With the 64th overall selection in the 2020 NHL Draft, the Toronto Maple Leafs have selected 5’11, 160-pound right-shot defenseman Topi Niemela of Karpat in SM-Liiga.

This 64th overall selection was acquired in the trade-down transaction with the Ottawa Senators (TOR’s 44th overall in exchange for NYI’s 59th overall and OTT’s 64th overall).

Here are Niemela’s pre-draft rankings, with Bob McKenzie and Kevin Papetti ranking him as high as 38 and 40, respectively, and the Blackbook much lower on Niemela’s pedigree at 69:

  • Ranked 69th by
  • Ranked 40th by
  • Ranked 37th by Future Considerations
  • Ranked 47th by TSN’s Craig Button
  • Ranked 42nd by McKeen’s Hockey
  • Ranked 8th by NHL Central Scouting (EU Skaters)
  • Ranked 38th by TSN’s Bob McKenzie

The second consecutive Finn the Leafs have drafted after the selection of Roni Hirvonen at 59th overall — and third Euro in a row after the selection of Rodion Amirov in the first round — Niemela is a standout transition defender who plays a mature game for his age. He played 43 games in Finland’s pro league last year and was a standout at both the Hlinka-Gretzky and Five Nations tournament. He’s a good four-way skater and stick-on-stick defender. While the offensive upside doesn’t quite jump off the page, his well-rounded skill set has made him a consistent top performer at international events.

MLHS’ Kevin Papetti considered Niemela to be a particularly safe pick in the second round, noting there are no major flaws in his game and that he is going to be able to keep up with NHL forwards. He’s not quite big and strong enough to be a prototypical shutdown defenseman, but he shuts down opposing zone entries so well that he doesn’t spend a ton of time in his own end. He has a shot to play on both special teams at the NHL level just like he’s done for Finland in the past, although he’ll probably end up on the second unit in both cases.

Papetti noted that his skating makes him a safe bet to be an NHL player. He’s a capable puck-mover rather than an outstanding one, but his skating consistently allows him to tilt the ice in his team’s favour.

Director of Amateur Scouting John Lilley on Topi Niemela

Another guy at Karpat that we took. He is a 5’11.5 defenseman. He is a really good defender. He is really quick to close gaps and take away time and space. Again, last year, as a 17-year-old, he played in the Finnish elite league and was excellent at defending. He is a first-pass guy — not necessarily going to go on your power play, but really good at defending. Good instincts. Again, not the biggest guy, so he’s not overly physical at this time — just because he is playing against men as a young kid — but he’s very smart defensively. For us, he has some of the best defensive instincts in the entire draft.

Topi Niemela Scouting Report

courtesy of the 2020 Blackbook (buy now)

Niemela played 43 games this past season with Karpat in Liiga. He amassed seven points while playing just under 13 minutes per game. He also played internationally with the U-18 and U-20 national teams but failed to make the World Juniors’ roster.

Niemela is a puck-moving defenseman; he has good tools to help a team’s transition game with his good puck-rushing abilities and good first pass out of his zone. His straight-line speed is fine, but it could be more explosive. As he gets stronger physically, he could add some power to his stride. He does, however, have a quick burst of speed that he uses occasionally to rush the puck, or even retrieve it in his own zone. He just needs to use that extra gear more consistently in order to make more of an impact. He also has some adjustments to make in terms of backwards skating; we have seen him struggle when defending against speed. If he gets caught flat-footed in the neutral zone, he has a tough time getting back into the play.

Due to his size, we still have some question marks regarding his skating when projecting him to the NHL. We prefer defensemen of Niemela’s size to have elite skating abilities, and he has some work to do before getting there. He also needs to make better reads when defending. He likes to be aggressive in the neutral zone and lacks the speed to get back defensively when this approach does not work out in his favour. When defending in his own zone, he has a good compete level, battling hard, but he’s physically limited due to his lack of strength. This was pretty obvious when watching him battle against Liiga opponents in front of the net or along the boards. He relies heavily on his good stick and strong positional defense in order to be efficient on the back end.

Offensively, he has some potential, although he has not put up huge numbers offensively at any level, leading us to believe that he lacks the creativity to be a big point producer. He has good puck skills and a decent ability to put pucks on net, but we do not consider him to be a top power-play guy when projecting him. He’s got a quick release on his wrist shot and does a good job finding shooting lanes by moving laterally on the blueline. Both his wrist shot and his slapshot are accurate, but he is not a threat on the point due to what he lacks in terms of velocity. He’s not huge, either, but we like his compete level. He battles hard in one-on-one confrontations, and it’s not for a lack of trying that he doesn’t always win.

Niemela is a player who will need some time to physically mature. Playing in Liiga over the next few years will allow him to do just that. He should also be a key player for Finland internationally. We project him more as a third-pairing puck mover with decent skating abilities.

Topi Niemela Video

Topi Niemela Statistics

2016-17Kärpät U16U16 SM-sarja Q10000|-
Kärpät U16U16 SM-sarja22460|-
2017-18Kärpät U16U16 SM-sarja466120|Playoffs42350
Kärpät U18U18 SM-sarja3627936|Playoffs10000
Finland U16 (all)International-Jr11281010|-
2018-19Kärpät U18U18 SM-sarja615618|Playoffs10110
Kärpät U20Jr. A SM-liiga391781612|Playoffs1113428
Finland U17WHC-1760112|-
Finland U17 (all)International-Jr120334|-
Finland U18WJC-1851010-2|-
Finland U18 (all)International-Jr1623518|-
2019-20Kärpät U20Jr. A SM-liiga101101|Playoffs10000-2
Finland U18 (all)International-Jr90442|-
Finland U20 (all)International-Jr90442|-
2020-21Kärpät U20U20 SM-sarja312301|-