Seventeen people voted in the PPP Top 25 Under 25 this year, and only one of them cast a vote for Teemu Kivihalme. Will Scouch (@Scouching) is less dumb than the rest of us.
It’s always very difficult to rank a player like Kivihalme, who is older than most prospects, is a brand-new free agent signing, and was drafted and then not signed. Much like Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman before him, the fact he’s a defenceman just makes it harder because looking at points is pointless for evaluation.
But we likely should have had him on all our lists because, short of Nick Robertson, he was the standout at the Traverse City Prospects tournament. An argument can be made that both Ian Scott and Semyon Der-Arguchintsev were ahead of him, and Mac Hollowell, who played all his games with Kivihalme, was also good. But Kivihalme looked like the pro hockey player he is, ahead of Egor Korshkov and most of the players who have at least one year on the Growlers or the Marlies.
Nick Robertson led the @MapleLeafs— Todd Crocker (@HockeyCrock) September 11, 2019
in scoring at the Prospects Tournament with 4 goals (2 ppg, 1 gwg), 1 assist in 3 games, Teemu Kivihalme played 2 games, 3 goals (1 ppg), 1 assist.
In an intermission interview on the last day of Traverse City, when the Leafs were icing their invites and AHLers, Todd Crocker said something we should all remember ahead of training camp: A player can look great in a prospect game against his peers, and suddenly be just average when the main camp gets underway. Compounding that for Kivihalme is that fact that he wasn’t playing against or with his peers. He was a bit of a ringer as the oldest player on the team, and likely one of the oldest in the tournament.
Once he’s at the real Maple Leafs training camp, we’ll get a better handle on him, but it’s still obvious he’s got to be ranked in the mix of players on the Top 25 who could become NHLers and are already close to that level.
The issue with deciding how to rank Kivihalme for most voters was that the only thing we really had to go on was a comparison to Jesper Lindgren, who got two 25-place votes this year. Lindgren is a player that the Leafs seem to like more than the fans. He played in the Liiga in Finland the last two years, just like Kivihalme, and played a similar role as second pairing defenders. Lindgren was on the championship team last season, beating Kivihlame’s in the final. And after Lindgren’s season was over, he joined the Marlies and played four playoff games.
Last season in the Liiga, the top defender by Corsi % who played a meaningful number of games, was Teemu Eronen with 59%. In the Liiga, the gulf between very good Corsi players or teams and very poor ones is wide. Results in the 60% range aren’t shocking. Eronen is a 28-year-old veteran who used to play for Jokerit before they moved to the KHL, so he’s a very experienced player. Jesper Lindgren was second with 58% and Teemu Kivihalme was in the top 10 with 56%.
In 2017-2018, when both of them were rookies, Lindgren was not a force at driving play and had a very tenuous grasp on his second pairing job. Kivihalme was at 52% and shared second pairing duties with some others as well. He also had a lot of points in his rookie year, racking up assists on the top team in the league. He won the championship that year.
Kivihalme is two years older than Lindgren, so it was reasonable to chalk up his faster acclimatization to the Liiga to his lack of language barrier (I assume he speaks Finnish) and his age.
Meanwhile back in Traverse City, no one came away impressed by Jesper Lindgren. But he’s got an ELC and a job on the Marlies that’s clearly defined for him. He’s bumping his head on fellow-righty Timothy Liljegren, and he’s got to outplay Mac Hollowell and Joey Duszak. He wasn’t competing for anything at Traverse City. Training camp might be a different story for him, and we’ll get a more realistic look at how he does compare to Kivihalme.
That’s our excuses for not ranking Kivihalme. Let’s get to know him a little better now.
Learning the systems & style of play.— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) September 7, 2019
Catch up with Teemu Kivihalme in Traverse City. pic.twitter.com/34fl58jvn9
- Age: 24
- Position: D
- Shoots: Left
- Height: 6’0”
- Weight: 181 lbs.
- Acquired: 2019 free agent (was drafted 140th overall in 2013, and never signed by Nashville)
- 2018/19 Team: Kärpät, Liiga, Finland
Kivihalme is a small, mobile, puck moving defender (imagine that, eh?) who plays well on the power play, and has an aggressive side in the offensive zone. He was born in Minnesota, while his father Janne was playing in the NCAA at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. Janne Kivihalme finished college hockey and a few years later became the assistant coach at Minnetonka High where he coached Jake Gardiner. He later became the head coach of Burnsville High, also in Minnesota, the team that launched Brock Boeser into the world.
Teemu played for his father’s team, was the captain in his last year, and then moved up to the USHL for a year. He played three years in the NCAA at a school that is neither bad nor very good, and then left for his two very successful years in Finland.
At 24, he was only eligible for a one-year ELC when signed by the Leafs, and the expectation was he would play that year on the Marlies, where the competition for spots on the left side is a little easier. Once you get below Rasmus Sandin, that is. After him, there’s Kevin Gravel, and some AHL-contracted players.
Now we have to ask what happens if Kivihalme is still good and not just average when he’s playing in the Leafs training camp scrimmages and games?
With Travis Dermott out (although he’s skating and shooting on his own already), there seems to be a left-side opening on the Leafs. The contestants are Martin Marincin, who is well understood by everyone including the coaches, Ben Harpur, who was terrible in Ottawa, but will get a fair chance in Toronto, and the aforementioned Gravel.
Kivihalme’s problem is he’s the only waiver exempt player in the mix. That might seal his fate in advance, and if the choice is the Marlies as the number three defender or the Leafs press box, he’s better off in the minors.
The best guess is that the best pair in Traverse City, Kivihalme and Hollowell, will grab the second pair on the Marlies. Lindgren might bump Hollowell, or share the duties as well, but Kivihalme could be the most likely to be called up to the NHL. Right now he seems like he’s more Calle Rosen than Kevin Gravel, but he’s still got to do it when it counts, with the NHL players on an NHL team. He is 24. His clock is ticking.
Kivihalme has made a great start as a Maple Leaf, and proved our voters were likely wrong to ignore him, but now the real test begins.
Kivihalme picks the pocket and finds the five-hole. pic.twitter.com/Bh6Ubmqjhe— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) September 9, 2019
Teemu Kivihalme’s point shot gets through traffic and he’s got two tonight.— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) September 9, 2019
We’re tied 4-4 to start the third in Traverse City. pic.twitter.com/dsPK1AVAt7