With the hockey calendar creeping through November, the 2022 World Junior Championships are drawing closer. The annual holiday tournament provides a stage for the game’s brightest up and comers to put their skills on display and allows fans to get a sneak peek at some of their team’s top prospects.
The Maple Leafs were well represented at last year’s event and while they may not send as many players this time around, there are still a few Leafs prospects in the running to suit up for their respective countries when the puck drops on Boxing Day.
Topi Niemelä | RHD | Finland
Niemelä earned the award for Best Defenseman at last year’s tournament and he is a lock to return as a key member of the Finnish squad this year. The 2021 WJC was a coming-out party for the young blueliner as he showed that he could be an impactful offensive player from the backend, finishing the event with two goals and six assists in just seven games. He was one of the top players at the recent World Junior Summer Showcase as well, tying for the scoring lead among defensemen with a pair of goals and four assists through six games.
Injuries derailed the second half of Niemelä’s 2020-21 campaign but his breakout has continued in a big way through the early part of this season. Through 20 games with Kärpät, he has tallied four goals and 14 assists for 18 points – tied with Joakim Kemell, a top prospect for the 2022 draft, for the most among all U20 players in Liiga and good enough for a share of second in overall league scoring.
Building upon his strong defensive foundation, Niemelä has established himself as a dynamic offensive defenseman as well. He defends the rush well and proactively takes away time and space from opposing attackers. On retrievals, he is able to shake forecheckers and quickly identifies options on the breakout before joining the attack with a purpose. Niemelä is a composed player for his age and makes strong reads off the puck in the offensive zone to spread out the defense and create lanes. His intelligence and hockey IQ have allowed him to excel at the professional level already and his refined game should make him a star of the World Juniors once again. Niemelä figures to be Finland’s most relied upon defender and will see big minutes at even strength as well as on both special teams units.
Roni Hirvonen | C | Finland
Hirvonen is set to join Niemelä as a returnee for Team Finland after a strong showing in last year’s tournament. He played on their top forward line and scored a pair of clutch goals to go along with four assists in seven games to help his squad claim a bronze medal. He was also a force at the World Junior Summer Showcase, notching a pair of hat tricks on his way to finishing with eight goals and two assists in just six games.
Hirvonen spent the last two seasons with Ässät and had respectable offensive totals for a teenager playing in a men’s league, including 21 points in 54 games in 2020-21. He joined HIFK prior to the beginning of the 2021-22 schedule and is still adjusting to his surroundings with a new team. Through 19 games, he has three goals and five assists but more than half of that production has come in his last six games. He has also been generating plenty of shots and has suffered from an unsustainably low shooting percentage so his luck may be beginning to turn.
Hirvonen plays a well-rounded, energetic game and reads off of his linemates well. Despite his small stature, he doesn’t shy away from the dirty areas and consistently disrupts plays on the forecheck. He has decent vision in the offensive zone and can make plays under pressure but he is most dangerous wreaking havoc around the net and capitalizing on contested pucks. Hirvonen’s shot is developing into a greater weapon as well and he has started to become a bigger threat when shooting from the outside.
Having already shown the ability to dominate and come up with big plays in big moments against his peers on the international stage, Hirvonen will be looked to as one of Finland’s offensive leaders at the upcoming World Juniors.
Matthew Knies | W | USA
Like Niemelä and Hirvonen, Knies was a stud at the World Junior Summer Showcase. He announced his arrival on the international stage and all but secured a spot on Team USA’s roster, scoring four goals and three assists in just five games.
Knies spent the 2020-21 season with the Tri-City Storm of the USHL, scoring 17 goals and 25 assists in 44 games before being selected by the Leafs with the 57th overall pick. He began his collegiate career with the University of Minnesota this year and has gotten off to a great start in his freshman year, scoring four goals and three assists through his first 10 games.
A big-bodied forward who plays an aggressive forechecking style, Knies has started to make good on his offensive potential. He has great puck protection abilities and makes a habit of getting to scoring areas but his shot is turning into a lethal weapon, making him a diverse scoring threat. The Arizona native uses his physical gifts effectively, finishing his checks to separate opponents from the puck and creating space by driving to the net.
The American roster won’t be short on high-end options up front but Knies’ unique skillset makes him a likely fit on one of their top two forward lines. He should play a prominent role on the powerplay as well and could have a big tournament if he is able to find chemistry with some of the other top talent Team USA will be sending to Edmonton and Red Deer.
Dmitri Ovchinnikov | C/W | Russia
Ovchinnikov was one of the stories of Toronto’s prospect pool last year, putting up a massive season in the MHL with 20 goals and 31 assists in just 40 games. Despite his outstanding production at the junior level, he was unable to earn a legitimate look in the KHL until this season. Even through the early part of this season, he was seldomly used and often spent entire games watching from the bench as Sibir’s 13th forward. He has started to see more ice-time in recent weeks, however, and has been able to chip in with a bit of offense.
He is a bit of a long shot to make the Russian squad for the upcoming World Juniors but his big-time numbers in the MHL and the fact that he has started to show what he is capable of in the KHL this season have at least put him on the radar.
Ovchinnikov’s pure offensive ability would likely shine through at the WJC as it has in the MHL if he were to earn a spot on the Russian roster. He is a smooth skater that attacks lanes with timing and precision, and he has the hands to make plays when the puck is on his stick. With great vision and a shot that can help him finish from mid-range, Ovchinnikov is a dual offensive threat that could be used in a variety of roles.
Vyacheslav Peksa | G | Russia
Nashville Predators prospect Yaroslav Askarov has Russia’s starting job nailed down and while there are likely a few names ahead of him on the depth chart, there is an outside chance that Vyacheslav Peksa could make the roster as the second or third goaltender. It is an uphill battle to be sure, and his chances are admittedly slim, but his performance through the early part of the MHL season has surely put Russian brass on notice.
Through 20 games with Irbis Kazan, Peksa has registered four shutouts to go along with a 1.79 GAA and .938 SV%. He hasn’t been tabbed to represent his country on the international stage to this point in his career but those numbers have at least put him in the conversation to serve in a depth role and if he can continue his strong play over the next couple of weeks, he could force Team Russia into a tough decision.
Ty Voit | W | USA
Of all the Leafs’ WJC hopefuls, Voit is probably facing the longest odds as a recent fifth-round pick trying to make a deep American roster. After going the entire 2020-21 season without playing meaningful hockey, he has gotten off to a hot start with Sarnia this season, picking up at least a point in each game he has played to give him four goals and eight assists in just nine games.
He doesn’t have much history with USA Hockey, making it an even more difficult hill to climb to earn a spot on their roster for the WJC but if he continues to produce in the coming weeks, he will have at least put himself in consideration.
Voit is a shifty offensive player with good hands, a decent shot, and excellent vision. He plays a tenacious game, hunting pucks in the offensive zone and funneling plays to dangerous scoring areas. He won’t turn 19-years-old until next June so even if he fails to make the cut this time around, a strong season could put him in line to make next year’s squad.
(Statistics from EliteProspects.com)