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6 Maple Leafs’ prospects are bubbling up for the WJC

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What can you expect from watching them?

2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Six Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

Six Maple Leafs’ prospects are heading to the WJC in a bubble in Edmonton. They are three Russians and three Finns, four drafted in October, two in the summer of 2019. With one goalie, two defenders and three forwards, they make a neat starting lineup. Surprisingly, considering these are Leafs’ prospects, one of the forwards is even a centre.

The six hopefuls arrived in Edmonton on Sunday, on the same plane, and then they went their separate ways as Finland and Russia are in different groups. In a normal WJC, they’d be in two different cities. They don’t play each other in the exhibition matches that run from Sunday, December 20 to Wednesday, December 23. And they won’t play each other at all until at least the quarterfinals where the two groups cross over.

Finland has a very good chance to finish in second place in Group A behind Canada. None of the other teams have as good chance against them, but anything can happen. Russia is in a three-way race with the coach-challenged Swedes, who are also missing some key players, and the USA, who will not have Nick Robertson or their best goalie.

It’s possible the Russians could finish third, which would make the Finland - Russia quarterfinal a reality. It’s more probable they either never meet, or put it off to the medal round.

Let’s meet the players:

Forwards

Rodion Amirov: Just drafted at 15th overall, we should expect Amirov to play wing on Russia’s top line with Canucks prospect Vasily Podkolzin and Marat Khusnutdinov, a Wild prospect. Amirov’s linemates both play for SKA in the KHL, and Podkolzin led the Russian team in points at the recent Euro Hockey Tour outing in Finland. The Russians are the only team that has played as a nearly complete group prior to the WJC.

Mikhail Abramov: Drafted in 2019 at 114th overall, Abramov did not play on the national team in 2019-2020. Brought over from the QMJHL for the WJC camp a few days ago, Abramov was not on the team that played in the Karjala Cup in November. In summer national team camp action in Russia, he played top six on a version of the U20 team, and may well do that again. He’s not as hot a prospect as Amirov and Podkolzin in the Russian team’s estimation, and players coming from North America always have to prove themselves a little harder, but Abramov does have that habit of scoring a lot of goals. They might grow to love him very quickly.

Roni Hirvonen: Drafted in October at 59th overall, Hirvonen split his time last year playing a little U18 for Finland and a little U20. He did not appear on their roster for the WJC, however, but he did represent them a year earlier at the U18 in 2019. (To keep your years straight, this is the 2021 WJC about to begin. So “last year’s” events were the 2020 editions.) Hirvonen is the centre in the group, and he’s progressed to playing 1C some of the time in the Liiga. He has a January birthday and turns 19 just after this tournament is over, so he’s close in age to Amirov. He should play a prominent role on Team Finland, but won’t be their top centre. That’s captain Anton Lundell’s job.

Defenders

Mikko Kokkonen: Also with a January birthday, Kokkonen turns 20 just after this event. He’s the old man of this crew, drafted at 84th overall in 2019. He is playing in his second WJC after playing in the U18 competition twice and the Hlinka Gretzky Cup twice. He has two goals in seven WJC games, and four assists at the U18 WJC in 12 games. More a PK specialist than a PP shooter, Kokkonen is not likely to add to those totals dramatically, but he is likely to play a lot as a senior member of the Finnish defence along with top man Ville Heinola. Kokkonen seemed a little uninspired last year on a dull team. This year might be a very different story.

Topi Niemelä: Drafted in October at 64th overall, Niemelä is going to be one of those players that won’t play as much as fans want him to. With a season split between the Liiga and junior hockey, he’s also only played 15 games so far to Kokkonen’s 20 or Amirov’s 29. It will be interesting to see who hits the ice as a polished pro, ready to go, and who struggles to get there. As one of five 18-year-old defenders on the roster, the door is open for Niemelä to make them give him ice time, however.

Goalie

Artur Akhtyamov: Drafted by the Leafs in October at 106th overall, he is one of three goalies on the roster for Russia. The other two are Yaroslav Askarov, famed in song and story, and CSKA goalie Vsevolod Skotnikov. A different third goalie went to the Karjala Cup and never played, while Akhtyamov dressed as the backup three times. The WJC is a different concept, and it’s almost certain Akhtyamov will start some of the exhibition and round robin games. Not the important ones, however. The chances of him seeing a minute of a medal game are slim to none and would require some emergency. He’s good, though. Well above the standard for junior hockey already.

When will they be playing?

Finland plays two exhibitions against the Czechs and the Americans on the 20th and 22nd. These games will be on TSN, along with the entire tournament, so tune in if you’re interested. (Some games are available online only most years.)

Russia plays Slovakia on the 21st and Canada on the 23rd in exhibition action. I’d put Akhtyamov in one of those games, but which one?

In meaningful action, Russia opens against the USA on Christmas Day at 9:30 pm our time, so I know what my plans are that night. Finland is the appetizer course against Germany at 6 pm, so that likely won’t be so exciting that dinner never gets cooked.

On New Year’s Eve, Finland gets to face Canada in a game that may determine who wins their group, and prior to the medal round, is the only tough game Finland has.

Aside from tough matches against Sweden and USA, Russia plays the Czechs and the Austrians, so maybe look for Akhtryamov vs Austria on December 29. But with every Russian game offering a chance to see the best Leafs’ prospect who won’t be at the NHL training camp, don’t miss out on any of them.

The official site lists all the games and times: https://www.iihf.com/en/events/2021/wm20

TSN is available online for all the action if you’ve snipped the TV cord: https://www.tsn.ca/subscribe