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How the WJC affects my Top 25 Under 25 opinions

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Who is trending up and who is deeply disappointing to me on a personal level?

Finland v Sweden: Quarterfinals - 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

Every year the WJC gives us a short, statistically insignificant set of games played by prospects against their peers on national teams that are grossly mismatched in skill, depth and quality. Naturally what we do with that is read in way more than we do from the players’ league play.

Usually there is at least one player who really stands out as a “man among boys” and looks like he should be at NHL training camp, not this kids’ game. That’s doubly meaningful this year since the WJC overlaps NHL camp, and there are players who you look at and think should be going right to camp, no hesitation. Last year, Rasmus Sandin had that look to him, along with a few Canadian and US players, including Nick Robertson, although he wasn’t quite so clearly “over this junior shit” like Sandin was.

This year, the really obvious player ready to move up is Anton Lundell, 1C for Finland. None of the Leafs prospects are quite there yet, but all of the six have done their jobs at least to minimum standard of what was asked of them. No one is a bust. They’re just varying levels of impressive.

My Votes

At the time of voting for our Winter T25, I did the following, largely sight unseen for the four newest prospects:

Rodion Amirov: 5, Mikhail Abramov: 7, Roni Hirvonen: 10, Topi Niemelä: 11, Mikko Kokkonen: 18, Artur Akhtyamov: 24.

Anyone in the 7 - 15 range is a big maybe and/or a replacement-level NHLer, so that’s a fairly safe ranking for almost any player drafted high or actually in the NHL already. The Malgin or a second-rounder zone.

Artur Akhtyamov

I tossed Akhtyamov onto the list for the hell of it. He seems good in his Russian club, developing as you’d hope, but what that means for a goalie six years from now, who knows. His WJC didn’t really confirm or deny my ranking. He played as a backup, got in one game against Austria, and any goalie at the WJC (including Austria’s) should be able to play behind a good team against the worst team well enough to win it.

Mikko Kokkonen

I soured a lot on Kokkonen this year for a couple of reasons. His teammate and recent Leafs draftee, Axel Rindell has nearly identical results, and no one thinks he’s a high-end prospect. Kokkonen has not moved up in the Liiga at all. He’s locked into exactly the role he had last year, and he’s roaring up on 20 in a a couple of weeks. No big steps were taken in his 19th year.

Kokkonen is one of the oldest players in the WJC, with 126 Liiga games played — not a record, but close to one. If anyone should look like he’s well beyond junior hockey, it’s him, and he does in some ways. However, he looks like a utility defender who could walk onto an AHL team and play a useful role with no learning curve. He wouldn’t be challenging Timothy Liljegren for ice time on the Marlies, but he might pair with him to be the boring, more defensively inclined player.

And that’s fine. You need players like that, but you can also just go get them in free agency. If Kokkonen was doing anything in transition that looked good (I saw a sarcastic tweet applauding him for managing a controlled exit under pressure once) or if his defence didn’t far too often make me think of Nikita Zaitsev, I’d be really happy the Leafs found a defensive defender in the third round.

Zaitsev was relied on to take the kind of heavy minutes we’re about to watch T.J. Brodie enjoy. He’s sure not Brodie, but he’s not Jack Johnson either.

Unlike Zaitsev, Kokkonen handles the puck fine, passes well, but not with excitement, and that really showed in this tournament when he was right there on a team with Jets’ prospect Ville Heinola, who looks like he’s NHL-bound soon. Kokkonen’s dull, but serviceable game, shows up starkly against Niemelä’s as well. He’s not Brodie, but calling him Zaitsev is likely my own frustration with him. He rose to the occasion very well in the Bronze medal game.

I’m more convinced my low ranking was reasonable now, but his WJC performance just showed that giving him easier work doesn’t make him better. Giving him harder work than the Liiga might challenge him to do something more than what he’s showed to date, though.

Topi Niemelä

I found placing Niemelä and Roni Hirvonen in the T25 a little difficult, and now I’m slightly inclined towards Niemelä as the better player. He was only nominally a third-pairing defender for Finland, and if he wasn’t 18, I think he would have been more obviously ranked right below Heinola on the right side. He was listed in later games on the second pair with Kokkonen, but they never actually played together much, if at all.

He’s definitely the guy where the WJC hype can take you too far, particularly given his best defender of the tournament award when I don’t think he was truly the best on his own team. He’s good for his age, for sure, and he defends as much as you’d like for a player still at the start of his big improvement spikes. To move him up my rankings, I have to vault him over someone, and he’s not touching the Robertson/Sandin/Amirov troika based on one junior tournament, so that leaves Liljegren, Hållander and Abramov.

