All eyes will be on the upcoming World Junior Championships and the Leafs will be well represented. Six of the Leafs’ recent draft picks will suit up in the tournament, including their first four selections in the 2020 NHL draft. After a somewhat arduous journey, all of the teams have arrived in the Edmonton bubble and are wrapping up their quarantine period as practices begin today.
The charter carrying SWE/FIN/RUS has now departed from Helsinki and is scheduled to make refuelling stops in Iceland and Goose Bay on its way to Edmonton. A cargo plane will bring in the equipment separately.
— Chris Johnston (@reporterchris) December 13, 2020
Rodion Amirov headlines the group of Leafs prospects set to take part in the tournament and will be a big part of the Russian squad. He is currently slotted onto the top line with Minnesota Wild prospect Marat Khusnutdinov and the highly touted Vasily Podkolzin of the Vancouver Canucks. He was a key player on both special teams units for Russia at the Karjala Cup in November and he will likely fill that role for them at the WJC as well.
Mikhail Abramov, selected in the fourth round of the 2019 draft, is also vying for a spot in Russia’s forward group. It was expected that he would be penciled in as the second or third line center but it appears as though he will have to play catch up and climb the depth chart in pre-tournament games after head coach Igor Larionov said he was currently their fifth center. This likely has more to do with the fact that Abramov has played sparingly this season with Victoriaville missing so much time due to the rising COVID numbers in Quebec than it does with his ability. It is a long tournament and Abramov should feature more prominently into Russia’s plans after he gets up to speed.
The third Leaf on the Russian squad is goaltender Artur Akhtyamov who was chosen in the fourth round back in October. He has had a good season across three levels in Russia, and if it were not for the fact that Russia has one of the best goaltending prospects of the last couple of decades in Yaroslav Askarov, Akhtyamov would likely push for the starters job at the WJC. With Askarov in the fold, however, Toronto’s newest goaltending prospect will see limited action at the World Juniors if he sees any at all.
The Leafs are also sending three prospects to represent Finland, including their second and third round picks from the most recent draft. Roni Hirvonen, selected 59th overall, has put up five goals and four assists in 21 games for Assat of Finland’s Liiga so far this season and he will likely play in the middle six of Finland’s forward group.
Third round pick Topi Niemela has been a regular at the men’s level for a full season already and after struggling to get into Karpat’s lineup to begin this season, he has been one of their better defensemen through nine games. Niemela is a strong defensive player who possesses some offensive ability as well and he will likely be a fixture in the top four of the Finnish squad’s blue line.
The Leafs’ third round pick from last year’s draft will also be representing Finland as Mikko Kokkonen will play in the tournament for a second time. He is a mature, steady defender with little offensive flash to his game, but he will likely play big minutes in a shutdown role while being looked to as a leader by his teammates and coaches.
We still don’t feel any closer to an NHL season, but there will be plenty to watch for when the World Juniors get underway on Christmas Day. In the meantime, let’s check in with some Leafs prospects who we might not see so much of over the holidays.
Axel Rindell – RHD – Jukurit (Liiga)
The Leafs’ sixth round pick from the 2020 draft has had a great start to his Liiga season, currently leading Jukurit with 12 points in 17 games. The smooth skating, offensively gifted blue liner has been a threat with the puck on his stick but his defensive game has also taken strides this season playing on Jukurit’s top defensive pair with fellow Leafs prospect Mikko Kokkonen. The Liiga season has been suspended for the last couple of weeks but they are scheduled to get back underway this weekend. Rindell will be without his usual partner for a couple of weeks while Kokkonen is representing Finland at the World Junior Championships, but he will look to continue his strong play in what he hopes will be his final Liiga season. In a recent interview with The Athletic’s Joshua Kloke, Rindell had this to say:
“I hope this will be my last season in Finland. It could help me if I could go to the Marlies next season and learn the small rink, American-style of hockey. I think it’s realistic.” – Axel Rindell, via The Athletic
Rindell went undrafted in his first two years of eligibility before the Leafs took a swing on him this year, and he will be 21 years old next season so making the jump to the AHL is certainly plausible. He will need to continue to improve his play away from the puck in the second half of the Liiga season if he is going to earn his entry level contract, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world for Rindell to continue his development in Finland either.
