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For those who may not remember this, or haven't bothered counting because why would you, it's pop quiz time! How many defensemen have already been included in these T25U25 rankings?
You don't need to go looking it up, because the answer is three: Kokkonen (25), Chadwick (18) and Villeneuve (16). All three of them are extreme longshots to become much of anything in the NHL. After a Villeneuve we had a big gap until our next blueliner: Topi Niemelä.
|Age as of July 1||21.1|
While we do have more defensemen coming up in the rest of the rankings, to me it is a sign that Toronto's cupboards are pretty bare for young, quality defensemen. And that puts Niemelä in a pretty unique situation on our list.
Topi Niemelä's story has been covered frequently and exhaustively by now, both here and by other people. So here's the Coles notes (that's CliffsNotes for you Americans):
- Drafted 64th overall in 2020
- Had 7 points in 43 games in the Liiga in his draft year, and 4 points in 9 games for Team Finland
- Had 4 points in 15 games in his D+1 season, with time missed due to the pandemic, him having to quarantine for the World Juniors before/after it, and getting injured right after finally rejoining his Liiga team.
- Had 8 points in 7 games for Finland at the World Juniors, and named the Top Defenseman of the tournament
- Had a breakout Liiga season in his D+2 year, setting a record for U20 defensemen in the league for points with 32 in 48 games. Added 13 points in 16 games for Finland.
- Had 18 points in 58 games in his D+3 Liiga season
- Joined the Marlies for the first time, had 2 points in 6 regular season games then 5 points in 7 playoff games.
- This coming season will be his first full AHL season as a 21 year old.
Who he is as a player has also been covered well. In short, he is a small-ish but very intelligent two-way defenseman. He was drafted with a reputation of being more defense first, though his defense comes mostly from being a great skater and making smart decisions. Over time, he had the chance to show off his offensive capabilities. Here I'll share a good video from Elite Prospects on his big breakout season in the Liiga to touch on the things he does well offensively:
The issues Niemelä has are those he's always had. His defensive value takes a hit because he hasn't had the strength needed to really shut things down in his own end. Against rushes, he can use his skating, stick and smarts to knock the puck away or force dump ins. In his own end, it's harder for him to defend against the cycle or clear his man in front of the net. You can see he tries and does well overall, but his effectiveness has been limited.
It's easy to say "just get stronger and add muscle", but for some people it is biologically more difficult. So there is no guarantee that Niemelä will be able to do that – not that I know either way. But I am hoping that he will have the chance this off-season to work closely with Toronto's coaching and development staff to improve in this area more than he has in the past.
Niemelä doesn't even necessarily need to become completely hulked up. Being so nimble and maneuverable is what he excels at, and bulking up can affect that as a tradeoff for helping him in other areas. Even without it, he's been used as an all situations, top pairing defenseman everywhere he's played. He seems poised to be on the Marlies top pair this season as well, so a lot of us will be getting the chance to see him up close and personal for the first time. We can see what improvements he's made first hand, and how far away from the NHL he is.
I ranked Niemelä third on my list, tied for the highest vote ( shout out Zone Entry). Cathy was lowest on him at 10th, with the rest having him 5th, 6th, or 7th. The reason why I ranked him that high is simple – he's one of the players I just really like, so he gets put to the front of the tier I had him in. I am reasonably certain (enough) that he can be as good of an NHLer as Holmberg or Timmins who I had in the same range, but I also think he has more of a chance to become better.
Here's where the others ranked him:
Here's what the other voters had to say:
dhammm: Niemela didn't improve his stock if you're looking only at his boxcars, following up a breakout 2021-22 campaign with a somewhat bland 2022-23 season, but there were a lot more paths down than up from that peak. There's a spot in the Marlies' top 4 with his name written on it, and I'm excited to see what he does with it.
Catch-67: I think Niemelä’s play in the AHL this year really cements his spot on this list. He came in in a new league on a different-sized ice surface late in the season and became a top defender on the Marlies immediately where the players behind him either struggled to make as much of a difference or are much older. It will be interesting to see where his skills can take him — I don’t know if he’ll have the pure offensive talent to make the Leafs through offensive talent, and transition play can only get you so far. Still, I have hope that Niemelä’s game will continue to develop to a point where he can be a solid NHL contributor down the road.
