It took months and months of waiting, but the 2022 World Junior Hockey Championship finally took place. It was a thrilling tournament to say the least as it came down to the wire between Canada and Finland battling it out for gold, with Canada coming out on top.
While the Toronto Maple Leafs only had three players participate in the tournament, it was a great showcase for fans to get a glimpse at how the top prospects within the system are developing. Based on what they showed, there’s a lot to like about the prospects in the Maple Leafs’ system.
While one prospect saw his tournament end early, two more were on the cusp of achieving World Junior glory by being inches away from a gold medal. Here is a recap of how they performed.
Roni Hirvonen- Team Finland
Being named captain again for Finland at the re-scheduled tournament, Roni Hirvonen was a major difference maker as the leader and top line winger.
After a 2021-22 season where he had some highs and lows, the start to the 2022-23 season with this tournament is off to a great start as Hirvonen displayed why the Maple Leafs took him 59th overall in 2020. He showcased his well-rounded and responsible two-way game, the offensive creativity and the fearless drive to constantly battle for puck possession. He displayed great speed, hands and work ethic every time he stepped onto the ice and was always dialled in showing great chemistry with New York Islanders 2021 second-round pick Aatu Räty and Nashville Predators prospect Joakim Kemell.
Although he wasn’t the team leader in points, he was productive and still found the score sheet with seven points in seven games. Overall, in two World Junior tournaments, Hirvonen has tallied 14 points in 16 games. Two games were from the cancelled tournament where he recorded one assist.
Hirvonen has always been competitive, showing no quit despite his 5-foot-9, 172-pound frame. But the intensity, positioning and smarts that he displayed at the tournament shows that he’s taken a big leap forward with his development and progression. Even with his size, he knows how to position his body well in order to gain the inside edge and manage to hold off players that have the size factor. That was his biggest strength that I noticed all tournament.
Hirvonen and Finland fell short in the gold medal game, though the team was able to mount a comeback to tie Canada 2-2 and force overtime. He adds a silver medal to the bronze he won in 2021. In the end, he was named a top-three player for Finland with his competitiveness and overall play. He was a driver of offense, but displayed and prioritized the defensive responsibilities when he needed to.
Hirvonen is a Maple Leafs’ top prospect for a reason. His play at the tournament definitely improved his overall stock.
Topi Niemelä- Team Finland
Named an alternate captain, defenseman Topi Niemelä was an essential piece to Finland’s defensive unit. Like Hirvonen, Niemelä was able to add a silver medal to his World Junior resume.
Niemelä showed why he’s the Maple Leafs top defensive prospect. His strong and smooth skating stride was noticeable when he was skating with the puck in transition and his play making abilities stood out immediately, finding his teammates with strong crisp passes. Whether it was on a breakout pass or finding the cross seams, his passing was on point. He finished the tournament with six assists in seven games, including setting up Kemell with a perfect cross seam pass to tie the game.
Let’s not forget about Niemelä’s shot as it was also on display, showing his ability to not pass up an opportunity when it presented itself. Whether it was a quick wrist shot or a one-timer blast from the blueline, he was able to get it towards the net. His ability to fake the shot and elect to pass, caught opponents off guard as he’s very crafty when it comes to his decision-making with the puck.
Although Niemelä had a strong tournament, there was one moment that stood out the most. Though it’s one that he would like to forget. He was inches away from scoring the golden goal in overtime for Finland, but Canada’s captain Mason McTavish made an unbelievable save on the goal to prevent the puck from going in. Seconds later, Kent Johnson would score the game-winner. Niemelä has been known for making strong defensive plays throughout the tournament with his ability to get into the lanes, anticipate plays and block shots. This time, he was on the other end.
Despite getting a goal taken away from him, Niemelä was poised and smart with or without the puck. He dictated the pace from the backend and was feisty on the defensive side of things providing great coverage and defended well against the rush.
Matthew Knies- Team USA
It wasn’t the tournament that Team USA wanted after being knocked out in the quarter-finals at the hands of Team Czechia. There were still positives to take away from, as 2021 second-round pick Matthew Knies continued to show why he’s one of the top prospects in the Maple Leafs’ system.
Overall, with stats being counted from the previously cancelled tournament, Knies finished with one goal and three assists in six games. The one goal coming in the cancelled tournament with his three assists coming when the tournament started up again. Now, some are going to look at the lack of goal scoring as an indicator of a poor tournament. Get that out of your head, because that is not a correct assessment to make of a 19-year-old prospect in a short tournament. After all, he was dominant as a freshman in the NCAA last season.
While the production could’ve been better, there was still a lot to like with Knies’ game. Earning a top-six role with Calgary Flames 2021 first-round pick Matthew Coronato and Arizona Coyotes 2022 third-overall pick Logan Cooley, Knies still showcased his power-forward game and offensive capabilities. He was a constant factor with his work ethic and intensity. On the forecheck, he was thriving in the dirty areas with his ability to battle along the boards, regain possession and to come out with force and attack the middle of the ice. He was constantly engaged and never shied away from anything.
We’ve seen the power behind Knies’ shot before and while he didn’t score in five games, he did have a lot of great looks with 12 shots on net. He was able to generate a number of quality and dangerous scoring chances with his release and also showcased his playmaking abilities. Not to mention his physicality and strength showed, making some big-time hits, imposing his will on opponents.
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While it was a disappointing result for Knies and while many would’ve liked to have seen more from him, he still displayed some positives as he continues with his development. Now, his focus is building on his point-per-game freshman season at the University of Minnesota.
Even though Knies left early in the tournament and Hirvonen and Niemelä coming close to a gold medal, there was a lot to like with the Maple Leafs top prospects. All three displayed great smarts, compete and energy every game they played. They showed why they’re the best in the system and that the team is in a good spot with them leading the way for the future.
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