With five Maple Leafs prospects scheduled to represent their countries at the 2016 IIHF World Junior Championship in Helsinki, Finland, the organization will have plenty of management members turning their attention to the annual showcase of the planet’s best young talent. And one of those management members – Director of Player Personnel Mark Hunter – spoke to media Monday to provide his perspective on Toronto’s players who’ll be in the world’s spotlight.
Two youngsters in the Leafs’ system – forward Mitch Marner and defenceman Travis Dermott – will compete for Team Canada; forwards William Nylander and Dmytro Timashov will play for Sweden, and forward Kasperi Kapanen will represent the host Finns. And Hunter believes all of them will benefit from the massive stage they’ll be on during the tournament, which runs from Dec. 26-Jan. 5.
“I think it’s the experience and the hype, the emotion that you’re going to get in the National Hockey League,” Hunter said in describing what the World Junior tournament offers to competitors. “It’s important to feel that emotion. And the other side is the competition. The competition is the best in the world at that age, and to be one of the best in that tournament as a player and as a team, it’s important to their career.”
Hunter noted that he expects this year’s WJC to be a big tournament for the 19-year-old Nylander – who has been leading the American Hockey League in scoring with the Toronto Marlies – and believes there’s room for his game to grow in order to excel as a centreman.
“He's still learning the position and making sure every face-off is a big face-off,” Hunter said of Nylander. “And making sure the whole game he’s doing what he has to do to get up and down the ice. It’s more work. And he’s learning that process. He’s thriving (in the AHL) points-wise because he has the puck more."
Hunter added that the 19-year-old Timashov, who leads the Quebec Major Junior League’s Quebec Remparts in scoring, “could be the sleeper of the bunch that surprises a lot of people.”
When it comes to Marner, Hunter isn’t sure where the 18-year-old is in Team Canada’s deep and talented pecking order, but said, “it still looks good for him”. That said, the Leafs know the London Knights phenom will have to fill out physically to have an impact at the NHL level.
“He’s got to get physically stronger,” Hunter said of Marner. “I think we all know that, I think he knows that. I think over time right now, at the start he’ll be a wing, but I think he’s very capable of playing centre. He works hard at both ends of the ice, he’s got a very good work ethic, I just think he needs more strength.”
As for Dermott – who wasn’t a shoo-in to make the Canadian squad – Hunter believes the 18-year-old’s growth and success with Erie of the Ontario Hockey League this season is a good harbinger for his future as an NHL blueliner.
“He’s a young man that’s leading their team in Erie, and he plays every other shift,” Hunter said. “I think the growth of him to understand how to play every game that you know you’re going to get 30 minutes is important. We’re hoping someday that he’ll be a top-4 defenceman for the Leafs, and all top-4 defencemen play 25 minutes. So I see that growth in him that he’s doing that at the Jr. A level, and their team is winning. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how he’s handled the ice time.”
Kapanen, Nylander, Marner and all of Toronto’s prospects will face pressure to produce on an individual and team level in Helsinki, but Hunter said it’s that high-stakes environment that allows elite young players to take the next step in their evolution. And the fact the Leafs have five players who’ll be in that position is a major positive for the franchise.
“It’s great for the organization,” Hunter said. “The five guys should hopefully be impact players on their team, but only time should tell. I think (the WJC is) really important. Over the years, the guys that’ve had big World Juniors have done really well at the National Hockey League (level) for years to come. It’s going to be fun to watch.”