Toronto Maple Leafs: Topi Niemelä Suddenly a Big Deal

EDMONTON, AB - JANUARY 02: Elmer Soderblom #25 of Sweden skates against Topi Niemela #7 of Finland during the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship quarterfinals at Rogers Place on January 2, 2021 in Edmonton, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
EDMONTON, AB - JANUARY 02: Elmer Soderblom #25 of Sweden skates against Topi Niemela #7 of Finland during the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship quarterfinals at Rogers Place on January 2, 2021 in Edmonton, Canada. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images) /
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After an impressive World Juniors tournament, Toronto Maple Leafs prospect Topi Niemelä looks to have a truly bright future ahead of him.

The Toronto Maple Leafs had six prospects participating at the World Juniors this year, but it was defenseman Topi Niemelä that caught the eye most of all.

Niemelä, who was taken in the third round (64th overall) of the 2020 Draft, helped guide Team Finland to the bronze medal, playing alongside fellow Leafs prospects Roni Hirvonen and Mikko Kokkonen.

It was the third round blueliner that earned the most recognition for his play, however, and he looks to have a truly promising professional career ahead of him.

Another Promising Leafs Blueline Prospect

In seven games at the World Juniors, Niemelä scored two goals and had eight total points, with his strong performances earning him the title of best defenseman at the tournament – seeing the 18-year-old Oulu native join some illustrious company. (All stats via Elite Prospects).

His strong showing could see him earn consideration for a leadership role at next season’s edition of the top international junior competition, showing even further developments.

While success at the World Juniors does not always guarantee success at the professional level, Niemelä has already been progressing with that regard back in his home country.

The Leafs selected Niemelä out of Kärpät of the SM-Liiga, the top league in Finland, where he had registered 43 regular season appearances during the 2019/20 campaign.

The 5-foot-11, 165lbs defenseman registered a goal and six assists during his draft year and has already been improving in his second professional season, adding three assists in the nine games he has played in the top tier.

Niemelä has had a stint in Finnish juniors at the start of the season, where he had four points (one goal, three assists) in six appearances before he began playing more regularly for Kärpät prior to the brief Covid-enforced pause on sports in the country.

With the World Juniors now over, Niemelä should be able to return to his home country and slot back into the Kärpät line-up, with the SM-Liiga back up and running.

A strong finish to the season could give the Toronto Maple Leafs plenty to consider when the 2021 season comes to a close, with the young defenseman able to make the jump to the AHL as soon as the team determines he is ready.

The Leafs have had some success in recent years with drafting and signing defensemen out of Europe, with Rasmus Sandin developing at an impressive pace while Mikko Kokkonen and Mikko Lehtonen both look to have interesting chances ahead of them, particularly the latter.

For Niemelä, he will be focused on continuing his impressive development to date, which will likely require putting on a few more pounds so that his transition to the North American game, which could be as early as late this year, is made easier.

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But it is clear that the Leafs may have landed a truly promising player that may have an accelerated development progression if he is able to take his recent successes and build on them.