Amirov, Abramov And Hirvonen Among Maple Leaf Prospects To Watch At WJC

While the Toronto Maple Leafs don’t boast the league’s most elite prospect pool, general manager Kyle Dubas continues to build towards the future, perpetuating a culture of confidence and reliability while demonstrating an impressive ability to scout overseas.

Looking back on Toronto’s 2020 draft class, seven of the 12 players taken came from leagues scattered across Europe, a true testament to the strength of the Maple Leafs’ scouting department.

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With the World Junior Hockey Championships set to kick off on Friday, the Maple Leafs have six names participating in this year’s edition, split evenly between Russia and Finland. The upcoming tournament will draw the eyes of countless scouts and front office staff, as it will serve as an important stepping stone for a variety of players, as they move towards a future in the NHL.

So without further hesitation, here are the six players Leaf fans should keep a close eye on as they could one day, don the blue and white here in Toronto.

Rodion Amirov, LW/RW

Team Russia

First things first, let’s start with the obvious. After being selected 15th overall in this year’s draft, Rodion Amirov has gotten off to another impressive start, splitting time between the KHL and the VHL before joining Team Russia in North America. Playing a much more prominent role with Salavat Yulaev Ufa is a promising sign for Amirov, who continues to grow into a bigger role as the KHL season draws on.

Already poised to carry the majority of Russia’s offense responsibility, alongside Vancouver Canucks top prospect Vasily Podkolzin, Amirov will all but certainly find himself in every crucial in-game opportunity. Seeing a heavy dose of Canada’s top pairings in Russia’s only pre-tournament game is a prelude for what’s to come when Russia kicks off their tourney against the Americans on Friday night.

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There’s a simple reason as to why Amirov will be looked at as one of Russia’s top forwards. Possessing an elite skating ability as well as a knack for engaging in puck battles is one thing, but Amirov is also an above-average goal scorer featuring an excellent release and creative playmaking abilities. He brings energy and competitiveness to the Russian lineup, allowing him to contribute in all facets of the game.

Look for Amirov to be a major factor behind Russia’s success at the upcoming tournament, as he’ll be right up there amongst the world’s best junior hockey talent.

Mikhail Abramov, C/RW

Team Russia

Drafted in the fourth round in 2019, Abramov has continued to show signs of growth and improvement throughout his career in the QMJHL. Already registering well over a point-per-game during the 2019-20 season, Abramov has picked up right where he left off, scoring at a similar pace in 2020 (albeit with a much smaller sample size).

His impressive statline during this shortened season with the Victoriaville Tigres earned him a spot on Russia’s National Junior Team. Already having experience representing his country at the international level, finishing within the top 10 during the 2018 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, Abramov joins the team in Edmonton looking to prove that he has a future in the NHL.

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The Moscow native’s speed and playmaking ability would greatly benefit an already talented Russian roster. While his role with the team remains uncertain, Abramov saw time on Russia’s third line in the pre-tourney tune up against Canada, as head coach Igor Larionov hints at where Abramov could fit in.

Artur Akhtyamov, G

Team Russia

In the case of Toronto’s most intriguing Russian prospect, goaltender Artur Akhtyamov has settled in as a strong backup for Nashville Predators draft pick Yaroslav Askarov. Drafted in the fourth round of this year’s draft, Akhtyamov is off to a strong start with the VHL’s Bars Kazan.

Registering a .925 save percentage and a sparkling 1.58 GAA in eight VHL contests are promising numbers, despite the small sample size. Known for his impressive mobility and puck tracking skills, as well as his ability to challenge shooters from every angle, Akhtyamov was impressive after replacing Askarov in Wednesday’s game against Canada, allowing the lone goal to Jamie Drysdale.

While it’s unlikely that he sees any tournament action, as Askarov will all but certainly carry the responsibility between the pipes, Russia certainly has a more than capable backup should things go south.

Roni Hirvonen, C

Team Finland

While many Leaf fans cringed when Hirvonen was drafted, I said otherwise, noting it was another valuable pick from Kyle Dubas and company. So far this season, I haven’t been wrong. While his numbers with Ässät aren’t exactly spectacular, with just nine points in 21 games so far this year, it’s Hirvonen’s all around ability that will serve the Finns well when the tournament gets underway.

Jaakko Stenroos/AOP

Standing at just five-foot-nine, Hirvonen still manages to make a significant impact at both ends of the ice. Relying heavily on his two-way ability, Hirvonen is fantastic at hunting down loose pucks and engaging in puck battles. Using the cycle game to his advantage while finding open teammates regularly and holding his own physically, Hirvonen has a great opportunity to increase his NHL potential with a strong showing at the upcoming tournament.

Currently penciled in as Finland’s third-line centre, Hirvonen can certainly play at a level much higher than that. With the Finns already having Anton Lundell, who’s off to a scorching start already, the Maple Leafs latest second-round pick could find himself in high leverage situations and create a dynamic one-two punch with Lundell.

Topi Niemela, D

Team Finland

Entering his second season in the Finnish Elite League (Liiga), Niemela has also had more of an opportunity since being drafted. Finishing the 2019-20 season with seven points in 43 games, Niemela is nearly halfway there, registering three points in nine games this season.

While the Finns have plenty of depth and experience on the blueline, with the likes of Ville Heinola and Mikko Kokkonen returning from last year, Niemela only adds to that dynamic mix with his intelligent skill set and defensive reliability.

Mikko Pylkkö

Niemela relies heavily on his defensive awareness in order to remain effective. He’s incredibly smart with the puck and uses his speed and mobility to break out quickly and distribute the puck to his teammates. A quick decision-maker with great positioning, Niemla could become a fixture on Finland’s penalty killing unit and will likely slot in on their second pairing.

Mikko Kokkonen, D

Team Finland

Another player looking to augment his value within the organization is Mikko Kokkonen, one of three returning defensemen from last year’s junior team. Now sporting a fancy ‘A’ this time around, Kokkonen will look to remain a reliable option within Finland’s top-four and could matchup against the top lines from other nations.

Mikko Kankainen/kankainen.org

For Kokkonen specifically, his defensive mentality makes him incredibly effective in any high leverage situation. Possessing a quick release from the point, Kokkonen is an excellent distributor and brings a lot of speed to Finland’s transition game. While putting up average offensive numbers, Kokkonen will likely join Niemela on Finland’s penalty killing unit and should play a crucial defensive role for the Finns.

Maple Leafs Have Many Headlines At WJC

With the World Juniors kicking off on Friday, the Toronto Maple Leafs will be paying close attention.

From a Russian standpoint, Rodion Amirov and Mikhail Abramov will look to improve their already excellent offensive abilities, while Artur Akhtyamov will look to be the reliable and consistent backup that Russia needs.

Looking ahead for Finland, Roni Hirvonen could be an asset behind Anton Lundell, with Topi Niemela and Mikko Kokkonen playing instrumental roles in the Finnish defensive strategy.

Regardless, the Maple Leafs have plenty of assets to monitor in Edmonton, and with the tournament being a great opportunity for players to increase their draft stock, it’s truly an exciting time for Leaf fans everywhere.

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