Toronto Maple Leafs prospects to watch at 2021 world juniors

Russia's Rodion Amirov celebrates a goal during the Ice Hockey Karjala Tournament as part of the Euro Hockey Tour. (Photo by VESA MOILANEN/Lehtikuva/AFP via Getty Images)
Russia's Rodion Amirov celebrates a goal during the Ice Hockey Karjala Tournament as part of the Euro Hockey Tour. (Photo by VESA MOILANEN/Lehtikuva/AFP via Getty Images) /
3 of 3
Toronto Maple Leafs
Mikko Kokkonen reacts after being selected 84th overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Photo by Kevin Light/Getty Images) /

Maple Leafs prospects representing Finland

Mikko Kokkonen

Leading the way as the only returning prospect for the Leafs at this year’s tournament is Finnish defenceman Mikko Kokkonen. Kokkonen was drafted in the third round by Toronto in 2019 and has since split his time playing in Liiga, with the Finnish international teams, and with the World Juniors international team.

There is nothing that stands out as much in Kokkonen’s game compared to the aforementioned skaters, but I would say his biggest strength is his sound defensive play. You know what you are going to get from Kokkonen every shift, and that is a defence first mindset with very little to no risk taking. If you’re looking for a defenceman to jump in on the rush or score goals deep in the offensive zone, I’d tell you to look somewhere else.

Not to take away from Kokkonen’s overall ability to play the game, but he’s not as flashy as others when it comes to his offensive abilities. His defence, on the other hand, is where he excels the most. Expect Kokkonen to play heavy minutes at even strength and on the penalty kill, while being given most of his starts in the defensive zone as he offers that steady presence in his own end.

Roni Hirvonen

More from Tip of the Tower

First up for the recently drafted Finnish prospects is forward Roni Hirvonen. Taken in the second round by Toronto in 2020, the 5’9” 172lb Hirvonen makes up for what he lacks in size with his excellent skating ability and his heads up play in the offensive zone. His vision and playmaking abilities will lend themselves well to team Finland who will more than likely be the second-best team in their pool behind team Canada.

Playing a full season in Liiga is impressive as an 18-year-old and it’s allowed him to develop and build on his already impressive puck control and stickhandling abilities while playing against men. While he is considered an undersized player, that doesn’t stop him from getting to the tougher areas, especially in front of the net where he scores the majority of his goals. For Leafs fans, this is a player I would look to make flashy plays in the offensive zone, and to make smart defensive decisions in his own end.

Topi Niemelä

Last but not least is defenceman Topi Niemelä who will join his fellow prospects in Hirvonen and Kokkonen to play for Finland. Along with forward prospect Roni Hirvonen, Niemelä was drafted in 2020 by Toronto and will also get his first crack at World Junior hockey this holiday season. Just like Hirvonen, Niemelä played his previous season in Liiga only he played at the age of 17.

Niemelä’s biggest strengths are his offensive abilities and his skating. His speed allows him to maintain control of the puck during breakouts while his vision and puck control allow him to make clean breakout passes and effectively quarterback a power play. Even with his offensive strengths, Niemelä is no slouch when it comes to defensive reliability. He’s a defenceman that can play both ends of the ice and could quite easily become a player that Finland uses in tough matchups this winter. With these skills in mind, I’d expect Niemelä to get a good chance to show what he’s capable of for team Finland this year.

Finland is boasting a strong crop of skilled defencemen for this year’s tournament, so Niemelä will have to turn some heads early if he’s going to solidify himself as a top defencemen over the next week and a half.

Looking to the Future

The Maple Leafs are well represented at this year’s World Juniors tournament. Last year they had three players, whereas this year, Leafs fans will be able to watch six of their prospects perform this tournament. This crop of young talent should be a good glimpse into what the future will look like for the Maple Leafs as the preliminary round of the World Juniors tournament gets underway on Christmas Day.

Related Story. A Mitch Marner case study. light

Which prospect are you looking forward to watching at the world juniors? Who do you expect to win the tournament? Let us know in the comment below.