This year’s draft class is expected to be forward heavy at the top and then feature some quality defensemen available in the late 1st and 2nd rounds. Topi Niemelä is a Finnish defenseman with professional experience that saw his stock rise this past season. He has a solid foundation to his skill-set to keep developing his game and is expected to be one of the defenseman in that 2nd tier of prospects at that position to go off the board. This profile will take a look at his game, what he’s accomplished in his career to date, and where he might go in the draft.
Who is Topi Niemelä?
According to his player page on the Liiga site, Topi Niemelä is a 6’0”, 163 lbs. right handed defenseman from Oulu, Finland. He was born on March 25, 2002 so he spent the season as a 17 year old playing for Kärpät, the top team in Finland’s highest league. His ability to play a regular role at that level and for a team of that caliber makes him one of the higher ranked defenseman available in this year’s draft.
Thanks to his Elite Prospects page, we can find out more about him since the 2016-17 season. That was the season when Niemelä first started to advance from the youth level to junior ranks for Kärpät, making 3 appearances for the U16 team as a 14 year old in the Jr. C SM-sarja. The 2017-18 season would see him move the junior level full time, mainly at the U18 level as a 15 year old. He did make 4 appearances for the U16 team where he had 6 goals and 6 assists in regular season action. In the playoffs he had 2 goals and 3 assists in 4 games. He helped the team capture a Jr. C SM-sarja Silver Medal. He spent most of the year with the Kärpät U18 in the Jr. B SM-sarja. In 36 regular season games he had 2 goals and 7 assists. Those 9 points ranked 6th among all U16 defensemen in the league that season. He helped the team win a Jr. B SM-sarja Bronze Medal. He also made his international debut for Finland, playing in 11 games for the U16 team where he had 2 gaols and 8 assists.
The 2018-19 season would see Niemelä continue to play up from his age group. As a 16 year old he played mainly at the U20 level and also a bit a the U18 level. In 6 games with Kärpät U18 he had a goal and 5 assists in regular season action. In his only playoff appearance he had an assist. He spent most of the season with the U20 team in the highest level of Finnish junior hockey, the Jr. A SM-liiga. He put up a goal and 7 assists in 39 regular season games. He had a goal and 3 assists in 11 playoff games as the team won the Championship. His 8 regular season points ranked 2nd among all U17 defensemen in the league. He also represented Finland at the U17 and U18 levels. He notably had an assist in 6 games for Finland at the U17 World Championships where they took home a Silver Medal. In 5 games at the U18 World Championship he notched a goal.
This past season saw Niemelä become a professional at the highest level in Finnish hockey. He played in 43 games for Kärpät in the Liiga with a goal, 6 assists, 8 PIM, and +4. He shot at 1.00% and averaged 2.33 shots per game while averaging 12:51 in ice time per game. His 7 points led all U18 defensemen in Liiga. At the time of the cancellation of the season, Kärpät was the top team in the league. He also had 2 assists in 4 games of Champions Hockey League action, giving him more international experience. Niemelä also made one appearance for the U20 team with an assist in junior hockey action. He did feature in U18 and U20 for Finland in international play, notably putting up 3 assists in 3 games at the prominent U18 tournament, the Hlinka Gretzky Cup. According to Elite Prospects, he is signed with Kärpät through next season.
Where is Topi Niemelä Ranked?
#8 European Skaters - NHL Central Scouting (Final Ranking)
#34 - Future Considerations (March Ranking)
#51 - The Draft Analyst (March Ranking)
#51 - TSN - Bob McKenzie (Midseason Ranking)
#46 - TSN - Craig Button (March Ranking)
#24 - Dobber Prospects - Cam Robinson (April Ranking)
Colin Cudmore’s (@CudmoreColin) “Expected Pick Range” tool which takes rankings from 34 sources has Niemelä listed to go anywhere from 30th to 45th based on the latest April rankings. On his Google Sheet which has a compilation of the rankings, Niemelä is listed at #40 out of all the prospects that have been ranked by at least 50% of the sources. It seems that Niemelä is a bit of a divisive prospect, with some outlets ranking him towards the back of the 1st round or early 2nd round while others see him more as a late 2nd round pick.
