The World Junior Hockey Championships have become a Boxing Day tradition in this country, as the best young players from the top hockey nations take to the ice to represent their countries and Canadians from coast-to-coast tune in expecting our side to play for gold year-in and year-out.
While that will surely be the case again this year and everyone from Tofino to St. John’s will be cheering for the team with the Maple Leaf on their chest, fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs might will be paying attention to a little more than just Team Canada.
Toronto’s first-round picks from each of the last two seasons are expected to be stars in this tournament, with 2015 fourth-overall selection Mitch Marner and 2014 eighth-overall pick William Nylander will skate on the top line for Canada and Sweden, respectively. Within the next couple season, those two will be expected to be the top two centers for the Maple Leafs.
So far this year, both are continuing to impress at their respective levels, with Marner sitting third (behind London Knight teammates Christian Dvorak and Matthew Tkachuk) in OHL scoring and Nylander leading the AHL with 34 points in 27 games, giving the long-suffering Toronto fans something positive to look forward to in the future.
On top of those two, there are some other up-and-comers hitting the ice that are worth watching for Leafs fans in this competition.
Kasperi Kapanen was a first-round pick and the centerpiece of the Phil Kessel deal during the summer. He’s got 10 points in just 17 games this season with the Toronto Marlies, which is solid, but not spectacular and highlights that he’s ben injured and inconsistent so far in 2015. Kapanen will be counted on to be one of the leaders of Finland’s team at this tournament and a strong showing at the World Juniors could position him for an excellent 2016 run in the AHL once he comes back.
Defensemen Travis Dermott was a second-round selection (34th overall) in last year’s draft after a strong offensive season playing with Connor McDavid and Team Canada teammate Dylan Strome in Erie. His numbers are comparable this season, even without McDavid, and Dermott could be counted on to have an impact on the power play from the blue line in this tournament.
Jake Gardiner and Morgan Rielly lead the Leafs’ current crop of youngsters on the back end, with Frank Corrado and Martin Marincin getting an audition to join that group this season, and Dermott has the potential to partner with that bunch to make a strong unit in the next couple seasons.
Lastly – and perhaps most intriguing of all – is Dmytro Timashov, a fifth-round pick in 2015 who potted 90 points in 66 games last season for the Quebec Remparts and has tallied 53 points in 29 in “The Q” so far this year. That kind of offensive production is hard to overlook and despite not being as hyped a prospect as the others on this list, Timashov has the potential to really breakout in this tournament, especially if he lines up with Nylander on Sweden’s top line.
There are other teams that will have several of their top prospects on the ice in Helsinki when the tournament kicks off on December 26 – and there will be a bunch of draft-eligible youngsters to watch as well – but with Toronto in Year One of its rebuild and two players deemed essential to their future success in the spotlight, you can be sure we’ll be hearing a lot about Nylander, Marner and the other future Maple Leafs all the way through the competition.