2019-20 Team: Kärpät (Liiga)
Date of Birth: Mar. 25, 2002
Place of Birth: Oulu, Finland
Ht: 6-foot Wt: 163 pounds
NHL Draft Eligibility: 2020 first-year eligible
- NHL Central Scouting: 8th (Among EU Skaters)
- Future Considerations: 34th
- Bob McKenzie, TSN: 51st (Mid-season)
- Josh Bell’s Rankings: 37th (February)
- Andrew Forbes’ Top-217 Rankings: 44th (March)
- Larry Fisher’s Top-350 Rankings: 43rd (April)
In the early stages of his hockey career, Kärpät’s Topi Niemelä has already built a reputation for exceeding expectations at every level he’s played at.
As a 17-year-old heading into the 2019-20 season, nobody expected him to become a regular in Liiga, Finland’s top level of hockey. But after just one game at the Jr. A level, which he and his team dominated the year prior, Niemelä had already earned a call-up to play with the big dogs of Liiga.
Related: THW’S 2020 Draft Guide
Skating in 43 games on Kärpät’s tenacious blue line this season, Niemelä collected one goal and six assists. His stat line doesn’t sparkle by any means, but it does align with the type of player he is and the way he approaches the game.
Niemelä is a well-balanced, mobile defenseman with a terrific hockey IQ and smooth, precise edgework. He stickhandles well and has some good offensive tools, but they’re not elite. What he does well is process plays and make good decisions at high speed. He excels at identifying open areas and using his quick feet to maneuver into those spaces, making him difficult to both attack and defend.
On the defensive side of the puck, the right-handed Finn is positionally sound and good at anticipating the attack. At 6-feet, 163 pounds, he’s not the biggest guy on the ice, but Niemelä doesn’t shy away from physical battles, and has done so against older opponents all throughout his career.
At only 15, Niemelä was already playing in Finland’s U-18 league. When he turned 16, he advanced to the U-20 junior league. And at 17 years old this season, he was already established at Finland’s top professional level.
He only averaged about 13 minutes of time-on-ice (TOI) this season as Kärpät’s sixth defenseman, but it bodes well for him that he earned those minutes playing on the league’s top team.
Internationally, Niemelä impressed with an increased workload on Finland’s U-18 teams. Scouts taking notes on the young defenseman enjoyed a rare opportunity to see him competing in his own age group, where he was free to spread his wings.
He scored three assists in three games for Finland at the 2019 Hlinka Gretzky Cup, and more recently, at the U-18 Five Nations Tournament in the Czech Republic, logged over 20 minutes of TOI per game as Finland’s clear-cut No. 1 defenseman.
Other THW Draft Profiles
Topi Niemelä – NHL Draft Projection
Niemelä exploded up the NHL’s Central Scouting ranks throughout the season thanks to his impressive consistency in Liiga and his standout international play. He won’t show up much on the scoresheet, but his mobility, steadiness and impeccable anticipation skills will be what draws teams to him. While he’s pinpointed to be a mid-second-round pick, I predict his proven track record in leagues beyond his years — specifically this season against men — will have him selected with one of the first picks of the second round.
“Niemela is an effortless skater and accurate puck distributor who can take matters into his own hands when the chips are down in his own end. Defensively, he displays a strong upper body and can win one-on-one-battles behind the net, and Niemela is more than willing to engage and fight for positioning — He definitely is NOT a pushover against bigger forwards. Niemela looks to cover slot while using hard shoves or an active stick to ensure the opponent he’s battling.” – Steve Kournianos, The Draft Analyst
“Won’t often wow you with his offensive creativity, but blends intelligent reads with effective transitions. A heady player with a lot of upside. A modern, two-way defender with a very high floor and untapped potential.” – Cam Robinson, DobberProspects
“Niemelä’s biggest strength is his hockey smarts. He always knows where he should be and where his teammates are. He understands when he should join the rush and support an attack but he also knows when to hold back to make sure the opposing team doesn’t get a dangerous scoring chance. Niemelä is also a great skater which allows him to play that type of role. He can make above-average plays but isn’t the type of player who will make flashy high-end plays constantly. His hands and shot are good but not elite. His tools are good enough to get involved offensively but he won’t be a huge point-producer.” – Jokke Nevalainen, DobberProspects
- Well-rounded, right-shot defenseman
- Hockey IQ & intelligence
- Proven competitor beyond his age
- Lots of untapped potential
Under Construction – Improvements to Make
- Physical strength
- Defensive sturdiness
- Special teams
With boatloads of evidence to back up his ability to play in leagues above his age, Niemelä’s journey to the NHL should be smoother than almost any other international defenseman in this draft. He still needs to add muscle and gain more experience before he’s ready to debut in the NHL, but don’t be surprised if he makes the NHL earlier than his peers. In the long run, Niemelä projects to be a two-way, middle-pairing defenseman who can chip in on special teams.
Risk – 2/5, Reward – 3.5/5
Fantasy Hockey Potential
Offense – 6/10, Defense – 6.5/10
Niemelä was a U-20 Jr. A champion with Kärpät in 2018-19. He won a silver medal with Finland at the U-17 World Hockey Challenge tournament that year as well. This season, he had the distinction of being one of the youngest defensemen in Liiga. His team, Kärpät, finished first place in the standings.
Matt Cosman is a Sheridan College print journalism graduate from Oakville, Ontario. I’ve been with THW since 2019 covering the Carolina Hurricanes, one of my favorite childhood teams. When I’m not in my hockey bubble you can probably catch me jamming out on the piano or losing money at the poker tables.