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2022 Top 25 Under 25: Topi Niemelä is #6

Toronto’s top defensive prospect lands just outside our top 5

Finland v Russia: Bronze Medal Game - 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

Katya is not alone in ranting against the influence of points when it comes to how people consider the value of a player. I know Arvind has ranted about it before too, especially when it comes to defenseman. I’ve ranted about it too. The TL;DR is that points can too easily be influenced by things outside of an individual player’s control. player usage (total ice time, powerplay time, linemates), team quality, league quality, injuries/health, coaching style/systems (offensive vs defensive), and so on. And that’s before you get into things like luck.

It also is a lazy way to say if a player is good or bad even if you’re just talking offensively, and it ignores all the other ways a player can positively impact a game for his team. Driving offensive transitions, stopping the other team’s transitions, getting the puck out of your end when you have the chance, stopping the cycle, making smart pinches at the blueline to maintain offensive zone possessions, and so on. Those are all ways a defenseman can help limit scoring chances against, while generating them for his team. But they don’t necessarily directly lead to points.

But sometimes, they can. Which leads me into the Maple Leafs’ top defenseman prospect: Topi Niemelä.

The Player

When Niemelä was drafted in the third round in the 2020 NHL draft, it was an interesting pick but not necessarily clearly a steal that most Leafs fans would be excited about. He was a smaller defenseman (now 5’11” and 170 lbs) who got rave reviews for his skating, defense and “hockey IQ”. He had spent the whole of his draft year at the pro Liiga level, a good sign for such a young defenseman.

At the time, Niemelä was thought to basically only be a defensive defenseman, with only 7 points in 43 games. The next year, he returned to the Liiga and only played in 15 games due to COVID delays and cancellations, attending the World Juniors and the extra time the pandemic made that take, and an injury right after he returned from it. In those 15 games, he had 4 points.

It was at the World Juniors that Leafs fans started to realize there may be more to Niemelä’s offensive potential than they previously thought. He led the tournament in points for defensemen with 8 in 7 games. He was named best defenseman for the tournament — ironically because of his points, as he was clearly not the most used and best overall defenseman on his team let alone the tournament.

But this past season, Niemelä showed that he could realize his whole potential. He set a Liiga record for most points by an U20 defenseman in a single season with 32 in only 48 games. If he played a full season’s worth of games, he could have beat it by a lot more. This was while he was relied upon a lot more than in previous seasons. He at times led the team in scoring, played on the top pair, on the penalty kill, and on the powerplay.

If you want a more thorough breakdown of what was behind Niemelä’s offensive growth last season, this video from Elite Prospects is about as thorough as you can get.

And then, near the end of the year his team (Kärpät) replaced their head coach. The new one was someone who seemed to like playing a Randy Carlyle-kind of system. They wanted to tighten up defensively, which had the dual effects of making their overall offense worse but also their defense as well. That was another reason why Niemelä’s torrid points pace declined down the stretch, and his team were ousted in the first full playoff round in a series where his team scored only 10 goals in 7 games.

As of now, the future for Niemelä seems bright as a potential two-way defender who can play in all situations. He can kill penalties, run a powerplay, and eat minutes at even strength. The skills and the intelligence are all there, the key with him will be to get stronger. 170 lbs will not be enough for him as a defenseman to survive the NHL. Even if he isn’t a very physical defender stylistically, he needs to at least be able to hold his own in most situations. That would also help him avoid injuries from the physical punishment he takes at times.

He will play this season back with Kärpät in the Liiga, and after his season is over he will likely come to North America — likely the Marlies for their stretch run. The season after that is when he will likely spend a full year here in Toronto, either on the Marlies or on the Maple Leafs.

The main issue with Niemelä’s projection as a defenseman in the NHL is if he can physically handle it. Being smart and a brilliant skater is likely already enough to get him there at some level, but adding muscle and strength could help him lock down a second pairing spot. He already does the right things and makes the right decisions — that’s long been one of his biggest strengths. The issue will be if he can physically execute on what his decision making leads him to attempt in the NHL, or if NHL players can shrug him off and push him around. That will limit his effectiveness.