Cathy: I ranked Niemelä in the tier of players who are possible NHL depth, but not sure things to me because of several factors. It's not at all a case of looking at his development and being disappointed, but of re-evaluation of my own thinking about draftees from the Liiga, defence prospects in general and Niemelä as an individual. The move to a 4F (or even 5F) power play makes offensive defenders less useful. The way players shoot in the NHL now – closer to the net and with a lot of pre-shot movement makes agile defence more valuable and offence from some types of defenders less valuable. A player needs to be Erik Karlsson or Brent Burns before all-0ffence can net out to an impactful benefit. Points can disguise the full picture on a defender whose defence is a weakness at lower levels in the lineup. I also don't believe in the AHL to NHL conveyor belt, and being a top D on the Marlies can mean you're Rasmus Sandin, Carl Dahlström, Mac Hollowell, TJ Brennan, Stu Percy or Calle Rosén – it's no guarantee of future impact. But at only 21, Niemelä is also liable to improve. So was I over-ranking him before, as I now believe, or under-ranking him now?
Species: Much like Catch-67 above, I really liked what I saw from Niemelä, but I didn't increase my ranking because he became their top defender as he was displacing the likes of Tommy Miller, and most of you are probably right now saying "Who?", though Miller has been re-signed by the Marlies and he's actually a perfectly fine AHL defender who can easily carve out a career there, but I want to establish first that was the bar Niemelä had to make it over to be an impact player on the Marlies last season, and it was not as high a bar as the days when Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin were still playing on the team.
What I saw that propelled him so high up the ranks was his speed, or more specifically his acceleration and quick thinking and reaction to the game. Switching so suddenly from the Finnish Liiga over to North America to play in the AHL appeared to take no effort for him. Indeed, he famously stepped in to his first Marlies game with no practice time with the team at all. He almost literally got off a flight at Pearson, took a taxi over to the arena and suited up to play, and he was a dominant defender on the ice in that game.
His acceleration and agility were so obviously above the AHL level, and he continued to be impressive in that way for most games that followed even though the whole team was struggling for a good performance then at the end of the season. Ultimately, it didn't matter how high the bar was on the Marlies for him to cross, he looked like a player who would have cleared any bar there anyway. He's in a class like Sandin and Liljegren when they were on the team obviously training to move up to the NHL.
All of that doesn't change that he's still a prospect with much to learn, and that with these high expectations he has to prove he's learned it—all of it—this season, but that's the baseline expectation for any young defenceman you know is going to move on up to the NHL.
Also he has the thickest Finnish accent of any player I've heard when he talks in English, and it's adorable. That alone bumped him up one notch for me!
Hardev: Matt Finn, Stuart Percy, Travis Dermott, Rasmus Sandin, Topi Niemelä? I couldn't care less about defender points unless they were, as Cathy said, Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, or Morgan Rielly. I also don't see the value an offensive third pair defender has in the NHL. Their relative stats are usually incredible, but I haven't seen many defenders with those results actually accomplish more.
Those who "did" included Sean Durzi, who's going to be on Arizona's first pair, and Sandin, who went to Washington's top-four to fill out a dual-role of rebuilding the franchise and passing the puck to Ovi. Neither role applies to the Leafs. Dermott flamed out, Colin Miller flamed out. Rasmus Dahlin had the benefit of being a teenager in the NHL and finally blossomed into a star.
Can Niemelä get up to the level of average NHLer? His comparables don't make me think so. I'm sitting on the skeptical side. At the time of voting, I was convinced of his AHL impressiveness, but in hindsight I'm wondering if my vote should've been where Cathy had him. Maybe even flip him with Cowan.
Factors working for Niemelä will depend on whether he can prove he's too good for the AHL by Diwali. If he can, he's a righty with a relatively open road on the Leafs defense. There's no concern whether they'll have to scratch Giordano, which will help him in the same way it helped Liljegren. What's hurting Niemelä is the fact that the Leafs aren't in the business of developing defenders in the NHL. They're in the business of winning, which is why Sandin isn't here anymore and Liljegren can sometimes look like he's hanging on by a thread.
That's what we all think, and now it's your turn! How much do you believe in Niemelä's chances of being an impact NHL player? Let us know your thoughts on him.
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