Scouting Report: Can Topi Niemela be a difference-maker for the Toronto Maple Leafs?

Photo credit:Steven Ellis/Daily Faceoff
Steven Ellis
2 months ago
“If I had a nickel for every time (something happened), I’d have two nickles. Which isn’t a lot but it’s weird that it happened twice.”
It’s an overused meme at this point, but it’s the first thing I thought of when revisiting Topi Niemela’s 2022 World Junior Championship effort. I recall two instances where the Finnish defenseman did a spin-o-rama in his own zone with the puck, unprompted, with nobody near him to pose a risk.
It was strange but hilarious.
Flash forward to 2024, and Niemela is easily the team’s best defensive prospect. The 21-year-old is currently in the midst of his first season with the Toronto Marlies, playing key minutes on a team with significant flaws in their own zone. It hasn’t always been easy for the youngster. but Niemela is the best the team has – and maybe the only one with a long-term NHL future ahead of him.
Drafted 64th overall in 2020, Niemela really came into his own during the 2021-22 season with Karpat in Finland. He had 10 goals and 32 points in 48 games, marking his territory as one of the best junior-aged offensive defensemen in Europe. His offense dropped significantly last year, but the team was more defensively focused, anyway.
This year, I’ve liked what I’ve seen. He has 25 points in 42 games, good for a 42-point pace. He’s sixth among U-22 defensemen in AHL scoring behind some of the game’s premier two-way prospects, including LA’s Brandt Clarke and Anaheim’s Olen Zellweger.
But there’s more to his game than putting up points, and that’s where he excelled with Karpat last year.
“There’s a lot of nuances, a lot of calculated decision-making going on there,” a scout said during a recent Marlies game. “You see the way he moves the puck on the power play and that’s great. But it’s the play reads on the rush, in the D-zone, that he doesn’t get enough credit for. He thinks the game proactively.”
As the season has worn on, Niemela’s confidence has grown exponentially. He’s the team’s go-to power-play defender, something he wasn’t used to in Karpat. But he hasn’t folded under the extra responsibility, giving him some more oomph in his toolset. “He works so hard to get so much better,” another scout said. “He’s the type of guy a coach can throw into uncomfortable situations and be happy with the results because Niemela is willing to take it all head-on.”
The one thing scouts have noted frequently is Niemela’s work ethic. He’s always rushing around, pushing the envelope and fighting for the puck no matter what. And while he’s not always successful – he lacks the pure strength you’re looking for out of a future NHL defenseman – he’s always looking to improve.
If there’s one thing that’ll take Niemela to the NHL, it’s his brain. He’s not a high-speed skater and is far from dynamic. From watching him in person, I felt like I was watching him make the same 2-3 plays all game long. Niemela does an excellent job of keeping things simple, but he’s predictable, and that can get you beat in the NHL. He’s not creative enough to beat 2-3 guys in a rush play, and good teams will make sure to exploit that. Think Timothy Liljegren.
“In his own zone, he’s making good little plays that don’t always get him on the scoresheet, and he knows how to get the puck where it needs to be,” one scout said. “But he just has to be more dynamic, more varied in how he makes his plays.”
Niemela will likely be a second-pairing defenseman at best. His lack of physicality doesn’t help, but with the right partner, it might not matter too much. He has already improved significantly beyond his draft year when he struggled mightily in his own zone – now, there are enough scouts who really believe he’ll be in the NHL before too long. Coaches love smart defenders, and Niemela fits the mold perfectly.
I’d love to see him get a few NHL games at some point this season to see where his game is at. If the Leafs were to offer him up as a sweetener in a trade this year, Niemela is expendable – especially if it means keeping their first-round pick in a draft full of quality defensemen. Otherwise, he’s an inexpensive depth option who could look to push the needle next season before taking on a bigger role down the line. As a right-handed defenseman, Niemela could be a decent replacement for Conor Timmins if he’s moved in a trade or claimed on waivers.
I like him, I really do. I think he has a decent NHL future ahead of him, whether it’s in Toronto, or elsewhere.

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