Last summer the Leafs continued to explore the European free agent market by bringing in a young Finnish defenseman by the name of Teemu Kivihalme. I won’t pretend I knew much about Kivihalme then but put similar expectations on him as Andreas Borgman and Calle Rosen. Those expectations appear to be spot on as Kivihalme demonstrated himself to be a solid Marlies defender with a good chance of stepping up into a depth role on the Leafs or being an injury callup in 2020-21.
Kivihalme is a left shooting defenseman, so he’s bound to face some interesting challenges with the Leafs depth on that side, as Rielly, Muzzin, Sandin, Dermott, Marincin, Rosen is pretty solid depth, even if one or two are expected to move over to play on the right side. Cracking the NHL lineup for Kivihalme without the Leafs making a trade will be a challenge, unless he’s the lefty who steps up and becomes comfortable on the right side, which seemingly is just Justin Holl and possibly Timothy Liljegren at this point. Clearly the Leafs will have some upgrading that needs to be done.
Teemu is turning 25 this summer, and is a restricted free agent, albeit one with arbitration rights. As good as he’s been for the Marlies and as close as he looks to being NHL ready, the question is whether he’s interested in signing up for another tour of AHL duty when the Leafs can’t promise much more, especially when his playing still is very much “more of the same” compared to the current Leafs depth and not a whole lot of size or tighter defensive zone coverage.
Kivihalme has average size (6-0, 181) and decent offensive skills but his biggest strengths are his skating and hockey sense. He’s a very smart player who makes excellent reads and decisions with and without the puck. He’s mostly known as a puck-moving defenseman but he’s a reliable defensive player as well. He isn’t a flashy player by any means and doesn’t take unnecessary risks.
Kivihalme was one of the best even-strength defensemen in the league all season long, and that’s the type of role he could play in the NHL. He may not help much on special teams but he’s capable of jumping straight to the NHL and play on the bottom pair – the only issue is that the Leafs have a bit too much depth which makes it very difficult for him to do that. Jokke Nevalainen
The reality is that Kivihalme is better than Marincin, and probably better than Rosen as well, and given the opportunity he’d probably be able to establish himself as a Leaf next season assuming one or more of Sandin, Dermott, or Rielly move over to the right side. Given the expected flat salary cap heading into the next season it’s going to be likely the Leafs will need to have an inexpensive bottom pairing as well as a cheap 7th D, and Kivihalme fits with that plan while attempting to see if they can upgrade on Martin Marincin, who would likely clear waivers safely.
The arbitration eligibility aspect of Kivihalme’s contract shouldn’t be too much of a worry, as it will likely only guarantee that he receives a one way contract instead of a two-way, and that’s not likely to be an issue for the Leafs. Expect to see Kivihalme get every opportunity to be a Leaf once training camp starts.