The NHL season is finally just around the corner and the World Juniors have been a great primer as the hockey world begins to look a little brighter. Leafs fans have been treated to some impressive performances by a few of the team’s newest prospects, and all of Toronto’s participants will have a chance to compete for medals as both Russia and Finland have looked strong through the preliminary round.
Rodion Amirov – LW/RW – Salavat Yulaev Ufa (KHL)
For many Leafs’ fans, these first few games at the World Juniors have been the first real look they have gotten at the organization’s most recent first round pick. Despite a bit of a slow start, Amirov has been impressive and leads the Russian squad in scoring through the preliminary round with two goals and four assists in four games. On top of his offensive exploits, Amirov has been a strong defensive presence and a difference maker on the penalty kill for Igor Larionov’s team as well. His best game of the tournament so far came in Russia’s final preliminary round matchup against Sweden where he scored a goal and added two assists, including the primary assist on Marat Khusnutdinov’s overtime winner, on his way to player of the game honours for Russia. That top line of Amirov, Khusnutdinov, and Vasily Podkolzin has been getting better with each passing game and they look primed to lead the way as Russia pushes for their first WJC gold medal since 2011.
Since we’re wrapping up the over-indulgent holiday season, here is the highlight of Amirov’s penalty shot goal from Russia’s game against Austria for everyone to feast on, too.
Topi Niemela – RHD – Karpat (Liiga)
Toronto’s third round pick from the 2020 draft has been one of the stories of the tournament thus far and is in the early conversation to be named the event’s best defenseman when all is said and done. Niemela is Finland’s leading scorer through the preliminary round, is the highest scoring defenseman in the tournament thus far, and is tied for sixth among all players at the WJC, with two goals and five assists through four games.
Niemela has been one of the most effective puck movers at the World Juniors, creating controlled zone exits at a high rate with his mobility and passing ability but his play without the puck has been strong as well. He has done a good job of limiting opposing scoring chances and he may be forced to do so in larger minutes as the tournament progresses with Finland awaiting word on captain Ville Heinola after he suffered an injury late in their game against Canada last night.
Roni Hirvonen – C/LW – Assat (Liiga)
Hirvonen has been a fixture on Finland’s top line through the first four games of the World Juniors, skating on the left wing alongside Anton Lundell and Kasper Simontaival. He has been effective on the forecheck and distributing the puck in transition on his way to four assists in four games, but he has missed some grade A scoring chances and gotten into penalty trouble as well. Hirvonen has shown the ability to play a grinding, agitating game but needs to find more balance in that part of his game to avoid spending so much time in the penalty box. Despite not yet registering a goal himself, Hirvonen has been a key part of Finland’s best line and they will look to continue their strong play in the medal round.
Mikhail Abramov – C – Victoriaville Tigres (QMJHL)
It was surprising to many – myself included – when Abramov found himself as a healthy scratch for Russia’s first two games of the tournament. A disappointing effort from the entire team in a 2-0 loss to the Czechs may have been a blessing in disguise, however, as Abramov was inserted into the lineup the following game and has been one of Russia’s most dangerous players in the two games since. Centering the second line with wingers Arseni Gritsyuk and Egor Afanasyev, Abramov has been fantastic in transition and in the offensive zone. His speed and agility with the puck on his stick has been evident, frequently carrying the puck out of the defensive zone and through center ice to generate offensive pressure. Abramov has picked up two assists in his first two games, but he probably deserves more than that with the number of scoring chances he has created for himself and his linemates. I think it’s safe to say he won’t be a healthy scratch again in this tournament.
Artur Akhtyamov – G – Bars Kazan (VHL)
Unlike some of the other countries taking part in the tournament, there was no question who Russia’s number one goaltender was going to be for this tournament and Yaroslav Askarov has played all but one game for Russia so far. Artur Akhtyamov, selected by the Leafs in the fourth round of the 2020 draft, gave Askarov the night off against Austria and did his job in a 7-1 victory. The Austrian team had struggled to generate any kind of offense leading up to their contest with Russia but they tested Akhtyamov with some dangerous shots and he stopped all but one of them, making 17 saves in what is likely to be his only action at the World Juniors.
Filip Kral – LHD – HC Kometa Brno (Czech)
Switching gears from the World Juniors, Filip Kral has been on fire for Brno in the Czech men’s league while playing huge minutes and racking up plenty of points. After tallying three points through his 16 games, he has added nine points in his last six games to give him a total of four goals and eight assists through 22 games. Playing upwards of 25 minutes per game has become commonplace for Kral as of late, and he played over 27 minutes in his second to last game. He will remain in his home country for the duration of the season but the Leafs’ brass has to excited about how he has played while on loan, and he should be a big part of the Marlies in 2021-2022.
Veeti Miettinen – LW/RW – St. Cloud State (NCAA)
Miettinen has continued his hot start to the NCAA season, adding two goals and an assist to his totals in the last two games. The Leafs’ sixth rounder has now found the back of the net in three consecutive games, giving him four goals and four assists through his first nine games at the NCAA level. Miettinen is dangerous every time he has the puck on his stick and has already proven that his shot can beat NCAA goaltenders from distance. His tenacity on the forecheck and ability to lift pucks off of opposing players, combined with his heavy shot and vision, should only make him more difficult to handle as he gets more comfortable playing in North America.
Vladislav Kara – RW/LW – Spartak Moskva (KHL)
After a solid 2019-2020 season between the VHL and KHL, Kara looked set for a bigger role with a new team in 2020-2021 but things haven’t worked out for him to this point. Earlier this week, Severstal Cherepovets traded Kara to Spartak Moskva after he had registered just three points in 17 games while playing limited minutes. A fresh start is probably the best thing for Kara but time is running out for him to make good on these opportunities.
Happy new year, everybody, and all the best in 2021. Thank you all for reading and following along in the past year. Go Leafs.