The Leafs have placed a premium on hockey sense in the last couple of drafts, and they continued that trend with the selection of Finnish defenseman Topi Niemela at the top of the third round in the 2020 NHL draft. The young defender put himself on the map last year with Karpat, earning a regular spot with one of Liiga’s top teams at just 17 years old.
Toronto entered the draft holding the 44th overall pick but traded down from that spot, securing the 59th and 64th overall picks from the Ottawa Senators and using them to select Roni Hirvonen and Niemela, respectively. I would have considered both Niemela and Hirvonen to be good picks at 44th overall, so to end up with both of them was a really nice piece of business for Kyle Dubas on his way to restocking the Leafs’ prospect pipeline.
Hirvonen came in at 12th on our list, while Niemela is making his TLN Prospect Rankings debut inside the top ten, and both young Fins have the potential to find themselves much higher on this list as early as next season.
Weight: 163 lbs
Drafted: 2020 3rd round, 64th overall
What kind of player is he?
Niemela is a highly intelligent player with a fluid stride, and though he doesn’t have any individual attributes that jump off the screen, the package of tools that he possesses makes for an intriguing and effective modern day defenseman. He is a proactive player rather than a reactive one, in all three zones, and does a good job of reading where the play is going before it gets there.
Leafs think Topi Niemela has some of the best defensive instincts in the entire draft. That from John Lilley, their director of amateur scouting.
— Justin Cuthbert (@jccuthbert) October 7, 2020
It’s important to put Niemela’s contributions in the proper context, as it is rare for any player – let alone a defenseman – to spend his draft year playing in one of the top professional leagues in the world. He didn’t turn 18 years old until this past March, meaning he was playing meaningful minutes against men and handling them well, at just 17 years of age. Being able to perform against that level of competition at such a young age bodes very well for Niemela’s chances of developing into a quality NHL blue liner.
Most of Niemela’s value is derived from his defensive game and he displays good awareness in transition, often breaking up rushes in the neutral zone. He maintains a tight gap and takes good angles, while using his own stick to guide oncoming attackers where he wants them to go. Once he gets them there, he is adept at knocking the puck loose and turning the play the other way. In the clip below, Niemela’s initial positioning and reaction to the oncoming rush forces the attacking player into the middle of the ice with nowhere to go and he knocks the puck away. Watch how quick he is to react after making the initial stop, changing direction and knocking the puck away from a second attacking forward:
Niemela does a great job defending the rush in this clip. First he cuts off the middle against the initial attacker, knocks the puck away with a strong stick check, and then follows it up by changing direction and knocking the puck loose from a second attacker.
— Nick Richard (@_NickRichard) November 30, 2020
He defends the rush just as effectively when he’s not the one matched up with the puck carrier, as he does a good job of identifying the oncoming threats and he doesn’t often get caught puck watching on the rush. As he does when defending the puck carrier, Niemela will take good angles in defending the pass on the rush and forces the puck carrier’s passing options into dead zones. He can adjust quickly, as he does in the clip below, where he recognizes the center lane drive before the puck carrier does and is there to shut down the pass attempt into the slot.
— Nick Richard (@_NickRichard) November 30, 2020
What stands out when watching Niemela is how calculated he is in everything he does. Whether it be deciding when to pinch, when to head to the soft spot in coverage, what target to hit on the breakout, or what lane to defend on the rush, it almost always seems as though he has a plan. His hockey brain is quite advanced for his age, but he isn’t a high end puck handler or passer, so he sometimes struggles to execute certain plays despite making the correct decision. He can be forced into turnovers on occasion when being pressured by forecheckers on the breakout but for the most part he is an efficient, if unspectacular, puck mover.
Niemela doesn’t possess the elite offensive tools that will make him a big time point producer from the back end, but again, his brain allows him to be effective in the offensive zone. Once Karpat establishes solid offensive possession, they like to get all five skaters active and moving around the zone. Niemela sees the ice well and does a good job of seeking space in the offensive zone, whether it be in a shooting position or as an outlet to continue the cycle. Much like when he’s defending, he doesn’t often get caught standing still or puck watching in the offensive zone and he does a good job of avoiding unnecessary risks in the process.
He doesn’t have a booming shot, and he doesn’t thread passes like Quinn Hughes, but he makes smart reads like the one below where he completes a nice slap pass for a primary assist rather than just winding up and shooting it as hard as he can.
— Josh Simpson (@joshsimpson77) November 21, 2020
The clip below is another good example of Niemela’s awareness as he pounces on the loose puck high in the slot, all the while very aware that teammate Jesse Puljujarvi is alone in the circle. He skates onto the puck in a shooting posture, the defenders bite, and he slides it over to his wide open teammate as the defenders are caught going the other way.
#Leafs 2020 third round pick Topi Niemela played 11:33 in a 2-1 victory for Karpat today. He picked up a secondary assist on this nice feed to Jesse Puljujarvi, who set up Mika Pyorala for the game’s first goal: pic.twitter.com/Ke4wc6FgrJ
— Nick Richard (@_NickRichard) November 11, 2020
Even the goal below is simply a product of Niemela seeing the play develop, and knowing when to attack the high danger area:
— Lassi Alanen (@lassialanen) September 4, 2020
Niemela isn’t the biggest defenseman at 6’0″ and 163 pounds, but he plays a fearless game and doesn’t hesitate to engage physically. He isn’t what I would call a bruising defenseman, and he likes to break up plays with his stick, but there are occasions where Niemela will step up and separate players from the puck with a solid hit. His lack of physical strength shows up on occasion but that’s to be expected for a kid playing against men, and more often than not he does a good job of establishing proper body position and coming away with the puck in board battles. He will only improve in these areas as he matures and adds strength to his frame in the coming years, but he already has the hockey IQ to get him to the next level.
By the Numbers
|2019-2020||Karpat U20||Jr. A SM-liiga||1||0||1||1|
|2020-2021||Karpat U20||Jr. A SM-liiga||6||1||3||4|
Niemela’s raw offensive numbers might not look like anything special, and they aren’t, but a 17 year old defenseman putting up seven points in a professional men’s league is nothing to scoff at either. He averaged just under 13 minutes of ice time per game for Karpat last season, and finished with a 53.0 CF%. Though he played sheltered minutes, those are impressive shot share numbers for him at that level. Through nine Liiga games so far this year, Niemela is averaging 14:18 per game and he currently leads Karpat regulars with a 63.3 CF%, which is also third best among all Liiga players who have played at least five games. He is almost halfway to matching his point totals from last season as well, and in 34 fewer games. Already on pace for a higher offensive output, and with his role trending upward, Niemela should easily surpass the seven points he registered in his first Liiga season.
As Niemela matures and gets stronger, he is also becoming more physical and having greater success in puck battles. According to InStat, Niemela is winning 54% of his puck battles this season compared to 49% last season. Still just 18 years old, Niemela has plenty of runway to improve even further in these areas as he continues his development in Liiga.
What’s next for Niemela?
Despite earning a regular role with Karpat’s Liiga team last year, Niemela found himself on the outside looking in for much of the early part of the season. Karpat has a strong team with a deep defensive group, but Niemela has earned more playing time in the last couple of weeks and taken advantage of the opportunity. He will soon be departing to join Finland’s World Junior training camp, where he will be a key cog on their blue line, and he will surely be looking to have a strong showing that he can build off of as he continues to establish himself for Karpat during the stretch drive of the Liiga season.
Niemela will likely spend at least a couple more seasons playing overseas, but the experience he’s already gained at Finland’s top level could put him on the fast track to North America and the Maple Leafs’ development system.
(Statistics from InStat, eliteprospects.com,