Niemelä is coming off of a mini-breakout year only halted by an injury
Topi Niemelä has an argument as the best defensive prospect in the Leafs’ system, currently. That all depends on whether or not you think that Sandin is still a prospect, or how high you still are on Liljegren. After the Leafs traded down from their second round pick last year, they snagged both Roni Hirvonen (#8 in our rankings) and Topi Niemelä only 5 spots apart at the end of the second round/start of the third round.
At the time of the draft, when the Leafs took both, I was very excited. I had read about and watched a bit of both, even if I didn’t wind up writing about them because I thought they’d be taken before the Leafs’ original pick. Niemelä in particular I liked as one of the better upside right-shot defenseman in the second round, along with Helge Grans and Brock Faber who were both taken before the Leafs had a shot at either.
What I liked about Niemelä was that he managed to earn a spot on his Liiga team, Kärpät — who just so happened to finish with the best record in the league that season — as a 17 year old. That’s not very common, but not super rare. There’s usually one defenseman in a given draft year who does it, but there are some years where there are none. It’s more common for a forward to do it.
In his draft year, Niemelä played 47 games for Kärpät on their third pair, averaging 12:51 per game. By all accounts, he was kept around and played quite a lot for an U18 player in his draft-eligible season because of his defense and all-around play. That’s a really good thing to see from a draft-eligible defenseman, especially when he’s not the biggest guy either. Even now he’s pretty slight, listed as 5’11” but looking smaller and only 165 lbs.
— EP Rinkside (@EPRinkside) December 30, 2020
Niemelä didn’t have a ton of points, with only 1 goal and 6 assists in that time. But he’s not necessarily just an all-defense guy. When he played more against his age group, either internationally or in previous junior seasons, he showed he could produce more offense. Not an offensive juggernaut, by any means, but not a slouch either. That showed through at the last World Junior Championship, where he played on Finland’s second pair and powerplay unit, and was named the tournament’s best defenseman. He wasn’t actually the best defenseman, he just had the most points with 8 in 7 games, but that offensive production hinted at his all-round potential.
This summer, Niemelä played at the World Junior Summer Showcase exhibition tournament, where he once again finished with the most points for defensemen with 6 in 6 games. So there’s clearly some offense there, but I wouldn’t call him a dominant offensive force. He’s more of a solid and effective two-way defenseman.
Over in Finland, he again played the year for Kärpät in the Liiga and averaged more than 15 minutes per game. He had four points in 15 games, but his season was cut short due to his time at the WJC and an injury he suffered right after he returned to Finland. But his time there showed steps forward, including having one of the best possession metrics in the league as an 18 year old. He may not have had the offensive production yet, but he was starting to control play when he was on the ice.
topi niemela doin his thang pic.twitter.com/sqTqhnQpwB
— dylan (@dylanfremlin) January 2, 2021
HOW WE VOTED & WHAT WE SAID
I haven’t been able to watch any games of Niemelä’s in the Liiga, since their games are not easy to pick up here in North America. I have seen all of his major international games, however, and I just love him to bits as a prospect.
Overall, Niemelä finished 7th in our voting, and he was just behind the next player on our list. Where Niemelä had an average rank score of 7.89, the guy ahead of him was at 7.44. That’s very nearly a tie in the third clear-cut “tier” in our rankings. After our #6 player, there are two more clear divisions in the average rankings — and I’m sure by now you can figure out what those tiers are and who are in them.
The highest to rank Niemelä was Species at 5th, with Hardev right behind him at 6th. Only one person had him ranked outside the top ten: seldo, who has said outright he heavily weighs proximity to the NHL, and Niemelä is likely another 2-3 seasons away.
Here’s a summary I wrote about what I saw from Niemelä after the WJSS this summer that summarizes his strengths:
Niemelä showcases excellent skating, that much has been known about him since he was drafted. He’s fast, he is agile and maneuverable, and can be explosive as well. I do think he can still work on the last part, which will come from adding more muscle and strength to his frame.
