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Topi Niemelä is having a breakout offensive year and we need to talk about it

Niemelä is scoring at a rate no U20 defensmen in the Liiga has before, but what does that mean?

United States v Finland: Semifinals - 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

Topi Niemelä was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2020 at 64th overall, right at the start of the third round. They had traded down with their second round pick so they could draft both Roni Hirvonen, another Finnish prospect, and Niemelä.

And right now, he is having a massive offensive breakout in Finland’s pro league that is almost unprecedented for his age. I think it’s time we start talking about it.

First, Some Background and Context

Niemelä was always an interesting prospect for me. 2020 was the first draft I started really paying attention to draft prospects before the draft happened — the pandemic helped with that. I never watched any of his games, but everything I read sounded intriguing. I didn’t wind up writing a profile about him like I did with others, because the draft rankings I had seen almost all had him being off the board a good chunk before the Leafs’ pick before they even traded down. I thought he was supposed to be a borderline first round pick. In hindsight, I know more about how to read draft rankings, so it’s not that surprising.

Niemelä is small (still listed as 5’11” and 165 lbs), but played his whole draft season in the Finnish pro league, the Liiga. That in and of itself is impressive for a Finnish prospect in their U18 season. For his size, you’d think that means he’s an offensive star as a defenseman, but that wasn’t the case. He only had one goal and seven points in 43 games, and everything said about him was that it was his surprising defense and two-way play that helped him stick in the Liiga so early. He had very good and aggressive gap control in the neutral zone to snuff out transition attempts by the other team before they could ever get into Niemelä’s defensive zone.

When I wrote about Niemelä after he was drafted, I said he’ll likely never be a big offensive contributor in terms of points. He may get a fair amount, but it will come from being good at keeping the puck pushing towards offense and moving the puck up the ice. When his D+1 season came around, none of that seemed to change. He returned to the Liiga, where he had 4 points in 15 games — a combination of the pandemic, joining Team Finland at the World Juniors, and an injury prevented him from playing in a normal amount of games.

But it was at the World Juniors that we got our first glimpse of the offensive potential Niemelä had not shown before. He won the award for best defenseman of the tournament, thanks to having 8 points in only 7 games. Let me be clear: he was not the best defenseman in the tournament, he wasn’t even the best defenseman on his team — that was Ville Heinola. But it was still a breakout performance for him, and to tie it back to his offensive breakout, Niemelä won the award because he had the most points for all defensemen. More than top defensive prospects like Heinola, Cameron York, Bowen Byram, and Victor Söderström — all top first round picks and one year older than Niemelä.

Niemelä followed that up by tying for most points by a defenseman at the World Junior Summer Showcase tournament, against Sweden and a split squad of Team USA. So it became clear going into this season that he was hinting at greater offensive potential than he may have been credited for.

How Good Has Niemelä Been This Season?

So far this season, Topi Niemelä has 3 goals and 16 total points in 18 games. He is actually tied for the 3rd most points in the whole Liiga, regardless of age. He is tops for defenseman of all ages. That is obviously very, very good. Especially for a defenseman who wasn’t supposed to be that good offensively.

But how good is it, considering his age? Niemelä is still just 19 in his D+2 season, making him an U20 player. You can sort by position and age for Liiga stats going back forever. I checked back on the past 20 years worth of Liiga seasons for the highest point per game pace (minimum 10 games played) for U20 defensemen.

Simply put, Topi Niemelä is having a potentially record breaking season. His 0.89 point per game pace is well ahead of the next closest U20 Finnish defensemen:

  • Miro Heiskanen: 23 points in 30 games (0.77) — as an 18 year old
  • Ville Heinola: 14 points in 19 games (0.74)
  • Ville Lajunen: 12 points in 19 games (0.63)
  • Sami Vatanen: 31 points in 52 games (0.60)
  • Joni Pitkänen: 20 points in 35 games (0.57)
  • Oskari Laaksonen: 24 points in 46 games (0.52)
  • Olli Juolevi: 19 points in 38 games (0.50)
  • Ville Pokka: 27 points in 54 games (0.50)
  • Axel Rindell: 22 points in 47 games (0.47)

At his current rate, Niemelä will blow right past Sami Vatanen’s 31 point season. And that is not driven entirely by the powerplay or luck, either. He is tied for the fifth most powerplay points with five, but that is equal to or less than all the players with as many or more points than him.

But that does touch on what has Niemelä has had going for him this year. He has been playing a much bigger role for his Liiga team, often playing on their top pair. He’s played on the penalty kill, on the powerplay, and in crunch time when they are protecting a lead or trying to tie the game. He had no powerplay points at all his first two seasons, but he did play on the second unit at the World Juniors. Getting more minutes and powerplay time will help any player get more points.

He can get some assists just doing something like this:

On the other hand, you can see elements to his offensive game that you certainly didn’t in his first season. He shows a much more dynamic and aggressive element to his offense, which perhaps is not that surprising. If he made the Liiga as a 17 year old on the basis of his defense, he was likely asked or deliberately playing safe offensively. Not trying anything risky or aggressive in case he messed up or had a “big mistake” that is often held against offensive defensemen.

But now that he is two years older and one of his team’s top defensemen in all situations, he’s been let loose. He’ll jump up into plays. He’ll try more difficult passes. He’ll seek out offensive opportunities, and he’ll be given offensive opportunities.

Here’s a goal he scored earlier on the same day I am writing this. He snuck deeeeeep in from the point to take a backdoor pass for the tap in.

