The Maple Leafs had an impressive five prospects in the recently-concluded 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in Helsinki, Finland. And, even more impressive, one of them – Marlies winger Kasperi Kapanen
– scored the gold-medal-winning goal for his native Finland in front of delirious countrymen. In many ways – aside from the injury to Swedish center William Nylander
that sidelined him for much of the action – the tournament couldn’t have gone better for Toronto’s group of youngsters.
The biggest, best impression from that group of Buds prospects arguably came from Swedish forward Dmytro Timashov, who opened eyes across the hockey world with his two-goal, seven-point performance for the fourth-place Swedes. Timashov – who after the tournament was traded from his QMJHL Quebec Remparts team to the Shawinigan Cataractes – was labeled a sleeper pick of Maple Leafs director of player personnel Mark Hunter prior to the holiday action, and he more than lived up to that label.
“People have noticed how good he is,” Hunter said Tuesday on a media conference call. “I don’t think he was getting recognition. Now I think people see he’s a good prospect for the Leafs. The sky’s the limit and he’s got more room to grow as a player, but he sure showed his ability and talent in this tournament.”
Asked what elements of Timashov’s game impressed him most at the WJC, Hunter spoke of the 19-year-old’s elite playmaking abilities.
“He’s a superb passer,” Hunter said. “He made some elite passes in that tournament where you go, ‘Wow, that’s pretty special.’ And I think he did that consistently, where sometimes (when it comes to) young players, consistency is a problem. Consistently, he was one of the better players for Sweden in this tournament.”
As for Nylander, who was knocked out of the tournament after being injured in a Dec. 26 game against Switzerland, Hunter said the 19-year-old – the leading scorer with the Marlies and the AHL’s top point-getter prior to the holiday break – would return to Toronto to be examined by team doctors before moving forward.
Two of the Leafs’ other top prospects at the WJC – forward Mitch Marner and defenseman Travis Dermott – were part of a disappointing showing from Team Canada. That said, Marner led Canada with four goals and six points, while Dermott chipped in two assists.
“We all see Mitch (and) we all know he needs strength,” Hunter said. “I said that before the tournament and I said that after the tournament. He’s got to address getting stronger. He’s a driven young man and he will.
“I thought he pushed it some times and then he got himself into problems with longer shifts, and a few things that showed some immaturity in his game, but I thought when the game was on the line, he brought another level and was very good. (From) that standpoint, we’re excited about him of course because of what he can do in big games.”
Dermott, who wasn’t a lock to make Team Canada prior to the tournament, chipped in a pair of assists and experienced high-pressure competition at lightning speed.
“Travis has got to make sure he just keeps his pace going and keep improving and making sure he’s doing things faster,” Hunter said. “It’s so fast in the National Hockey League and it’s fast in the American League so I think Travis and all young players have to work at it.”
Of course, Kapanen – acquired in the off-season trade that sent Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh – grabbed the spotlight at the end of the WJC with his thrilling, wraparound overtime goal against the Russians that won gold for the host Finns. Hunter believes the 19-year-old’s time playing against veteran, much older men in the AHL gave him a leg up on the competition in Helsinki.
“Him playing against older players, I think it advanced his play here,” Hunter said of Kapanen, who finished the WJC with five points in seven games. “It helped him out to be more ready for this tournament.”