Once known as a team with a horrid prospect pool, the Toronto Maple Leafs have completely shed that notion since Kyle Dubas and Co. took over in 2015. For years, the Leafs seemed to give away draft picks like they meant nothing, going back to the Cliff “Draft Schmaft” Fletcher days. And even towards the end of the late 2000s and early 2010s, they tried building their team through free agency and trades rather than drafting home-grown talent.
This obviously didn’t work, but those days are in the past. With a core of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander, and Morgan Rielly, all of whom were drafted, the Leafs have finally figured out the right way to build a hockey team.
Fast-forward to 2020. The Leafs didn’t originally have a first-round pick, but traded Kasperi Kapanen to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for the 15th overall pick and prospect Filip Hallander. The Leafs would go on to select Russian forward Rodion Amirov with that pick, and naturally, he’s received most of the attention from that draft class.
But Toronto didn’t stop there. Over the course of the rare October draft, the Leafs would go on to select 12 players. Some fans were upset that only two of the 12 players drafted were Canadian, but rest assured, it’s looking like there’s no shortage of skill in this draft class.
To be more specific, 4 of the Leafs’ 12 draft picks in 2020 were Finnish. And all four Finnish prospects have impressed thus far. Let’s check in with each one and see how their 2020-21 seasons have fared so far.
Roni Hirvonen (F, Assat, SM-Liiga, 2nd round, 59th overall)
Roni Hirvonen’s projection varied heading into the draft. Some had him pegged as an early first-rounder, some had him slipping to the third round. The Leafs pounced on him at 59th overall, coming off his rookie SM-Liiga season where he finished with 16 points in 52 games.
Known as a small, but skilled playmaking centre who plays with an edge, he’s already shown improvements in his draft-plus-one season. He’s matched his total points from last year in 18 fewer games, putting up 16 points in 34 contests so far this year. He also impressed at the 2021 World Juniors, where he finished the tournament with six points in seven games and spent most of the tournament playing alongside Florida Panthers first-rounder Anton Lundell.
Hirvonen displayed signs of leadership for Team Finland and scored some key goals for the Finns including the game-winner in the final minute of the quarterfinal against Sweden. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him captain the Finns at next year’s tournament, and I’m excited to see how he progresses as a player.
Topi Niemela (D, Karpat, SM-Liiga, 3rd round, 64th overall)
After taking Hirvonen at the end of the second round, the Leafs circled back five picks later and took another Finn in Topi Niemela. Like Hirvonen, The 5-foot-11 right-handed defenseman was just coming off his first season in the SM-Liiga where he finished with seven points in 43 games for Oulun Karpat.
Niemela really started to turn heads at the 2021 World Juniors, where he finished as the tournament’s top defenseman with eight points in seven games. He was used on the Finns’ top power-play unit in favour of Winnipeg Jets first-rounder Ville Heinola, and seemed to be on the scoresheet for every other goal the Finns scored.
Upon returning to Karpat, it was announced that he would miss four weeks with an undisclosed injury. He just recently made his return to the lineup and was playing around 20 minutes per game before he crashed hard into the boards in a game on Tuesday night – as of now, he’s out indefinitely.
It’s a tough blow for a prospect who’s impressed so much in his post-draft season. What sticks out about his game is the fact that he’s already known for having a strong defensive game and high hockey IQ to go along with it. Unless anything drastic happens to hinder his development, he has all the tools to be an effective top-four defenseman at the NHL level someday.
Veeti Miettinen (F, St. Cloud State, NCAA, 6th round, 168th overall)
Veeti Miettinen has been one of the biggest pleasant surprises of the Leafs’ 2020 draft class. He spent all of last season in Finland’s U20 league playing for Kiekko-Espoo U20 where he was an alternate captain. And he absolutely ripped it up, posting 73 points in 52 games.
But Miettinen chose a path that not too many Finnish prospects take, but one that’s not completely unheard of. He committed to St. Cloud State University of the NCAA and is currently in the middle of his freshman season, where he has 18 points in 18 games so far.
He’s on the smaller side, standing at 5-foot-9 and 159 pounds, but he has a lethal shot and he is a great skater as well. He’s also a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award this season, which, for a sixth-round pick in his draft-plus-one season, is pretty impressive.
It’s obviously far too early to call Miettinen a steal, but this pick definitely looks like it has potential to be a good one.
Axel Rindell (D, Jukurit, SM-Liiga, 6th round, 177th overall)
Axel Rindell is looking like he might be the most underrated pick of the Leafs’ draft class so far. At 20 years old, he’s slightly older than the rest of the crop, but he’s a very talented defenseman. He made his SM-Liiga debut in his draft year and put up 22 points in 47 games, which I’d say are very respectable totals for a then 19-year-old.
This year, it seems as though the 6-foot right-handed defenseman has taken a step forward, which is impressive seeing the offensive totals he managed last season. He has 22 points in 33 games this year, good enough to lead Jukurit in scoring.
He’s a great power-play quarterback and while his defensive game needs a little bit of work, the fact that he’s been able to produce like this at his age as a defenseman makes him that much more valuable as a player. Given the fact that he’s a little bit older than the rest of his draft class, I’d imagine Leafs brass will bring him to North America to get him some looks in the AHL sooner rather than later.
Kyle Dubas’ moniker has always been to draft the best player available regardless of position, and it’s evident that this was the approach he took at this draft. It could be argued that the Leafs don’t need any more small, skilled players, but if these prospects develop into anything, they can at the very least be used as trade bait.
The bottom line is, while we won’t know until years later how successful this draft class was, it’s looking like a good one so far. And these four Finns along with Amirov are leading the pack.
Alex Hobson is a third year broadcasting student at Niagara College. He has been writing about sports since 2005 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Maple Leafs Lounge Podcast, presented by THW. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.