It was a very eventful World Junior Hockey Championships to say the least. With the tournament over and the focus shifting to the start of the NHL season, this is a great opportunity to check on how the Toronto Maple Leafs prospects did at the tournament.
The Maple Leafs had six players attend the event, three for Team Finland and three for Team Russia. Coincidentally, that was the matchup for the bronze medal game. All six players played extremely well in the tournament as they showcased their talents for the fans (albeit only on television) and for their respective NHL clubs. However, three prospects stood out above the rest.
Mikko Kokkonen was a defensive stalwart for Finland, recording one assist in seven games to help them capture a bronze medal. Mikhail Abramov recorded two assists for Russia in four games and Artur Akhtyamov recorded a win for Russia as the team as a whole didn’t have the tournament they liked.
While those players made contributions to their teams in the tournament, three players stood out above the rest. Here are the top three players for the Maple Leafs at the 2021 World Juniors.
3. Roni Hirvonen – Finland
Stat Line: 2 goals, 4 assists, +5, 30 shots on goal (SOG), bronze medal.
Hirvonen saw big minutes on Finland’s top line with Anton Lundell and Kasper Simontaival, and he didn’t disappoint at all.
At the beginning of the tournament, we saw the gritty and nasty side of him. Hirvonen did take a few penalties in the tournament, recording 18 penalty minutes (14 were in the first game against Germany). When he wasn’t in the box, the 5-foot-9 forward was buzzing around every shift as he displayed his speed, his shot and passing abilities recording four assists in the round robin.
As the stat line showed, Hirvonen recorded 30 shots on net. Throughout the tournament, he had great looks on net, but just couldn’t capitalize on most of his opportunities. However, when the time came to put his best foot forward in the elimination stage, Hirvonen answered the call.
Hirvonen’s first goal of the tournament was an important one. He scored the game-winning goal in the final minute in their quarterfinal game against Sweden to eliminate them from the tournament. He didn’t stop there as he tied the game against Team USA in their semifinal matchup. While that was a huge goal to keep Finland alive, it unfortunately didn’t last long. Arthur Kaliyev scored the eventual game winner to push the US into the gold medal game.
Considering he didn’t have the best luck with a 6.67 shooting percentage, Hirvonen became an unlikely hero for the team as most of the offense came from his line. When the team needed a timely goal, he was there.
2. Rodion Amirov – Russia
Stat Line: 2 goals, 4 assists, 27 SOG, fourth-place finish.
Even though Russia failed to medal in the tournament, one of the bright spots for the team was the play of the Maple Leafs first-round pick in the 2020 Draft.
Being counted on as one of Russia’s top players heading into the tournament, Amirov played like one as he served as an alternate captain. While six points in the tournament may not seem like much, it was enough to be the scoring leader on the team. He made the most of his opportunity on Russia’s top line, as his overall play was stellar. His 27 SOG were the most on the team, but his defensive game was evident as he displayed his strong two-way play.
Amirov’s smarts and ability to be aggressive in creating turnovers played a major part in his success at the tournament. He was able to break up plays effectively and be reliable on the penalty kill. He displayed great patience and pounced on any opportunity to try and win puck battles and gain possession. He utilized his speed in transition to gain entry into the offensive zone and set up an attack.
The highlight for Amirov was recording a goal and two assists against Team Sweden, snapping their 54-game winning streak in the round robin.
Early in the game, Amirov appeared to have scored to give Russia a 1-0 lead. However, captain Vasili Podkolzin made contact with Jesper Wallstedt and the goal was disallowed. Later in the first period, Amirov managed to get revenge by scoring on the power play. However, it was his celebration that caught everyone’s, particularly Leafs Nation, attention. He took a page out of Auston Matthews’ book, using his “good goal” celebration.
If you weren’t a fan of Amirov before the tournament, you should be. Fans got to see a first glimpse at the potential that he has.
1. Topi Niemela – Finland
Stat Line: 2 goals, 6 assists, +4, 18 SOG, 18:45 average time on ice, bronze medal, top defenseman award.
For the second year in a row, the Maple Leafs had the best defenseman at the World Juniors. Last year, Rasmus Sandin took the tournament by storm with 10 points in seven games and was a major factor for Team Sweden.
This year it was Niemela’s turn to continue that trend. The Maple Leafs third-round pick, 64thoverall, won the award after tallying six assists and eight points in seven games to lead all defensemen. He finished second in team scoring behind only Lundell and 11th overall in the tournament.
I had a feeling that Niemela would be one Maple Leaf prospect that had an opportunity to increase his stock. He averaged 18:45 per game while also being a key factor on Finland’s second power-play unit. Niemela was definitely a standout not just for Finland, but for the whole tournament.
He displayed excellent passing to push the play forward and speed while carrying the puck on the rush. He was able to make accurate passes with his teammates in the offensive zone. He was extremely successful at breaking plays up and denying entries into his own zone. The Maple Leafs were drawn to his defensive capabilities and we saw why they selected him when they did.
While he’s known more as a setup man and as a shooter, he managed to score twice on 18 SOG as he continues to work on his shot. Even during a pre-tournament game, Niemela’s shot was on display and you can tell that he was going to be tough to contain offensively.
Every time he was out on the ice, you knew that something was going to happen to benefit the team. While many were probably keeping a close on eye a player like Amirov, Niemela definitely stole the show as the Maple Leafs top prospect at the tournament.
Which Maple Leafs prospect impressed you at the World Juniors? Have your say in the comment section below.
Peter is in his third year with The Hockey Writers, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs and heading the Draft and Prospects section. He has previously interned at The Hockey News and worked on Toronto Marlies broadcasts for Rogers TV. He currently is the co-host of the podcast Sticks in the 6ix and a frequent guest on Maple Leafs Lounge. Aside from hockey, he also enjoys drumming, animation and impressions/ voices.