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Maple Leafs prospects at the WJC: Day one recap

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There’s been only one real game played by each of the teams our prospects play on, but there were things to learn.

Russia v United States: Preliminary Round Group B - 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

The Toronto Maple Leafs have six prospects at the 2021 World Junior Championships in Edmonton. Two are top-line wingers, and one is a very intriguing defenceman, impressing early. Three play for Finland and three for Russia, and both of those teams have played one exhibition and one round-robin game on Christmas Day.

The tournament has been troubled by an only partially effective testing and quarantining process to get the players into the Edmonton bubble free of coronavirus, so Sweden had half the team in quarantine, and could not play an exhibition, and Germany had all their players unavailable even to practice until the day before their first came on the 25th. They were forced to play with a cutdown roster and very few forwards.

There is no relegation at this year’s event; the stakes for the bottom-dwelling teams are pride and the chance to stage enough upsets to hit the quarterfinals and meet a juggernaut team. That’s not an impossible dream, since Slovakia opened the tournament with an upset over Switzerland. More on handicapping the group standings in a bit, for now, the prospects:

Artur Akhtyamov

Just drafted in October, Akhtyamov, 19, had never played for the Russian national team before being added to the Karjala Cup in November. Russia took their junior team to what is a men’s tournament, and Akhtyamov sat and watched phenom Yaroslav Askarov play all three games as Russia’s “kids” swept the tournament.

Akhtyamov played one period in Russia’s exhibition against Canada, and let in the only goal of a very tight game on a screened shot few goalies could have saved. He showed a bobble or two under pressure, but 20 minutes is hardly a real test of a goalie. That was his first-ever game action in the Russian jersey.

He will likely play at least one game in this tournament. While it’s not unheard of for goalies on poor teams to play every game (check out Frederik Andersen’s junior tournament history), deeper teams usually have someone they can play versus their group’s weakest opponent.

All teams have three goalies this year, but the Russian third has never been mentioned as a choice for gameplay.

Mikhail Abramov

Abramov, 19 and in his last WJC eligibility year, played for Russia in the Hlinka - Gretzky Cup in 2018-2019 and the event where Russian juniors play some Canadian juniors that same year. He hasn’t been on their radar since until this year. He was invited to the junior team camp in Sochi this summer, and he impressed. Since then, his season in Victoriaville in the QMJHL has been a little uneven, and also only nine games long. Some of his teammates on team Russia have 25 games played, or half a Russian season, already.

Abramov has struggled to make an impression and carve out a roster spot at the camp in Edmonton, and in the exhibition he was put at 3C to prove his worth. He really did very well in a tough game to make a splash in. Russia had a lot of trouble exiting their zone, their possession game just wasn’t there and most (partial to be sure) observers thought Abramov played a very sold defensively responsible game.

He was scratched from their first game against the USA, however, so we await a chance to see him in real action.

Rodion Amirov

Amirov, just drafted, but also 19 and in his last year of eligibility, has nailed down his position on the RW with Vasily Podkolzin and Marat Khusnutdinov. This is a line that, when Russia gains the zone, can play that timeless Russian possession offence that is extremely reminiscent of what the Maple Leafs are doing these days. Amirov is extremely good at it. When they have trouble in transition like they did against Canada in the exhibition, he has fewer opportunities to impress.

The Russia-USA game on Christmas Day was one where Russia’s transition really cooked, and it’s worth it to dig into the numbers to see who was driving that:

Mitch Brown’s Twitter reports of tracked stats.
Mitch Brown

There’s a lot going on in this report. The first section is an Expected Goals model applied to individual shooting, not on-ice. The Transition and Defence sections are where Brown is counting what the rest of us are eye-testing. He notes that he does not include unpressured zone exits, that is: the sail up the ice unimpeded start to a play that usually comes off a faceoff win. He goes on to mention that in junior hockey or NCAA play, averages go from 95% success on unpressured exits to 30% success when there is pressure. This is something we can intuitively see when watching, but bear that kind of percentage in mind when you look as these numbers. This chart just has the hard part counted.

One number should leap out at you, and that’s six controlled entries for Amirov. Note also his linemate Khusnutdinov has five, and only American transition-machine Alex Turcotte has more with nine. The controlled exits are spread around on both teams, with only defencemen getting more than one or two. This is to be expected.

The numbers are a reassurance on the eye test which says that Amirov is excellent in the neutral zone with and without the puck. He takes it, he runs with it, he does not dump it in! That’s probably the only rule the Russian team has on offence — no dump and chase.

On the defensive side, Khusnutdinov is doing more work on his line than Amirov or Podkolzin, but mix the three together and it’s a good line that works all three zones very well. Note that Turcotte gave away his own blue line so much, what he did the rest of the time ceases to matter.

Overall, this Russian team plays a simple, “get deep, get the puck, get out” defence that provides the backbone of their no-rules, get-creative offence. The result of that possession offence is that you see cycling players (just like in a Leafs game) not just cycling pucks. The result of that is sometimes the good shooter you’re watching is in the high slot when he lets it go (just like in a Leafs game). This is where I find this style irritating. The Russians use their defence less than the Leafs did last year, and are more likely to have them cycle up into forward position than shoot from the point, but it’s been a little frustrating trying to decide if Amirov’s line’s terrible xG, as shown above, is just random chance of this system, their own shooting choices, or some unholy mix of both. But I was getting tired of shots from above the circles from our boy.

