Why Aron Kiviharju is the right pick for the Toronto Maple Leafs at the 2024 NHL Draft

Aron Kiviharju (Steven Ellis/Daily Faceoff)
Photo credit:Steven Ellis/Daily Faceoff
Steven Ellis
1 month ago
When the 2017 NHL Draft campaign kicked off, Timothy Liljegren was viewed as the top defenseman, with many expecting him to go in the top three.
At the time, he was being compared to Erik Karlsson, who was in the prime of his NHL career at the time. But after missing the first two months of the season due to mononucleosis – which he later admitted he returned too quickly from – Liljegren ultimately fell to Toronto at No. 17.
It was an exciting pick at the time, with the Leafs hoping to latch onto the magic that made Liljegren so revered early on. Unfortunately, Toronto hasn’t been a good fit for the young defenseman, whose future seems to be up in the air as the Leafs look to shake things up this summer.
The Leafs took a chance on a player with top-four talent, but it hasn’t exactly worked out. But that doesn’t mean the Leafs shouldn’t try again with someone following a similar pathway to the big leagues: Aron Kiviharju.
Want to bet on skill? Bank on upside? Kiviharju might be the right choice for the No. 23 pick.
Kiviharju missed all but seven games of HIFK’s season in the top Finnish league due to an ACL injury suffered on Sept. 30. He was in the midst of his second year of Liiga action, trying to improve upon an average rookie season—albeit, an impressive one as an underaged defender in one of the best leagues in Europe.
Playing key minutes against men is a difficult ask for any teenager, but Kiviharju has been in the spotlight for such a long time. He was playing against U-16 competition – and thriving – at 13 years old and was scoring at nearly half a goal per game at 14. He was already Finland’s top player with the U-18 World Championship team at 16 years old in 2022, which showed he could handle the pressure of playing against some top-end NHL Draft prospects.
Kiviharju had some growing pains against men last year, registering just three points in 21 games while splitting the season with TPS’ junior team. Still, he played 21 games as the lone U-17 defenseman in the league, and he’s one of just six in league history to break the 20-game mark.
So losing most of 2023-24 was a bummer, given there were high expectations for him in his first full year of Liiga action. While he was away from the game, Kiviharju – a smaller player at 5-foot-10 – also worked on building more upper-body strength.
Size hasn’t been a huge concern for him because he’s got the shiftiness with and without the puck to make even veterans squirm. But adding a bit more bulk to his game is still a big positive. He has gained about 15 pounds over the past few years, and he showed at the U-18 World Championship that he could still hold his own against bigger, stronger power forwards.
Kiviharju has an innate ability to get himself out of trouble with the puck. He’s an excellent skater, especially under pressure along the blueline. He’s manipulative with the puck in the same way that makes Lane Hutson so difficult to read as an attacker. Kiviharju also thinks the game at such a high level that his coaches have always been willing to lean on him in all situations. Had Kiviharju remained healthy, he likely would have been Finland’s minute-munching defenseman at the World Juniors because he’s one of the few players in his age group to play such high minutes against high-quality competition.
Scouts have compared Kiviharju to Adam Fox, who isn’t a big defender at 5-foot-11. It happens to be Kiviharju’s favorite player due to how he thinks the game and distributes the puck.
Kiviharju is a small, left-handed defenseman. That’s not exactly what the Leafs need the most, especially with EJ Emery potentially available to the Leafs at No. 23. but in hockey, you’re chasing best player available in the draft. When you use a first-round pick drafting for need, that’s when you make mistakes that can hurt your long-term future. With Kiviharju, you’d be getting a prospect that likely would have remained in the top 10 conversation had he stayed healthy.
There’s always risk in drafting a player with just a handful of games to build around in a draft year. But with Kiviharju, it’s a risk worth taking for a team with few notable prospects in the system trying to find a diamond in the rough. If he’s available at No. 23, taking a chance on Kiviharju like they did with Easton Cowan a year ago could pay off huge – and, hey, he’d also be quite the trade chip. Teams like mobile, puck-moving defenders in the modern day.
A win-win, right?

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