The Toronto Maple Leafs have the rights to a prospect with star potential. At the conclusion of the season, his stock has never been higher.
The Toronto Maple Leafs drafted Topi Niemelä in the third round, 64th overall, in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. While the organization liked his game back then, they must love it now. He is by far their most exciting prospect.
Niemelä’s season ended when his club team, Oulun Kärpät, in the Finish Liiga was eliminated in the quarter-finals by Ilves. He registered just a single assist in the six postseason games he played. However, in the regular season, Niemelä went off. In 48 games, he had 10 goals and 22 assists for a total of 32 points.
It was good enough to be the fourth highest sum on the team.
Toronto Maple Leafs and Topi Niemela
For those who aren’t familiar with Niemelä, reading those figures, they would likely imagine that he is either a center or winger. In actuality, he’s a defenseman. Also, for those who don’t watch the games, they would expect that most of his points came on the powerplay. In actuality, only one of his goals this season did.
Niemelä has taken his offensive game to the next level since the Leafs selected him at age 18. At the time, coming off his first year with the Kärpät pro squad, he managed to only notch seven points on a goal and six assists in 43 contests. When he was younger, he demonstrated in small samples that he had this offensive ability and he even won the award for Best Defenseman at the IIHF 2021 World Junior Hockey Championships after piecing together eight points in seven games. Even with that experience, the degree in which Niemelä’s currently performing is a surprise for even seasoned scouts.
For the Toronto Maple Leafs fans who aren’t impressed yet with this young blue liner’s production, they need to only look at what one of his teammates was able to accomplish. Former NHL left-winger Jussi Jokinen also plays on Kärpät. After 951 NHL games, where he accrued 191 goals and 372 assists, Jokinen went to continue his career in Finland. Now, at age 37, he finished this season with 26 points. In 51 contests, he registered 9 goals and 17 assists, giving him six points less than Niemelä.
What makes Niemelä special isn’t just his offense and the way he proficiently joins the rush but also how he is able to defend. He creates difficulty for his opponents thanks to his ability to accelerate at high speeds, moving both forward and backwards. Combined with playing a positionally sound game and competent stick handling, Niemelä’s coach, Lauri Marjamäki, doesn’t ever need to worry about putting the young defenseman on the ice.
If Niemelä continues to improve his game, there’s no telling what he will be able to accomplish. The development the Leafs have seen thus far is exciting, with the potential of seeing their prospect become a star once he takes his game to North America.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have yet to sign Niemelä, which may worry some. There’s no need to panic. His rights belong to Toronto until June 1, 2024. There’s still plenty of time left for the Leafs to bring Niemelä to Toronto.