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Saturday FTB: Thinking about a good, young, home-grown defense core

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What strange new world may the Leafs be living in come 4 years time?

Anaheim Ducks v Toronto Maple Leafs Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

Is it weird to think that, in maybe 3-4 years time, the Leafs might have an actually decent group of defense that are mostly guys they drafted and developed themselves? It’s been so long since you could say that about the Leafs. In their current iteration of success, they had guys like Hainsey, Gardiner, Barrie, Ceci, Polak, Marincin, Carrick, Muzzin, and others that they traded for or signed as free agents.

But in another seasons, the Leafs will have guys like Jake Muzzin and Troy Brodie coming off of expired deals — if they make it that long still on the Leafs, mind you. Morgan Rielly may or may not still be around, but I’d bet on him still being here.

Then the Leafs have two first round picks on the door to the NHL right now, in Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren. In three to four seasons, they will likely be in the NHL full time. Maybe not on the Leafs, but again I’d put the odds on them being with the team.

And now there’s a new wave coming, this one from Liljegren and Sandin’s country of origin’s next door neighbour.

Mikko Kokkonen and Topi Niemela are fascinating defensemen. Neither will put up a lot of points, but both have earned reputations as solid all-round defenders. Niemela probably has the higher ceiling of the two. I thought he’d wind up a borderline 1st rounder — Bob McKenzie’s rankings even had him 38th, and he was a guy who seemed to be well ranked by both public scouts and NHL people. Getting him in the third round at 64th overall was a steal.

Mikko Kokkonen went a bit later in the third round in 2019, taken 84th overall. But like Niemela, he fell a bit as well. Bob McKenzie had him 67th overall in his final 2019 rankings. So both he and Niemela were defensively sound, but capable of moving the puck, and played their full draft season in the Liiga — something that is a bit of a rare feat. They didn’t have gaudy point totals, but likely wouldn’t when playing against men as 17/18 year olds in limited minutes.

This year, they’re each getting more of a role. Kokkonen is Jukurit’s clear #1 defenseman. He leads the team in TOI per game with 21:14, ahead of fellow Leafs’ prospect Axel Rindell who has 21:05 TOI per game but is also a year older. But Kokkonen plays on the PK and a lot of even strength minutes to help drive his team’s possession. When Kokkonen is on the ice, he has a team-best CF% 49.8%. That may not seem great, but consider that the team as a whole is dead last in Liiga in CF% with 41.5%.

You can see how important Kokkonen is to his team in this chart made by Josh Simpson (data was taken before Kokkonen’s game on Friday) in his profile of Kokkonen’s season so far:

Topi Niemela plays for a better team, albeit in not as important of a role. He’s averaged 14:22 TOI per game, good for fourth on Karpat among defensemen. However, among all Karpat players who have played in more than one game, Niemela also leads the team in CF% with 64.1%.

I am just genuinely hopeful, without seeming way unrealistic, that in four years the Leafs could have Morgan Rielly, Travis Dermott, Sandin and Liljegren making up the top four, with Kokkonen and Niemela starting to hold down third pairing spots. And outside of them, longer shots in guys like William Villeneuve, Filip Kral, Axel Rindell, and Kalle Loponen maybe filling in for injuries or trades.

The truth is that they won’t all turn out like we hope. Maybe Liljegren can’t really cut it outside of the third pair. Maybe Kokkonen’s skating doesn’t hold up in the NHL. Maybe Niemela can’t be better than bit of a defensive transition specialist as well.

But maybe they’ll get injured and wind up like Stuart Percy (who I saw today is playing in the Liiga this year) or Andrew Nielsen, who is apparently playing in Austria now “after many successful seasons in the AHL”.

Prospects will break your heart, man.

ONTO THE LINKS

TLN Prospect Rankings: The Honourable Mentions | by Nick DeSouza at TLN

In other prospect news, Mikhail Abramov will be back in action in a week. Victoriaville was one of the teams in the QMJHL who hasn’t played since their areas in Quebec due to the pandemic hot zones. Now, the QMJHL is having them and other teams go to a temporary bubble to catch up in games to the Maritime teams.

DGB Grab Bag: Offseason winners and losers, Pavel Bure and a perfect goalie | by Down Goes Brown

What science says about COVID-19 and bodychecking in hockey | by Emily Sadler at Sportsnet.ca

NHL teams playing in home cities gaining steam to start 2021 season | by Frank Seravelli

Ottawa Senators sign forward Micheal Haley to one-year, two-way contract | by NHL.com

Fun with hockey in Europe:

Have a great weekend!