A full off-season with no WJC in August and no earlier Liiga training camp where can be in Toronto, working with Toronto’s development staff, helping his nutrition and exercise routines will go a long way. And that’s also why I would lay odds that he at least starts next season in the AHL. But I could see him being a mid-season call up after dominating the AHL as a 21/22 year old, which is around when Timothy Liljegren made his NHL debut by comparison.

The Votes

Last year, Niemelä was ranked 7th in the T25U25. That ranking came after his award winning World Juniors tournament. This year, he was ranked 6th. Which may seem like a small improvement, except for the fact that the top of the list saw Mitch Marner age out and Amirov removed from eligibility due to his health issues. So Niemelä basically stood pat, despite his great season.

There are two things I want to say about this, however. First, in terms of the numerical ranking Niemelä may have not really moved, but I think the estimation of how good he can be as a prospect rose a lot. Where before he was probably considered a tier down from the prospects ahead of him (Robertson, Sandin, Amirov, etc), now I’d say he’s considered in the same tier... but still below them.

I personally ranked Niemelä 8th last season and 6th this season. All nine of the voters had Niemelä between 6th and 7th, a very close spread that I think reinforces my point above.

For me, the offensive growth was a good sign. It means he doesn’t have to rely only on his defense to make the NHL and have an impact, he can do it in all situations. What we’ll want to see from him this season is continued growth. In his first two Liiga seasons he had a smaller role and fewer points, but had sparkling possession numbers. Last year was used a lot more heavily and got a lot more points, but his possession numbers were just meh.

This year, we’ll want to see him take more of a top role. Earn more minutes, become a true number one defenseman for his team. Keep putting up points, but also improve his possession numbers in those harder minutes. Hopefully he’s added more muscle and worked on his strength, and refine his defensive execution. He already makes the right decisions defensively, the issue has often been being able to physically do it. That’s what he is going to need at the next level.

Topi Niemelä

Voters Ranking
Voters Ranking
Species 5
Katya 6
seldo 7
Brian 6
TomK421 6
dhammm 6
Josh - Smaht Scouting 6
Hardev 7
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Polak 5
Weighted Average 6.00
Highest Rank 5
Lowest Rank 7
Spread in Votes 2

Here’s what the other voters had to say:

dhammm: I don’t think Niemelä’s likely to become a star but he is very likely to become an impact NHLer. Any kid scoring this much against men while holding down top 4 blueliner minutes warrants that kind of hype. The sooner he can come over and adapt to the AHL, the better.

Hardev: I had Hirvonen ahead of Niemelä because I think the forward has a better chance of finding an impactful role than the defender in this case (it’s true in most cases, but I’m talking specifically about this one). I am worried about Niemelä’s ability defensively and if the offense and the points are going to cut it (stop me if you’ve heard this before). I can definitely see a world where he’s simply a defender no team needs and he ends up stuck in the AHL or in Europe. Is he going to be so good on the power play that he gets PP1 minutes ahead of the team’s top pairing defender (whoever that might be)? Is he worth having in the lineup if his only value is 30 seconds on PP2? Where is he really relative to other Leafs draft pick defenders of the past; Dermott, Sandin, Liljegren, Durzi, Hollowell, Král? These are the questions Niemelä needs to answer.

TomK421: Top Guy! The highest ranked of the guys I consider to still be maybes, but he’s real close to breaking into the next tier and absolutely will if he repeats or improves on this past year and I’m very excited to watch him at the WJCs.

Poll

When will Niemelä play his first NHL game?

This poll is closed

  • 9%
    In April of this season after his Liiga season is done
    (62 votes)
  • 8%
    In October to start the next season
    (55 votes)
  • 42%
    Sometime in the middle of the next season as a call up
    (269 votes)
  • 38%
    In 2+ seasons when he’s seasoned in the AHL some more
    (243 votes)
629 votes total Vote Now