Grading the Maple Leafs’ 2020 NHL Draft Class: Topi Niemela

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Here’s my analysis and scouting report for Leafs draftee Topi Niemela. If you’re interested, check out the full article here.

Topi Niemela

Drafted: Round 3, 64th overall
Age: 18, turning 19 on March 25th
Height: 6’0
Weight: 163 lbs
Position: RD
2019-20 Season: 1g/6a/7p in 43 games with Karpat (SM-Liiga), 0g/1a/1p in game with Karpat U20 (Jr. A SM-Liiga)
2020-21 Season as of October 7th: 1g/3a/4p in 4 games with Karpat U20 (U20 SM-Sarja), Set to play with the main club.
Projected Draft Position: Early to Mid-Second Round

Another pick from Finland, for good reason. Getting Topi Niemela in the third round feels like another case of robbery by the Leafs. 

Niemela looks like the prototypical defenseman of the future. The slightly undersized defenseman uses his skating and hockey IQ to be a force both offensively and defensively.

Let’s get into his game.

Offensively, Niemela does more than you’d expect from a player of his age, especially as a defenseman. When he does produce shots, he generally shoots from the point with the intent of landing a teammate a rebound/deflection. His shots generally lack power, but what he lacks in strength, he has in smarts. His decision-making abilities allow him to make the right play when needed, and it’s also what allows him to go further up front when needed.

His playmaking abilities are excellent. He’s able to use his vision and hockey IQ to make accurate passes, even at the pro level already.

His skating is good. It allows him to get back into position if he ever decides to go deep into the offensive zone.

However, the defenseman doesn’t sacrifice his defensive game for offense. His mobility and smarts allow him to read plays and stop them quickly. His lack of strength means he’s usually reliant on his stick to break up plays, however, it hasn’t landed him many penalties for doing so.

In 2019-20, Niemela played the most games among U18 defensemen in SM-Liiga, Finland’s highest professional hockey league. Although he’s currently getting games at the junior level, Niemela is set to once again spend a significant amount of time playing among men.

The one thing I really want Niemela to do is build up his strength. He has the smarts defensively, but he struggles to outmuscle and battle guys when needed sometimes (not a shock, he’s a teenager playing against men). I also want him to get more power in his shot. Unless he can more accurately use his shot to set up teammates, his shot is something that lacks at the moment. Even though he knows when to use it, it feels like he finds himself putting muffins on net at times. Hopefully, as he develops, that’s something that is solved by working on his strength.

Grade: A

I really like this pick! He’s a guy that shows loads of potential, and he’s already finding success playing against tough competition.

I see Niemela as a guy who has the potential to become a top-four defenseman in the NHL. I’d project him to become a second-pairing defenseman. He’s built to be a new age defenseman in the NHL, and he doesn’t shy away from physicality at all. I think that as he develops more strength, he’ll definitely be able to become a #4 defenseman in the NHL.

Just an amazing pick for the Leafs, he’s someone who could definitely fit into the Leafs’ future, and I think he’ll be interesting to keep an eye on.

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Spencer White is an Editor of Hockey at Overtime Heroics. He writes about hockey, covering the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Marlies, Newfoundland Growlers, and the Toronto Six. You can find him on Twitter at @FreeNylander, @MagicianMarner, and @LeafsMoves.