Topi Niemela is the Steady Eddie of our prospect rankings. Last year, he was #3, and this year he’s back in that spot once again, leaving us wondering if we are somehow underrating him. All signs point to us underrating him despite the fact that he is a year removed from his standout offensive season in the Liiga and last year was a bit more in line with what defensive numbers look like in Europe, but at the same time, the small sample of games that Topi played for the Marlies were incredibly encouraging and he slid right into the top four, putting up five points in seven playoff games. So, with a whole bunch of encouraging numbers in his past, let’s take a look at what Niemela could be for the Leafs in the future.
First off, Niemela shoots right. Thank God. The Leafs could certainly use a player that promises some excitement on the right side, and Niemela is that. Niemela is also a beautiful skater. He skates the puck out of trouble and uses his speed to make smart defensive plays. For all the excitement about Niemela’s offensive numbers in Liiga and the AHL playoffs, he is still a defensive player first and makes up for his lack of size (5’11”, 170 lbs) by using that combination of speed and having the good sense for positioning himself between the opposition and the most likely place the puck will be going. Niemela’s smarts are the biggest difference maker, and that will be why he’s going to force some tough decisions in training camp. Topi positions himself very well against the opposition, leaving them little room or time to move the puck. He forces dump-ins and has the ability to win the race to retrieve the puck. Niemela is a master baiter. He’ll tease opponents with the illusion of open ice but has the ability to quickly intercept the puck once the passer acts. In many ways, he’s the defensive version of Mitch Marner in this capacity.
The Leafs have been prioritizing defencemen who can make a good pass to start the breakout of their own zone. Niemela has that skill in spades, and it will just be a matter of seeing how his current abilities line up with where they need him to be against the highest level of competition. If there is a running theme for Niemela, it will be that the Leafs training camp is going to be incredibly important for gauging where a player who has done most things right so far needs to develop in order to find success in the NHL.
Niemela isn’t without some faults in his game. He’s at the mercy of the same issues as most undersized defencemen, and that’s getting pinned into his own zone against a line that can competently control the puck. Niemela might be capable of moving quickly and applying pressure but he isn’t going to muscle anyone off the puck, and if he’s trapped down low where he can’t skate his way out of trouble, he’ll struggle as much as anyone else.
For all the discussion of Niemela’s defensive game, it is important to highlight that there are numerous strengths to his game offensively as well, and those have clearly shown up in the stat sheet. Niemela is comfortable skating the puck out of trouble himself and has great vision to complete offensive opportunities with passes up ice. He also has a strong shot that you wouldn’t expect from a smaller player.
That brings us back around to what to expect from Niemela in the short term (training camp), medium term (season), and long term (his Leafs career).
In the immediate future, it seems that Topi Niemela is a player who has a chance to test himself against NHLers, and if things go as expected, he’ll rise to that occasion. He’s done excellent when playing against older players, bigger players, and North American ice hasn’t slowed him down yet, but how Niemela does against NHL talent is what needs to be determined to know what comes next for Topi.
Over the course of the season, it seems reasonable that the Leafs will find a way to give Niemela a look. He’s an easy call-up as he won’t require waivers, and with the high probability that he’ll be outmatching his AHL competition most nights, giving Niemela a look with the Leafs makes sense. Most of the time in the AHL needs to be about getting Topi ready to not just play sheltered minutes in the NHL but ready him for a top-four role. That might be a hard thing to do, but using him as an all-situations, all-competition defender is one way of doing that. The Leafs’ defensive depth situation seems likely to keep him out of a full-time NHL job for now.
Long term, the Leafs can reasonably look at Niemela as a top-four defenceman. To expect anything more at this point is premature, but less seems like it would be a disappointment. The Leafs are few and far on prospects to legitimately be excited about for their high end, and Niemela is perhaps the player with the highest ceiling and the highest floor. He might lack the NHL readiness of the next two prospects in these rankings, but it doesn’t seem like he’ll be far behind them in that regard, either. If the Leafs truly commit to their homegrown players, Niemela and Liljegren look to be affordable high-end options on the right side in the coming seasons.
(Statistics from EliteProspects.com)
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