Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Niemela, Hirvonen & What’s Next?

In this first edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll take a look at the future of the Maple Leafs’ franchise – especially its roster. Changes need to be made, but the question remains about how radical they should be. 

Related: Maple Leafs Commentary: Dubas’ Future, Player Pride & Physicality

In this post, I’ll share some of the fans’ thoughts but also take some time to look to the future. During the first-round series with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Maple Leafs’ general manager signed two top prospects to entry-level contracts (ELC). As well, there are a number of Maple Leafs’ roster players who might not be back with the team next season. 

Item One: The Reaction of Maple Leafs Fans Is All Over the Map

Reading the reaction of the fans is more than interesting. There are desires for blowing everything up (and I mean everything) to start again fresh. Five-time losers don’t deserve “second chances.” (Obviously, these fans don’t care much for Harry Potter books or movies, or know that author J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter gold-mine stories were rejected 12 times before breaking through.) 

Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs
Is it time for Kyle Dubas to leave the Toronto Maple Leafs?
(Photo by Alana Davidson/NHLI via Getty Images)

After this season’s first-round loss, the response is rightfully more measured. It wasn’t as if the team played poorly and it wasn’t as if their opponent wasn’t a strong team. Some fans suggest that the team is so close that things should be tweaked, but not – like SCTV’s John Candy’s and Joe Flaherty’s Farm Report film reviews – “blown up real good!

Related: Ducks’ Buyout of Perry Was Mutually Beneficial

Other fans want to see both general manager Kyle Dubas and head coach Sheldon Keefe shipped out of town on the first bus so former general manager Lou Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz can replace them. Of course, Lamerillo’s New York Islanders missed the playoffs this season (which is a sure way NOT to lose in the first round) and, while Trotz is free to be hired, it was Lamoriello who fired him – so that creates its own little problems in a way.

Of course, today’s news that Pete DeBoer has been freed from the Vegas Golden Knights will cause a bit of a stir. You can see how confusing things are. Stay turned Maple Leafs’ fans, the offseason will be interesting.

Item Two: Maple Leafs Sign Topi Niemela to Three-Year ELC

Last week, the Maple Leafs announced they had signed Finish defenseman Topi Niemela to a three-year, entry-level contract with a salary-cap hit of $856,667. Playing with Karpat in the Finland’s Liiga, during the 2021-22 season Niemela scored 10 goals and added 32 points (for 42 points) in 48 games. 

Topi Niemelä Team Finland
Topi Niemelä, Team Finland (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

Niemela might be one of the top defensive prospect in the Maple Leafs’ system. He’s a strong two-way player who can contribute on the offense. He was chosen in round three (64th overall) by the Maple Leafs in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. Although Niemela will probably begin the 2022-23 season with the AHL Marlies, depending upon offseason moves, the 20-year-old youngster might have a chance to make the Maple Leafs’ roster if he has a really strong training camp.

Item Three: Roni Hirvonen Also Signs a Three-Year ELC

Last week Roni Hirvonen, another young Finish defenseman, also signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Maple Leafs at the same salary-cap hit of $856,667 as his Finish compatriot. Hirvonen has not shown the elite offense that Niemela has shown. He totalled nine goals and seven assists (for 16 points) playing in 46 games with HIFK Helsinki in Finland’s Liiga in 2021-22. 

Related: Maple Leafs’ Top 10 Prospects Heading Into the 2021-22 Season

Hirvonen, however, has other attributes. He was named Team Finland’s captain for the 2022 World Juniors. In the two games he played before the tournament was postponed, he has an assist. The Maple Leafs chose him just ahead of Niemela (the round-two 59th pick)  in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. He too will likely start next season with the Marlies.

Item Four: The Biggest Moves Dubas Must Make During the Offseason

The biggest moves for the Maple Leafs’ organization Dubas revolve around offseason decisions that must come as the team works to reshape the roster. A number of UFAs (unrestricted free agents) must be signed or left unsigned. Each requires consideration.

Chief on that list is starting goalie Jack Campbell. Probably a close second are forwards Ilya Mikheyev and newcomer Colin Blackwell. Is it time for Jason Spezza to retire; and, if he does, is there a job in the organization waiting for him? On defense, UFAs Mark Giordano and Ilya Lyubushkin need contracts.

Jason Spezza Toronto Maple Leafs
Jason Spezza, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Mark Giordano seemed to be right at home immediately and provided great benefit as both a player and a mentor. It would seem like a no-brainer to welcome back if he is affordable in a Jason Spezza way. That’s especially true given the team’s up-and-coming young defensemen.

There is also a list of RFAs (restricted free agents) to bring back (or not). That list includes forwards Pierre Engvall and Ondrej Kase as well as the two young Swedish defensemen Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren.

How will Dubas and his crew think through the moves the organization needs to make? Who can the team live without? Without moving players, there’s approximately $8 million to spend. (from “KOSHAN: Off-season decisions for Dubas will be crucial, but foundation is in place for success, Terry Koshan, Toronto Sun, 15/05/2022).

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

Questions about moving salary will be a big part of the organization’s work during the offseason. What about Alex Kerfoot and Justin Holl? Both are more than competent and would likely be sought after by other teams? 

Related: Is it Time for Maple Leafs’ Jason Spezza to Hang Up His Skates?

As well, somehow it seems that the Maple Leafs would want to find a way to move Petr Mrazek’s $3.8 million contract over the next two seasons. As I noted earlier, it will be an interesting offseason of moves.

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