And this isn’t a rare thing. Only a few shifts later, Niemelä did the same thing — snuck in from the point with almost perfect timing, and got another scoring opportunity that also created a scoring opportunity for a teammate on the rebound. He’s #7 in black that gets the turn around shot.

Here he is using his skating and movement to get deeper into the offensive zone, then fire a high difficulty pass across the ice, back across his body, for a great scoring chance and goal during last year’s playoffs:

It’s not just in the offensive zone that he takes more risks to push the play aggressively and create offensive chances. Here’s a goal he scored at the World Junior Summer Showcase tournament. He starts with the puck behind his net and winds up outskating everyone to create a 3 on 1 and score off the rebound.

Here he is this season jumping into the play as a trailer option for one of his three goals. He turns a 2 on 2 into a 3 on 2 thanks to his skating letting him pull ahead of the guy supposed to be guarding him.

Niemelä’s Season in Context

This all obviously fantastic news. Having Niemelä develop a strong offensive game and legit powerplay quarterback ability will only help his chances of becoming an impact NHL defenseman. He won’t have to rely solely on his defense, which was always going to be tougher considering his size even if he has all the other tools (skating, gap control, stick work, instincts, awareness, etc).

However, I do feel the need to throw some cold water on the hype that Niemelä is creating with the start to his season. If you are wondering if this makes Niemelä an elite, top defensive prospect in hockey then I want to point out a few bits of context to keep in mind.

First, if you look at the whole list of defensemen who had the highest points per game in their U20 season, you will not find a lot of NHLers.

In fact, if you take the top three of each of the last 20 years — so 60 total defensemen — only 15 of them have ever played a single NHL game. Only six of them have ever played more than 100 NHL games.

  • Rasmus Ristolainen
  • Joni Pitkänen
  • Sami Vatanen
  • Miro Heiskanen
  • Sami Lepistö
  • Ville Koistinen

Five more (Heinola, Juolevi, Niku, Riikola, Hakanpää) are young enough and still in the NHL that they have good chances to make that 10.

Now I come to the question of quality. Of these 11 defensemen who, how many would you say are/were/will be impact defensemen in the NHL?

Joni Pitkänen had a solid NHL career for 535 games across 9 seasons, topping 40 points in three different seasons. Sami Vatanen has been similar as far as being good, but not elite. I doubt many of you know or remember Lepistö or Koistinen (I sure didn’t). Ristolainen may have the most NHL games of the lot, but he also may be one of the worst NHL defensemen to play as much as he has. Of the five youngsters who are on pace to pass 100 games, only Heinola still seems to have the potential to be a top pair defenseman.

That leaves Heiskanen and maybe Heinola as the only real elite-potential player out of all of these names. In one sense, that doesn’t paint a rosy picture for Niemelä. Just because you’re an elite offensive producer as an U20 defensemen in the Liiga, doesn’t mean you have good odds of being an impact NHL defenseman.

What Does Any of This Mean?

On one hand, Niemelä is doing something that has never been done before for his age in the Finnish Liiga. On the other, there haven’t been that many U20 defensemen of quality that turned into impact NHLers. It’s hard to draw a lot of firm meaning from something that is unprecedented. But it is only a good thing that he is doing something potentially historic.

It’s also worth noting that past top-level Finnish prospects who were defenseman may just not have ever really been in Liiga in their U20 season. Heiskanen had his 0.77 point per game season in his D+1 season as an 18 year old, one year younger than Niemelä’s. He jumped to the NHL as a 19 year old and never looked back. Ville Heinola did get into 8 NHL games and another 3 AHL games during the pandemic-shortened 2019/20 season, then another 5 NHL games and 19 AHL games last year.

Joni Pitkanen had his good U20 season as a year older, 19 year sold, but the next season he jumped right onto the Flyers for the full season. Sami Vatanen had one more Liiga season at 20 years old and produced at almost a point per game, then jumped to a mix of NHL/AHL action with Anaheim. Ristolainen did the same after his U20 season, splitting his next season evenly between the AHL and NHL for the Buffalo Sabres. He was a highly regarded defensive prospect at that point, as much as we like to joke about him now.

So that’s the path that has been tred by elite or even good-tier defensive prospects from Finland. Somewhere in that mix of good to great is where Niemelä will follow. His offensive production combined with his profile of skills would indicate that there is a very good chance that he at least becomes an NHL defenseman of some calibre. There is a good chance he comes a top four, and maybe now an outside shot of being a top-pairing guy.

At the rate he is playing, we should maybe expect to see him jump to North America following his season in Finland and end the year with the Marlies, then start next season still in North America. That would match the same path of progression of the other noteworthy names mentioned above.

Whether he sticks in the NHL sooner rather than later remains to be seen. The Leafs are pretty conservative with their prospects, and we’ve seen with Sandin and Liljegren that they make you earn your spot. As of now, I have started to mentally put Niemelä in the same tier as Sandin. Almost locks to be NHL-capable, a good chance of being a bit better.

But it’s exciting to think that maybe, just maybe, he may turn into something even more.

Poll

How good do you think Niemelä will be with all these pointzzz?

This poll is closed

  • 15%
    Top pairing
    (120 votes)
  • 56%
    Second pairing
    (431 votes)
  • 18%
    Third pairing
    (139 votes)
  • 6%
    7th defenseman/AHL first pairing
    (49 votes)
  • 3%
    Bust
    (30 votes)
769 votes total Vote Now