinola from the team’s defensive corps, Niemela will without a doubt be Finland’s rock on the back end, especially considering the unit as a whole is relatively inexperienced. What makes Niemela’s role even more important is that he was drafted for the advanced defensive instincts he possessed for his age, which makes his newfound offensive ability that much more of a pleasant surprise.
Niemela, who plays for Oulun Karpat of Finland’s SM-Liiga, is currently seventh in league scoring with 24 points in 30 games. He’s also second among defenseman in scoring, only two points behind the highest-scoring defenseman. What Niemela’s been able to do in Finland this year is ridiculously impressive for a 19-year-old, and only makes his presence at the World Juniors that much more intriguing. He’s been taking Finland’s top pro league by storm this year, so one can only imagine what he’ll be able to do with a year’s worth of experience and training under his belt after he was already named the tournament’s top defenseman once.
Matthew Knies (Team USA)
While no Maple Leafs prospects will be representing Team Canada this year, they will have some representation in North America. Knies, who was a second round pick of the Maple Leafs in 2021, is off to a blazing start in his freshman season with the University of Minnesota where he has 16 points in 18 games to start the season.
Knies has been taking reps on Team USA’s second line alongside 2022 draft eligible prospect Logan Cooley and Florida Panthers prospect Mackie Samoskevich. With Seattle Kraken prospect Matthew Beniers and Calgary Flames prospect Matthew Coronato set to lead the charge for the States, Knies has an opportunity to step into a big secondary role for the United States. And if he impresses early on, he could end up being one of Team USA’s go-to players.
Watching Knies’ game, he has a play style similar to that of former Maple Leafs winger Zach Hyman. But on top of the tenacity and physical play Hyman has, Knies also has a very good shot. His skills have been on full display for the University of Minnesota so far in 2021-22, and his impressive start should be enough to earn him some proper looks in Team USA’s top six. His combination of size and skill make him an integral part of the team, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll be utilized as such.
Maple Leafs’ Tverberg Narrowly Misses Cut
As I mentioned earlier, Maple Leafs 2020 seventh round pick Ryan Tverberg was among the last cuts for Team Canada, which largely had to do with the emergence of Bedard at selection camp. Hockey Canada Director of Player Personnel said that Tverberg was among the most improved players at selection camp and was one of the toughest cuts to make.
With 16 points in 14 games for the University of Connecticut, Tverberg’s development looks to be way ahead of schedule. And despite not making Team Canada, the fact that he was even considered to make the team considering where he was drafted should be seen as a positive sign.
Despite only having three prospects at the World Juniors this year, all three players I mentioned will be worth keeping an eye on as the tournament gets underway in Edmonton and Red Deer. All three will be playing pivotal roles for their teams and will look to do the Maple Leafs’ organization proud. And with fans expected to be back in the buildings, this year’s festivities will be extra fun to keep tabs on.
|Team Canada||Players to Watch||Roster|
|Team USA||Players to Watch||Roster|
|Team Austria||Players to Watch||Roster|
|Team Czechia||Players to Watch||Roster|
|Team Finland||Players to Watch||Roster|
|Team Germany||Players to Watch||Roster|
|Team Sweden||Players to Watch||Roster|
|Team Switzerland||Players to Watch||Roster|
All Your THW 2022 World Junior Championship Coverage
Alex Hobson is a writer and a radio producer for 610 CKTB. He has been writing about sports since 2015 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Sticks in the 6ix Podcast, presented by THW. He also makes weekly appearances on THW’s Maple Leafs Lounge Roundtable. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.