What Others Say About Topi Niemelä
Back in March, Jokke Nevalainen of Dobber Prospects took a deep dive into Topi Niemelä’s game. As noted in the article, Nevalainen has had over 30 viewings of Niemelä in the past 2 years and has conducted almost 20 minutes of interviews with the prospect. If anyone knows what Niemelä brings to the table, then it’s Nevalainen. I highly suggests reading the whole thing and I’ll highlight a few parts below. First, the author mentions that Niemelä wasn’t a big prospect entering the season but rose up the rankings due to his play in Liiga. Here is some background on how Niemelä earned that full time role this past season:
But not even the biggest Niemelä fans expected him to be a full-time player at the men’s level this season – especially when he was in the Kärpät organization which has a perennial powerhouse team each and every year. “Topi was probably our number eight or nine defenseman”, said Mikko Manner, the head coach of the Kärpät team in the Liiga. “After one of our defenseman was injured, Topi took his spot on the third pair and he has managed to keep that spot. He’s been our biggest positive surprise this season”, Manner continued.
On Niemelä’s style of play, it is noted that his versatility is one his strengths:
Niemelä can be one who pinches in the offensive zone and takes part in the cycle game or he can be the one who stays back as a safety. He can carry the puck up the ice and he can also make great breakout passes but he can also just use his skating to join the rush. He can be the one protecting the front of the net or he can be actively pursuing the opposing forwards and trying to disrupt their cycle game. Seems like he can just do it all. And that’s why his hockey sense gets such high marks. He is a smart player who reads the situation and acts accordingly. Because he can do a number of different things, he can choose the best option for each situation and remain unpredictable.
In regards to Niemelä’s path to the NHL and projection:
Niemelä is expected to need another year or two of development before challenging for a spot on an NHL roster. Long-term, I am not expecting him to become an offensive dynamo but rather a reliable two-way defenseman who can play big minutes at even strength and be a secondary option on both special teams – think of Matt Niskanen if you want to compare him to a current NHL player. A steady 30-point defenseman with upside for more in the right situation.
Back in December, Ben Kerr of Last Word on Hockey had this to say about Niemelä’s game:
Niemela has very good mobility, which allows him to play a strong two-way game. He has good gap control and is strong positionally, leading to a strong defensive game. As he continues to add weight to his frame he will become even better. He moves the puck out of the zone quickly with a good first pass, as well as the ability to skate the puck out danger with good stickhandling ability. Niemela could be a bit more creative with the puck though. He makes the smart and simple play more often than not.
That seems to back up what Nevalainen said, notably that Niemelä plays a smart defensive game and can help move the puck with his passing and skating. I do like that Kerr noted that Niemelä has good gap control.
In February, Steve Kournianos of The Draft Analyst ranked Niemelä 7th among the Finnish prospects eligible for this year’s draft. Here is some of what he had to say about the defenseman:
Two things Niemela can deliver at a high level are puck rushing and shooting. If he isn’t skating the puck out on his own, Niemela will deliver crisp stretch passes or catch a forward in stride with a bank pass. Once the puck is off his stick, Niemela puts his head down and motors up ice in search of a gap to exploit or a rush to join. Inside the offensive end, Niemela likes to hammer pucks from just about anywhere, and he’s comfortable dropping down into the circle for a one-timer. He may not present a big windup but Niemela still generates a significant amount of power on his slapper, which he rarely hesitates to use.
As good a skater as Niemela is, he sometimes gets too involved in a given possession and is unable to retreat in time to even out the numbers. Niemela also seems to attempt high-risk passes, albeit with an acceptable completion percentage.
That first part also backs up what others have said about Niemelä as an above average puck mover. I like that Niemelä isn’t afraid to get involved offensively and use his shot. Even if he isn’t scoring it’s still going to create chances for his teammates to find deflections or rebounds. The second part I highlighted could be a concern for Niemelä as he will have to be more careful with the puck as he makes his way towards the NHL.
Also, back in February, Kournianos put out this U18 Five Nations recap. Here is what he had to share about Niemelä:
Niemela was Finland’s defensive star for the tournament, not only for his shutdown ability and consistency in pushing the puck up ice, but also for logging major minutes. He averaged nearly 22 minutes a game, including a team-high 25:26 in the win over Sweden on Feb. 7. The Finns seemed to rotate power-play quarterbacks on the first unit, but Niemela saw plenty of time during the man advantage, where his keen instincts and quick feet helped keep plays alive inside the opposing end. The stats may indicate that he recorded only one assist in four games, but the more important takeaway from Niemela’s tournament (besides helping his team to victory) was that he was on the ice for eight goals scored, of which seven were scored by Finland.