On the other hand, he could slot into the Leafs PK at training camp without a ripple. The Russian power play was pretty terrible, so I’m not sure what is him, and what is the system there. Regardless, it isn’t hard to see why Dubas drafted him. He’s already been made into a player perfect for the Leafs.

Mikko Kokkonen

Speaking of the Leafs, Kokkonen reminded me powerfully of various Leafs defenders in Finland’s exhibition against the USA. Not in a good way. It wasn’t Rielly or even Barrie he was getting compared to, it was, well... if I tell you, you’ll hear bad, when I mean extremely conservative. He was clearly blowing off some rust from a couple of weeks layoff, and played much better in their win over Germany.

The trouble with assessing Kokkonen, who is also ageing out of eligibility after his second WJC, is that I can’t tell you what is his choice, and what is the coach’s system. Finland has a new coach this year, and at times the team seems extremely old-fashioned. As in 2010 style not as in 1990s style. Kokkonen is playing this very old-fashioned game like he was born to it. He’s the guy who dumps it in as the players go off on a change. He was also the guy who dumped it in when the Finns had a 4 man wall moving across the blueline in the exhibition. Is that him, or is his job to be the guy who does that?

If you watched Rasmus Sandin at the last WJC, you may have seen him execute Sweden’s technique of having a defender take the puck back and tour in his own zone on a line change, and then... well, Ray Ferraro gushed about this move. It’s what Sandin did in the Soo and the Marlies, and it’s a possession-first way to get in that change. But more than once, Sandin’s way of getting rid of the puck as the opposition — who might not be changing, remember — rushes at him is to pass it to a guy coming right off the bench. He’s caused more than one too many men penalty with this routine. So it’s a tactic of value, but it carries risks of failure just like the one it replaces.

This is where I part company with the exit and entry stats fans: Be careful how you interpret those numbers. The truth is a controlled zone entry is much better than a dump in. On average. But if you make a religion of it, and insist that controlled entry is good and gets you a dark blue bar on the player card bar chart of doom, and a dump in is bad and gets you a red one, you’ve erased so much context, you are really saying you like guys who play on good teams with a coach you like. You aren’t measuring skill anymore, you’re observing the context the player exists in.

But, back to Kokkonen. After a while, with the puck ringing around the boards, off the glass but not out, dumped in, etc. etc., I will say the name Nikita Zaitsev out loud. It’s not a fair comparison because Kokkonen can’t skate the puck like Zaitsev can, but he can pass it. However, while Kokkonen is truly excellent on the PK, is obviously a professional with no nerves and a good offensive support game, he’s playing a game that D.J. Smith, coach of the Senators, would drool over. I am not thrilled.

Roni Hirvonen

Just drafted and with another year yet of WJC eligibility, Hirvonen is playing the same role for Finland that Amirov is for Russia, and he’s sparkling and fun, and I’m an instant fan. It helps that his centre is Anton Lundell, who is one of the best centres in this tournament at his age. We’ll get a better handle on him when Finland plays a tougher opponent.

Hirvonen is a dance around the net-front sort of winger, who can also skate the puck around and be the playmaker. Once they have the puck under control in the offensive zone, the Finns play an offensive game decently similar to the Russians, just with an old-school emphasis on point shots mixed in. Which puts the Keefe Leafs halfway between the two schools of thought.

In the exhibition and the easy win over Germany, Hirvonen got some points, shot the puck well, and took a lot of penalties. If you look at Mitch Brown’s stats, you see a very good all-around game: good xG, good exits and entries, just the dominating performance a topliner should show against a poor team.

Highlight of the game for me was when he got into an extended tussle with Tim Stützle, and kept him well out of a rush against. He was the German’s only real offensive weapon, so it was a good choice. Stützle has a lot of pounds on Hirvonen.

Topi Niemelä

Niemelä, just drafted is 18, and playing a surprising amount for a defender his age. While he’s nominally on the third pair for Finland, the rotation is being tweaked to get him out with some offensive-minded players. He’s a power play and offensive threat, and the only caveat on his play I’ll give you is that Finnish Liiga hockey creates successful defencemen who shoot a lot because point shots get goals in that league.

Ignoring his points, because they are point-shot based, though well-executed, he’s been showing up defensively as a very good player. He’s small, and he can’t win a board battle against your random hulking Canadian or American, but he sure knows what he’s doing.

I like watching him without the puck so much, I’m developing a hatred for his partner Eemil Viro, who I just don’t think is anywhere near Niemelä’s class. The coach is rotating the D so that Niemelä plays some micro-shifts with Kokkonen, and that’s a pairing I would legitimately use in this tournament.

Mitch Brown’s stats for Finland’s first game are available if you want to dig in deeper on who is doing what.

Tournament

Both Russia and Finland next play on December 27.

Finland faces Switzerland at 2pm Toronto time. Switzerland lost their opener, and is desperate to get a win from someone in this easier pool where a playoff spot should have been theirs without effort. Finland, who seem to like being third and coming from behind, should win it, and try the easier route of finishing second to Canada this time. Just a thought.

Russia faces the Czechs at 9:30pm in a game they need to win to help set them up for the quarterfinals in the tougher group. They are in with Sweden and USA, so they will need to scrap for all the points.

The full schedule is on the IIHF site and all games are available for broadcast/streaming in Canada on TSN. NHL Network is carrying some games in the USA.