Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Niemela, Gaudette, Mete & Kessel

In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs’ News & Rumors, I’ll look at the changing of the guard on the team’s defense that will take place over the next three seasons. Furthering that topic, I’ll review Topi Niemela’s recent play with Team Finland in the World Juniors. I’ll wonder when he might show up on the Maple Leafs’ roster.

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Third, I’ll look at how last season’s new signees worked out and wonder about the newcomers to the Maple Leafs’ roster. Finally, I’ll report that Phil Kessel finally landed yesterday with the Vegas Golden Knights.

Item One: The Changing of the Guard on Defense

The Rasmus Sandin saga forces us to take a look at what the Maple Leafs’ defense will look like in a few seasons. There will be a turning over of the guard in the next few seasons. 

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Almost certainly, whether by trade or an expired contract, Jake Muzzin will be leaving. One can’t imagine Mark Giordano staying past this season; or, at best, a couple of seasons. With the drama surrounding Justin Holl, it’s also likely that he’ll be with another team. His contract expires after this coming season.

Justin Holl Toronto Maple Leafs
Justin Holl, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

While TJ Brodie is 32 years old now, he plays the kind of game that should allow him to prosper into his late 30s. He doesn’t force things and relies on his on-ice hockey IQ to put himself in the right places and anticipate the play. His current contract expires after the 2023-24 season; and, if he does come back, it would likely be for less money. 

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Assuming Sandin does sign with the team, that leaves Morgan Rielly, Timothy Liljegren, Sandin, and then others. I’m betting that Victor Mete will be a surprise and will become part of that future group. 

Item Two: Where will Topi Niemela Be in Three Seasons? 

Speaking of the Maple Leafs’ defense, where will Topi Niemela be in three years when the transition of the team’s defense has all but happened? Will he be part of the Maple Leafs’ top-two pairings? 

Niemela was drafted by the Maple Leafs in the third round of the 2020 NHL draft. He’s certainly one of Toronto’s top three prospects. Last season, Niemela scored ten goals and added 22 assists (for 32 points) in 48 games for Karpat in Liiga.

Niemela came off a World Junior tournament that wasn’t up to his previous performances. In the 2021 tournament, he was voted the best defenseman. While his entire tournament wasn’t as good, he saved his best game for the final. He almost won that game in overtime except for what has been called the best save in the history of the World Juniors.

During the tournament, he played in every situation – even strength, power play, and on the penalty kill. He handled himself well in each of those situations. 

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The 20-year-old Niemela is not a big player at 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds. He’s also not overly physical. However, in watching the World Junior games, he seemed to have a bigger presence on the ice than his size would suggest. He uses his body well to shield the puck when he’s in possession of it.

That lack of size and strength was more obvious when he was battling for the puck than when he was carrying the puck. He needs to grow physically over the next couple of seasons. He might do that with Karpat in the SM-liiga or with the Marlies, but his upcoming season will help the organization determine how close to NHL-ready he is. 

It would be easier to assess his growth if he played with the AHL Toronto Marlies, but that might not be in the cards yet. Still, it will be interesting to see where he fits into what will be a transitioned Maple Leafs’ defense in three seasons.

Item Three: Will Any of the New Maple Leafs Impress This Season?

Last season, the Maple Leafs brought in four key players – David Kampf, Michael Bunting, Petr Mrazek, and Nick Ritchie. In the end, two of those signees (Mrazek and Ritchie) didn’t pan out very well. However, two came in and made an important impact and contribution to the team. 

Michael Bunting Toronto Maple Leafs
Michael Bunting, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

I’m unsure what a good batting average would be for finding two keepers among these inexpensive signees; however, looking back it would seem that having Bunting and Kampf as part of the roster improved the team greatly. There’s a chance that both Bunting and Kampf could be part of the Maple Leafs’ team for many seasons to come.

Bunting became an integral part of the team’s first line and experienced so much success with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner that he came in third in the Calder Trophy voting as the NHL’s best rookie. Kampf was one of the (a) best defensive five-on-five players in the NHL; (b) best defensive-zone face-off winners in the NHL; and, (c) best NHL players on the penalty kill. He helped turn the Maple Leafs’ third line into a true shutdown line.

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This season will see a number of new signees suit up for the first time with the Maple Leafs. Nicolas Aube-Kubel is a physical winger and could become a stalwart with the team’s fourth line, and perhaps even further up the lineup. Adam Gaudette once showed great promise with the Vancouver Canucks, but has hit a bit of a downturn recently. He looks to be slated to center the team’s fourth line. 

Calle Jarnkrok was added to replace Ilya Mikheyev on the team’s third line. He’s a bit more pricey than Aube-Kubel or Gaudette, but if he turns out well his salary is reasonable. Victor Mete is a youngster who hasn’t yet made an NHL impact as a defenseman. But he’s speedy and has the reputation of a good puck mover in transition. 

Calle Jarnkrok Nashville Predators
Calle Jarnkrok, when he was with the Nashville Predators
(Photo by John Russell/NHLI via Getty Images)

Will any of these four players turn out to be as impactful as Bunting or Kampf? If two of the four do make a similar impact, that would be a huge benefit for the team’s 2022-23 regular season.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

Yesterday former Maple Leafs player Phil “The Thrill” Kessel was signed by the Vegas Golden Knights. His contract was for one year at $1.5 million. 

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Kessel might not be to everyone’s taste, but during his time with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he helped that team win two Stanley Cups (in 2015-16 and 2016-17). As well, Kessel has accumulated 956 points (399 goals and 557 assists) in 1,204 career NHL games. He’s also close to setting an NHL record for playing consecutive games. 

Good luck to him this season.

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