Dmitri Ovchinnikov – C/RW – Sibirskie Snaipery Novosibirsk (MHL)
Ovchinnikov played two games this past week and added two more points to to his season totals, but probably deserved more. He is now up to 14 goals and 25 assists for 39 points in just 26 games, sitting one point behind the MHL’s leading scorer despite having played eight fewer games. Ovchinnikov is still barely 18 years old but he is proving to be too much for the opposition on a consistent basis at Russia’s U20 level. While his KHL opportunities might be limited this season, he has put himself in a favorable position to crack Sibir’s roster to begin next season which would still be an impressive feat for a 19 year old, fifth round draft pick.
Dmitri Ovchinnikov was pretty good this morning. He was pushing play for Sibir and was all over the net.
I'm actually surprised he finished with only one assist, easily could have had more. pic.twitter.com/5bAeXjQPUc
— Nick DeSouza (@NickDeSouza_) December 11, 2020
Filip Hallander – LW – Lulea (SHL)
Hallander was held off the scoresheet in his last three games prior to yesterday’s victory against Oskarshamn, where he scored a gorgeous overtime winner to complete the comeback. He played 21:28 and led his team with six shots on goal, as he continues to be one of Lulea’s highest volume shooters. This season has been a bit of a struggle for Hallander offensively, but yesterday’s goal is the type of big play that can instill some confidence in a player.
— Nick Richard (@_NickRichard) December 17, 2020
Even when Hallander isn’t scoring, he is typically driving play and making a positive impact for his team. If he continues to do those things and maintains good habits, the points will come.
Update: Hallander was originally planning on coming to North America for Leafs training camp but on Friday morning, he and Lulea confirmed that he would instead remain in Sweden to finish the SHL season.
Veeti Miettinen – LW/RW – St. Cloud State (NCAA)
Miettinen has adjusted quickly to the North American game and the pace of NCAA hockey. He has been dangerous with the puck on his stick but he has been a nuisance for the opposition when they have it as well. His speed and smarts, combined with his quick hands, have made him an effective puck thief in the early part of the season. His ability to disrupt opposing possessions has helped lead to offense and he has already picked up two goals and three assists in his first seven games, putting him just one point behind St. Cloud State’s leading scorer.
— Here's Your Replay ⬇️ (@HeresYourReplay) December 17, 2020
Filip Kral – LHD – HC Kometa Brno (Czech)
Kral was selected by the Leafs in the fifth round of the 2018 draft and signed his entry level contract with the Leafs back in April after scoring 49 points in 53 games as an overage player for Spokane of the WHL. The plan was for him to begin his professional career in the Leafs system playing for the Marlies or Growlers this season but with the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, he was sent to his native Czech Republic on a loan agreement back in August. Kral started with HC Prerov in the second tier Czech league, playing big minutes and registering 10 points in seven games before being called up to the top level. He now has 5 points in 17 games for HC Kometa Brno, including his first two goals the other day:
Filip Král (@MapleLeafs) scored twice in his last outing for HC Kometa Brno in Czech Extraliga action.
— EP Rinkside (@EPRinkside) December 17, 2020
Like some of Toronto’s other European prospects playing on loans overseas, there is a good chance that Kral remains in Europe for the remainder of the season. There are already plenty of bodies that will be vying for spots on the Marlies blue line if and when they begin their season, and Kral has carved out a nice role for himself in his first taste of professional hockey in his home country.
Semyon Der-Arguchintsev – C – Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod (KHL)
SDA was just starting to get comfortable in the KHL before he suffered an injury in his tenth game with Torpedo. He will reportedly miss at least four weeks with a bone bruise and it remains to be seen whether he will stay in Russia or continue his recovery back in Toronto in preparation for a pending NHL training camp.