Liljegren is such a controversial topic because if you rank him below Niemelä, you’re saying his draft was a total mistake, and he’s topping out at AHLer. And I’m not there yet. But it’s not an absurd idea. Hållander is a player I like a lot, but who I think needs work to make the NHL, so maybe I’m too high on him. Abramov — well, let’s leave him for now — but the highest I could put Niemelä is ninth. Maybe I should have.

Roni Hirvonen

With the benefit of playing with an excellent centre in Lundell, Hirvonen had a lot of advantages. He also showed off some skill at agitating, digging for pucks, neutral zone smarts and excellent passing.

No one seems to think he’s a shooting star in the making, and I don’t think he disabused that scouting report at the WJC either. That leaves this question: Where is he on the continuum of Mitch Marner (or Joe Thornton) to Zach Hyman in terms of players who aren’t shooting savants, but have high-end skills in other areas? And then how do you rank him against a clutch of forwards in the Leafs system on the same continuum?

That pits him against Amirov, who he resembles in some ways, and Hållander, who he resembles in others. And yet, they’re all playing in different leagues at different stages, succeeding, but how do you measure one to the other?

How about we just judge Hirvonen against Niemelä, that seems easier. I really enjoyed watching Hirvonen play, but I’m a little less inclined to pop him over very many of the players above him. Niemelä moved the needle more.

Mikhail Abramov

Abramov did not impress his coach or me very much at first in this event. I’ve heard all the excuses for his foolish penalty that got him suspended, and no sale on all of it. I’ve seen the “but this zone exit, though” gifs of his play, and I’ve heard a lot about one assist. His best play came at three-on-three, also known as the least important skill in hockey. He was fine on the second line for Russia, but he was not outstanding in any way, and if they’d played a different sort of third line, he might have been better there.

He also improved as he played more, and had a few flashes of effort in the bronze medal game where he scored a power play goal that was called back for offside. None of the Russians looked up to the effort of fighting the feisty Finns in that game by the end of it, but he started well.

All of that sits in stark contrast to his reputation as a guy who scores goals in bulk in the Q. He actually stood out for his play away from the puck, and was not at all impressive offensively in a smaller sample than the other guys had to show who they are. That is interesting, but it doesn’t make an okay tournament into a raging success. I can easily count 10 forwards on team Russia who were better most of the time.

I figured I overrated Abramov at the time I voted, but I wanted to overrate a good player, not some sixth-rounder. I think I would drop him below Hirvonen now for sure, but not much farther.

Rodion Amirov

I’ve found the response to Amirov really fascinating from fans who don’t watch prospects a lot. He is not a guy who always makes good shooting decisions, but his skating, passing and general play with and without the puck is stellar. Comparisons have been made to Ilya Mikheyev, but I think his play outside of that habit of shooting from dumb spots is superior to Mikheyev’s.

What are people expecting from a 15th overall? He’s not a player who dropped because he had mono. He was never ranked really high, he’s just a good mid-first-rounder. Which makes him extremely likely to have an NHL career and fairly unlikely to be more Nylander than Kapanen. He’s also fairly unlikely to be more Denis Malgin than Kapanen as well.

I think Amirov is fun, really exciting to watch, and capable of being the best player on the ice at this level on a team full of NHL-drafted players. I’m happy with where I ranked him, and really looking forward to his development.

Conclusion

I didn’t set out to say, “Again I am right in my analysis,” with this exercise. But the seven games a player can play at a WJC is a terrible, terrible way to decide who they are. The only thing worse is using something like the Karjala Cup where the Russian juniors blanked three men’s teams made up of the players not good enough to be in the NHL or KHL.

The biggest positive out of this WJC likely was how close Niemelä is to Heinola in quality right now. Heinola is older, played a tougher role, more minutes, and was really excellent, and I am so happy to be able to stop cheering for a Jets defenceman, you have no idea.

There are no real negatives. you can’t suggest that less than exciting performances like Abramov’s or Akhtyamov mean they are bad any more than you can really take a lot from Niemelä’s good event. Particularly in a year where the games played before the tournament varied so much from player to player.

If I were voting now, I’d change that to:

5. Rodion Amirov
6. Nick Robertson
7. Travis Dermott
8. Timothy Liljegren
9. Filip Hållander
10. Topi Niemelä
11. Roni Hirvonen
12. Mikhail Abramov

I’d leave Kokkonen and Akhtyamov in the same places. A lot of that jigging around is my re-think on Liljegren and Dermott. But the gap between Robertson and Dermott is large, and then there is a tier I can’t tell apart. In two months I might reorder that in a whole new way. Next summer, who knows what new draft picks and a season played will do?

And that’s how I would let the WJC affect my thinking on players (no points were used in this analysis but I know where most of those forwards were shooting from).