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Maple Leafs sending five prospects to world juniors bodes well for team's future

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TORONTO - Mitch Marner and William Nylander are two of the biggest names at this year's world junior hockey championship, and Mark Hunter hopes that means good things for the future of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Toronto is sending five prospects to the international tournament from junior and minor leagues. Hunter, the Maple Leafs' director of player personnel, thinks that bodes well for the team in the long run.

Marner, the fourth-overall pick in 2015, and defenceman Travis Dermott will be playing for Canada, while forwards Nylander and Dmytro Timashov will represent Sweden and winger Kasperi Kapanen will don the blue-and-white jersey of host Finland.

"I think it's great for the organization," said Hunter on a conference call Monday morning. "It's not just what's important to the five guys who will hopefully be impact players on their teams. I think it's really important.

"I think over the years if you've seen these players who had big world juniors they've also done very well in the National Hockey League for years to come."

All five players are thriving in major junior or the American Hockey League, but Hunter thinks they can refine their games even more at the world junior championship.

"I think it's an experience and the hype and the emotion that you're going to get in the National Hockey League is what these players will get from (the world juniors)," said Hunter. "I think it's important to feel that emotion and I think it's such a hyped-up tournament.

"Of course, the other side is in the competition. The competition is the best in the world at that age. To be one of the best in that tournament, as a player and as a team, it's important to their career."

Marner was taken fourth overall in the 2015 NHL draft and is third in the Ontario Hockey League's point race with 22 goals and 36 assists in 25 games for the London Knights. Dermott was taken in the second round, 34th overall, in the 2015 draft. He has two goals, 25 assists and a plus-21 rating after 29 games with the OHL's Erie Otters.

The Maple Leafs have not had multiple prospects on Canada's junior team since 2003, when they had five.

Nylander leads the American Hockey League with 14 goals and 20 assists in 27 games for the Toronto Marlies, while Kapanen has five goals and five assists in 17 games.

As professional players, Nylander and Kapanen had to be given permission by the Maple Leafs to join their respective national teams.

"The tournament's important to us. I think it's a stage where you see players start to blossom," said Hunter, who is co-owner and vice-president of the Knights. "An example, which is a little to closer where I'm from, (former London player) Max Domi last year. I thought he blossomed and showed the world how good he really is.

"I'm expecting that from both those boys. I think they can have a great tournament and show the hockey world how good they can be."

Timashov is sixth in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's points race with 18 goals and 35 assists in 29 games for the Quebec Remparts.

"I'm really interested in how he does," said Hunter of Timashov. "I think he could be the sleeper of the bunch in this tournament that surprises a lot of people."

Canada plays Sweden on Wednesday in a pre-competition exhibition game that will see Marner and Dermott square off against Nylander and Timashov.

Canada and Sweden will meet again on Dec. 31 in the final game of the tournament's preliminary round.

"It's going to be fun to watch, that's what it's all about," said Hunter, who will travel to Helsinki, Finland, to watch the tournament in person. "It's going to be a good game that I'm going to enjoy watching."

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