Yesterday, it was announced that World Junior Championship (WJC) hopefuls for Team Canada will play a pair of games against CIS all-stars at the MasterCard Centre for Hockey Excellence on December 12 and 13. Leafs prospect Travis Dermott of the Erie Otters will likely be among the candidates. Fourth overall pick Mitch Marner is as close to a lock as you'll find for Team Canada -- barring injury.
Jeremy Bracco, last year's final cut by Team USA, will likely factor into their plans this time around.
Other Toronto-drafted prospects, including 2015's Dmytro Timashov and Jesper Lindgren, may stand an off-chance of cracking Team Sweden. Both have played internationally for Sweden in the last 12 months, but Timashov did not garner a visit from Sweden's coaching staff when they reportedly travelled to see the likes of Alex Nylander. Still, Sweden's coach Rikard Gronberg said in a recent interview with hockeysvierge.se that he was impressed with Timashov and that he "dominated" one of the games in Lake Placid this summer. The visit, he said, is intended to be a chance to see other players he hasn't seen as much.
There's also an outside chance London standout J.J. Piccinich and Sarnia leading scorer Nikita Korostelev get their name tossed around, though Korostelev's snub from Team Russia at the CHL Canada Russia Series suggests otherwise.
But there are two prospects, both two years removed from their draft year, who could factor in among the tournamet's best forwards if the Leafs choose to encourage their participation.
Toronto Marlies forwards William Nylander and Kasperi Kapenen are the only two Leafs prospects with previous World Juniors experience who are eligible to play for their countries (Sweden and Finland respectively). Nylander, who participated last year, led Team Sweden in scoring with 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in seven games, finishing one point shy of Sam Reinhart, Connor McDavid, and Nic Petan for the tournament lead. Kapanen, registered just one goal in five games for the quarter-final-losing Finns while Nylander's Sweden fell in the bronze medal game.
This year, both are suiting up for the Marlies in their final year of WJC-eligibility. And while there is a case to be made that the two soon-to-be 20-year-olds are over-ripe for the WJCs, there are good reasons they should both be given their last chance at a U20 gold medal.
For Nylander, clearly too good for the field of teenagers -- and maybe even too good for the AHL -- this year's WJC represents a chance for the budding star to be the go-to leader rather than just the go-to scorer. Nylander's inclusion in the fold for Sweden would immediately make him a potential candidate for the captaincy while also pushing Sweden over the edge as one of the odd-on favourites for the gold medal.
And while there's huge benefit to continuity in development that Nylander would receive by continuing to push himself with the Marlies, the chance to thrive on one of the biggest stages in hockey, and the chance to win something truly significant, are both hard to ignore.
Sweden was an extremely young team at last year's tournament, and I can tell you that players and coaches alike that I spoke to were excited about returning to be one of the more veteran groups.
"We know we have a young team and have a lot to learn," Sweden’s head coach Rikard Gronborg said following the game."We know we’re the youngest squad but we also have huge upside on this team."
The vice president of the SIHA has also vouched for his program in a recent interview, according to Habs EOTP's Patrik B:
The Vice President of the SIHA had told the clubs that "we want them to play on the first line, on the power play and boxplay [penalty kill], and we will have them in front of the cameras at all the time we can.
"After the WJC tournament the clubs had called back saying 'this was not the same players we gave you, they are so much better now.' It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and something everyone should be part of."
On top of it all, Nylander could potentially get the chance to play with his younger brother Alex who has turned heads as a draft-eligible forward with the Mississauga Steelheads.
For Kapanen, this year's WJCs represent not only a redemption story but also a chance to regain some confidence that has been lost amid a slow start after an illness.
Last year, Kapanen's lack of production became a major talking point during Finland's struggles. This year, as one of the older players, Kapanen has a chance to dominate alongside some up-and-coming Finns, including top 2016 NHL Draft prospects Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi.
He's also struggled out the gate, and lost several pounds due to an early season illness. Yet to register an assist, Kapanen has netted a fortunate four goals on 12 shots (33%) in nine games with the Marlies as a rookie in the AHL.
Playing top minutes on a Finnish team that should have no trouble scoring could be a chance for Kapanen to redeem himself and gain some confidence in one go.
With this year's WJCs being hosted in Helsinki, Finland, the tournament also presents the chance for Kapanen to capture a medal on home soil.
For the Marlies, losing two of their forwards might actually be a blessing in disguise. Not in the sense that they can be replaced, but rather that it would present a chance to get a look at some of the other forwards. The Marlies are in a log jam up front and the likes of Casey Bailey and Ryan Rupert have been forced to sit -- despite playing well when in the lineup -- as a result. A couple weeks of regular play might help Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe and his staff really iron out who they value moving forward.
With December around the corner, the Leafs and two of their best young players have a decision to make.