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HomeSportsAnalysis | Hayley Wickenheiser rates the Leafs’ world junior prospects: the sniper,...

Analysis | Hayley Wickenheiser rates the Leafs’ world junior prospects: the sniper, the straw and the surfer dude

EDMONTON—At the end of the preliminary round of the world junior hockey championship, Maple Leafs prospect Topi Niemelä seemed a little down on himself.

It wasn’t that Finland had just lost to Canada. He just didn’t feel like he was playing well.

“I need to be better,” he said, “at everything.”

From that point forward, he was.

The 20-year-old defenceman was a factor in Finland’s quarterfinal win over Germany, playing a team-high 24 minutes and 25 seconds. And he set up the only goal in a 1-0 win over Sweden in the semifinals, again leading his team in ice time (21:55).

“It’s fun to go play when you know you’re playing well,” he said.

In Saturday night’s gold-medal game against the Canadians, he set up the tying goal that forced overtime and almost scored the winner. Only Mason McTavish’s miraculous stickwork saved the home team, turning the play the other way for Kent Johnson’s golden goal.

Niemelä was understandably down after that, but still summed up his tournament: “I played better the last three games.”

He was one of three Leafs prospects that assistant general manager Hayley Wickenheiser kept an eye on in Edmonton, along with Niemelä’s teammate Roni Hirvonen and American Matt Knies.

Wickenheiser got to know Hirvonen and Niemelä, also friends off the ice, in July. They were at the Leafs’ Ford Performance Centre practice facility a week before the rest of the prospects, then flew home to Finland for world junior camp.

“I find that (Hirvonen) is very dialed into every area of his game,” said Wickenheiser. “He’s asking questions about off-ice training, and what are the standards you want. We’re just trying to maximize pretty much every aspect of his game. He’s very focused and very driven.

“Topi is a little bit more of a — I call it a surfer-like mentality, freewheeling. He’s just a little bit more easygoing. And Roni really fits the stereotype that we think of when we think of Finns in hockey. It takes all kinds. They’re both different, but that’s a nice thing within a team mix.”

All three are expected to be in Toronto in September for the start of Leafs camp, though none are expected to make the team this coming season. Knies, from the University of Minnesota, will probably be on hand the least. College players have limits on time spent in professional club environments.

Scouts traditionally warn that summer hockey is rarely the best time to judge a prospect’s progress, but there can be tells.

“It’s a snapshot in time,” said Wickenheiser. “We evaluate everything on the greater body of the work.”

Here’s a closer look at her take on the prospects:

Matt Knies

The six-foot-three, 205-pound left-winger from the University of Minnesota got off to a slow start at the world juniors and finished with three assists in five games. His best game was the last one, a shocking 4-2 loss to the Czechs in the quarterfinals.

Wickenheiser “I thought he played physical and his line was quite good. A snapshot of (a few) games, that’s not really much to say, but (overall) it highlights what he’s very good at — which is his shot, his physical presence and his ability to make plays. (He has to) continue with his skating development and take this bitter loss into the season, to fuel him for what he has to do to be able to improve.”

Roni Hirvonen

The Finnish captain from HIFK Helsinki does seem to be the straw that stirs the drink. He played left wing on the top line in Edmonton and had three goals and four assists.

Wickenheiser “He certainly is showing a lot of leadership, and I think his ability to be hard to play against. There’s nothing real flashy about his game. He makes plays, he can distribute the puck and he’s not afraid to get into battles. He created some turnovers in the tournament that resulted in goals, and he’s a good leader for them. He, of the three, is probably the most well-rounded at this point.”

Topi Niemelä

He plays for Karpat of Finland’s top league and sees himself in the Erik Karlsson mould: a puck distributor who can skate. He kills penalties and quarterbacks the power play. He had six assists at the world juniors, among the tournament leaders.

Wickenheiser “On the first goal (in the semifinals against Sweden) he made a simple play. He was out there for a key blocked shot on a five-on-three (killing penalties). It seems like the coaching staff trusts him. From what I’ve seen in the tournament, he certainly can move the puck. He’s good across the blue line. The challenge for him will be to round out those areas of his game that are going to make him an effective player at the NHL level. So, being able to stop plays early, to play in contact, in front of the net, things like that.”


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