His skating is a standout skill that you can see, but watching him for a while he’s just smart. He can read plays, he can use subtle fakes and maneuvers to carry the puck past and through defenders. He can make a good pass, even if he isn’t Marner-esque with creativity, he’s just effective at it. His points come through assists that don’t look spectacular, but he can let loose a wrist shot that’s quick and accurate even if he will never be mistaken for a sniper.
The other way that Niemelä was true to his type is on transitions. On the offensive side, he was very effective at starting the breakout from the defensive zone. He could do it with his passing, but also with his skating. The first gif above of his goal shows how he does it: elusive and quick skating to elude forecheckers, then make a pass to an open forward. Sometimes he may just take space given to him and keep skating with it, but he will often pass it to get it up quicker.
Defensively, Niemelä was nice and effective in his own end and that’s about all I’d say. He still needs to add some muscle to be able to break up cycles and keep opposing players from skating around unimpeded. His positioning can also be weird at times, where he’s standing somewhere and you’re not sure why. Where he shines is defensive transitions, where he uses his skating and smart reads on the play to break up passes and poke the puck away to stop them from entering the Finnish zone with control.
Topi Niemela (TOR) picks up where he left off at the World Juniors pic.twitter.com/VtIcvX0Fbo
— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) July 25, 2021
And here are what some of the other voters had to say:
Scouch: Niemelä is just so neat and fun to watch. A lovely skater with solid skill on the defensive side of the game who just continues to get stronger, quicker, and more dynamic. While I’m not so sure there’s enormous upside, the guy was a 3rd round pick, was ranked in my first round, and getting anything out of a third round pick is a win. He’s dynamic, mobile, and tons of fun to watch.
Katya: The Liiga is a point shot league. That’s the thing about this hard belief in Nordic defenders that gives me pause. They grow up in a milieu where the slapper is still a thing, where defender points on the power play really matter, and where, when Mac Hollowell went and played a little in Finland, there was a little bit of surprise at the extent to which he buzzed the net like a forward. So all of that sits in the back of my mind when I watch Niemelä, who I really like. He does have the tools to play a more Leafs-style offensive defender role and to not be a baby Tyson Barrie. He also has the tools to be a baby Tyson Barrie. Maybe he is the guy we need to watch to see if development really makes the difference in how you get from 18 to 23.
Seldo: This guy isn’t Kalle Loponen either.
Niemelä is an interesting prospect. He has a very interesting set of skills, and already established a strong track record. He has two seasons playing professionally in Finland, which is not the strongest pro-league around but that is still no mean feat. He may not have a lot of points there, but has gotten rave reviews for his two-way play and has the underlying numbers to back that up.
Niemelä will return to Kärpät this year, where he may well get another leap in his usage. Last season, he averaged 15:30 playing behind a clear top four. This year, the two defensemen directly ahead of him in icetime, Libor Sulak and Shaun Heshka, both moved on to other Liiga teams. That leaves a clear second pair role for him on the right side, since he averaged the next most among their other righties that year. That could also give him a role on one of their powerplay units, which will go a long way for him to take a bit leap as far as points are concerned. His likely partner could be Atte Ohtamaa, a 33 year old veteran who played in the KHL for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl.
What we want to see from Niemelä this year is that he steals that second pair job, and a powerplay role, and runs with it. We want to see him be stronger, and improve his main weakness: defensive zone coverage. We want to see him take that big leap at 20 years old that Katya mentioned in yesterday’s piece on Hirvonen. We’ll also want to see him take a leading role on Finland’s blueline at the WJC, and be genuinely in the conversation as the best all-around defensemen in the tournament.
I said at the start that Niemelä had an argument for being the Leafs’ best defensive prospect right now, and I stand by that. He may be another year or two away from joining the Marlies in the AHL, but I think by the end of this season he has a chance of having an argument for belonging to that next tier of our rankings.