It seems that when playing against his age group, Niemelä already has an above average defensive game. I liked that he was able to get some PP time in that tournament as he hasn’t had that since moving from the junior level to the pro’s at the club level.
Finally, here is what Bill Placzek of Draft Site had to say about the defenseman:
Slightly built under six foot Finnish defender with four direction skating ability and solid positioning, and active stick. Displays good vision and good offensive skills with his mobility and feet and the jump from junior to Karpat has furthered his progression. Keeps his head up and makes plays and has a really good shot. Walks the blue line on the power play for the right opening to shoot and has shown good instincts when on the point as to when to crept in. Gets overpowered in his end by the bigger stronger, older opposing players. Needs lots of upper body development, but there is plenty to like.
Regarding the last part of that report, it seems like his hockey IQ is already there to understand the defensive side of the game. I would expect as he puts more muscle on his frame over the next few years, for him to no longer have those issues with physical play.
A Little Video
With Niemelä being a bit unknown coming into the year and likely in the 2nd round territory, there isn’t a ton of video available on him. Here is one YouTube video that has some highlights that was posted almost 2 years ago:
You can see his shooting, passing, and puck carrying abilities on display. Steve Kournianos on twitter also has this higlight of Niemelä’s first Liiga goal from this past season:
#SMLiiga: RHD Topi Niemela (Ranked No. 67) snaps home his first career Liiga game for Karpat. Was identified as one of my top-seven sleepers for the #2020NHLDraft but he's not a sleeper anymore. At least not to me. He's…— Steve Kournianos (@TheDraftAnalyst) September 12, 2019
https://t.co/7AcPtEgmmU via https://t.co/r0OWBqxU5A pic.twitter.com/Q8TkvAMMJN
An Opinion of Sorts
I find Topi Niemelä to be an intriguing, if somewhat puzzling prospect for a few reasons. First, he’s consistently played above his age group as a junior hockey player and then made the jump to playing in a high level men’s league at the age of 17. Secondly, he earned a spot on the top team in the league, Kärpät, which also happens to be one of the most successful clubs in Finnish hockey. He could’ve been easily replaced at any point but he was able to solidify his role. Now on the bright side, some may look at that and say it’s impressive he was able to hold his own and be a regular contributor on the third pairing at his age and with his lack of size. On the other hand, others may take a more sobering view that he was “protected” by playing limited minutes with a veteran D partner in team captain and NHL vet Lasse Kukkonen on his side. Also, some may find the lack of special teams time concerning, though when playing internationally with his age group, he has shown the ability to play those roles. Finally, it seems like that he’s the type of prospect that does a lot of things well but doesn’t have a true standout aspect of his game. I like that he’s a versatile, two-way defenseman. I like that his defensive IQ makes him an asset in his own zone, that he can break the puck out by skating or passing it, and that he can make plays happen in the offensive zone. But while that is a solid skill-set that is appealing, the lack of a true breakout skill does give me some pause. I think it’s hard to pin down exactly where his potential lands due to a few factors.
At 6’0”, 163 lbs. he stands to put on more muscle which will help him be able to hold his own against men, something that he struggled with in his own zone. At the same time, there are concerns that the added mass could take away from one of his biggest strengths which is his 4-way mobility. His ceiling and floor seem to be wider than some of the other top defensemen in this year’s draft which makes him a bit risky, even if you could land him in the late 2nd round. He could develop into versatile 2nd pairing D that can play a two-way game and move the puck with ease. He could end up never being able to make the transition to the North American game and making his career in Europe. I think when you look at the risk vs. reward for a prospect like him, he’s not a player I’d want to target aggressively in the draft. If the Devils found themselves acquiring a late 2nd or 3rd round pick and Niemelä was available, I’d have no problem taking him. Given the quality of this draft and some of the other defenseman, I wouldn’t want to risk using a late 1st or early 2nd on a player that has the question marks Niemelä has at this point in his development. With all that said, I am very interested in seeing how his career turns out and wish him the best.
What are your thoughts on Topi Niemelä? What do you think his upside is and how likely do you think it is that he reaches that upside? Around what spot in the draft do you think he should be selected? Where do you have him ranked compared to the other defensemen available? Leave your comments below and thank you for reading!