Ever since Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas took over in May 2018, he’s had four drafts to work with. It’s far too early to judge how these drafts went for the team, but there are certainly a couple of prospects that look like they’re going to pan out beyond the expectation based on where they were drafted.
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It’s no secret that Dubas likes trading down in the draft and going for quantity versus quality with his draft picks. It was on display at the 2020 draft, when he traded the 44th overall pick to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for the 59th overall pick and the 64th overall pick. The Senators drafted American defenseman Tyler Kleven at 44th while Dubas and the Maple Leafs used the 59th pick on Finnish forward Roni Hirvonen, and the 64th pick on Finnish defenseman Topi Niemela.
Again, hard to say who won this trade until we see the impact each prospect makes for their respective NHL teams. But so far, it’s looking like the Maple Leafs drew the bigger straws in the end. Both prospects are in the Maple Leafs’ top ten without a doubt, but Niemela in particular has really made himself known as a premier prospect in the Maple Leafs’ system. And if I’m Dubas, I’m very, very wary about moving on from Niemela in most hypothetical trades.
Niemela’s Production in Finland Has Been Next-Level
I think it’s important to shed some light on just how impressive Niemela’s development has been so far. When the Maple Leafs drafted him in 2020, he was fresh off his rookie season with Karpat of the SM-Liiga with seven points in 43 games. Nothing eye-popping, but the fact that he got those kind of minutes as an 18 year-old is impressive on its own and speaks volumes about where his defensive game is at in this stage of his career.
Fast forward to two months after he was drafted, and he was named the top defenseman at the 2021 World Juniors with eight points in seven games for the bronze medal-winning Finns. This would be the one bright spot of his season, as he was forced to miss most of his pro season with separate injuries. One before the World Junior tournament, and one after. He was limited to 15 games where he tallied four assists.
But in 2021-22, Niemela has made it clear by his play that if people aren’t talking about him already, they should be. So far, he has 20 points in 22 games. To put into perspective how rare this kind of production is for somebody his age, Niemela is currently producing at a 0.90 point-per-game (PPG) rate. The highest-scoring season by a 19 year-old defenseman in the modern era was Sami Vatanen, who had 30 points in 52 games for JYP in 2010-11.
Speaking strictly in terms of PPG percentage, he finds himself in the range of Dallas Stars 2017 third overall pick Miro Heiskanen, who had 23 points in 30 games for a 0.77 PPG% as an 18 year-old in 2016-17. Other names include Winnipeg Jets 2019 first round pick Ville Heinola (0.74) and former NHLer Joni Pitkanen (0.57).
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Not to take anything away from Vatanen, but if Niemela keeps producing at this rate, he will blow past Vatanen’s 31 points, and could have himself a record breaking season. It’s obvious Niemela would be getting more media attention in North America if he was drafted earlier, but he’s doing something pretty special overseas right now.
Niemela is a Valuable Type of Player
For a team that’s been scrutinized for as long as I can remember over its defensive game, they’ve done pretty well at developing defensive prospects in recent years. With Morgan Rielly doing everything he’s done since the Maple Leafs drafted him, and now players like Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren carving out full-time NHL jobs, Niemela looks like he could be next in line.
Besides the fact that he’s a right-handed shot and producing offense the way he is in Finland’s pro league, I think my favourite part about Niemela’s game is his hockey IQ and awareness for his age. European pro teams aren’t concerned about developing their younger players for their future NHL teams, so if you’re going to get consistent minutes on a pro team at the age of 19, you’d better believe you’ve earned it.
While he’s on the smaller side at 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds, he’s not the type of player to shy away from physicality and he’s already got a brain for solid two-way hockey. You don’t want to put too much pressure on a guy like Niemela seeing where he was drafted, but he has all the makings of a top-four defenseman in the NHL. As of now, the question will be whether he can transition this game to the next level. If he can, the Maple Leafs will have a special player on their hands.
Clarifying the Definition of “Untouchable”
I think it’s important to clear up what I mean by “untouchable” to cap this off. Obviously, if there’s an opportunity to add an established star player that would undoubtedly make the Maple Leafs a better team, you’d have to at least consider it. If the Edmonton Oilers offered them Connor McDavid for Niemela, of course you would do it.
But since that’s obviously never going to happen, lets come back to reality. When the trade deadline comes around, and contending teams are eager to add players to bolster their roster, the market for rental players increases. The Nick Foligno trade from 2020-21 is a perfect example of this. The Maple Leafs forked over a first-round pick for a player nearing the twilight of his career. But those are the gambles you have to take if you’re making a push for the Stanley Cup.
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This obviously looked horrible for the Leafs after the fact, seeing that the Maple Leafs fumbled the bag once again and were eliminated in the first round. But my point is, the price for rental players goes up around that time, and most contending teams’ prospects are on the table. And if the Maple Leafs were ever in a position where they had to deal a high end prospect, I’m at the point where I’d almost consider moving Rodion Amirov or even Nick Robertson before Niemela.
Maple Leafs Should Bring Niemela Across the Pond
With Niemela having the season he is right now, the Maple Leafs shouldn’t hesitate to sign him to an entry-level contract and bring him overseas to join the Marlies once his season in Finland is done. He’s clearly proven that he can play alongside grown men, and I’m sure the Maple Leafs would love to have Niemela in a position where they can monitor him closely.
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The Leafs have made some intriguing draft picks over the past few years, and I think Niemela is already at the point where if he was with the Marlies right now, I’d consider him as a call-up option. Certainly not for a full time role, but to see what he’s made of. And if he joins the Marlies next year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get into an NHL game here and there.
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Alex Hobson is a writer and a radio producer for 610 CKTB. He has been writing about sports since 2015 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 Sticks in the 6ix Podcast, presented by THW. He also makes weekly appearances on THW’s Maple Leafs Lounge Roundtable. 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.