This morning, the Maple Leafs inked a pair of Finnish prospects selected in the 2020 NHL Draft, C/W Roni Hirvonen and D Topi Niemela, to three-year entry-level contracts.
Niemela and Hirvonen are regarded as two of Toronto’s top prospects now that Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren have graduated to the next level. Many will recall that the picks used to acquire these two players came via a trade down in which Kyle Dubas moved a second-round pick to the Ottawa Senators — with which they selected D Tyler Kleven — in exchange for a later second (which became Hirvonen) and an early third (which became Niemela).
Let’s start with Niemela, who many fans know from his breakout appearance at the 2021 World Juniors. Niemela took a step forward in 2021-22 in his first full season playing in the Liiga — Finland’s top pro league — where he finished second among all regular defensemen (and second among all U20 skaters) in points-per-game.
Niemela is a 5’11, right-shot D who brings high-level hockey sense to the table. He’s only about 170 pounds right now and will need to continue to bulk up to ensure that he can defend the front of the net and win board battles at the next level, but his skating ability, hockey sense, and raw skill give him clear top-four upside.
A lot of what the 20-year-old does will translate to the style the Leafs play. His offensive progression was driven by his ability to activate with and without the puck in the offensive zone, something the Leafs emphasize with their defensemen.
#Leafs Topi Niemela is so good at off-puck reads/offensive zone timing. Love the way he is always on the move, looking to create a passing option for his teammates. Really helps him improve his shot locations. Good clip of it here: pic.twitter.com/dENhwB4ihh
— Josh Simpson (@joshsimpson77) January 15, 2021
Hirvonen, who was the higher drafted of the two, profiles as a responsible, versatile middle-six forward who can play center or wing. He’s not the biggest or the fastest, but his hockey sense allows him to be more productive than the sum of his parts.
More of a playmaker than a shooter, Hirvonen’s passing ability has always been his calling card offensively, but he did make notable improvements to his shot this season, adding a one-timer to his arsenal and increasing his shot volume from 2.7 to 3.6 attempts per game.
While he’s only 5’9, Hirvonen already weighs in at 172 pounds and his stocky stature allows him to hold onto the puck in tight quarters despite playing against men in the Liiga over the past three seasons. He finished fourth among U20 skaters in both points and points-per-game this season.
Roni Hirvonen hits the highlight reel for the second time in as many days. He’s heating up. #Leafs pic.twitter.com/qzX9X7Nt6T
— Josh Simpson (@joshsimpson77) November 21, 2020
Both of these prospects have contracts in Finland for next season, but I expect them to report to the Marlies by the end of their 2022-23 seasons. They will also, in all likelihood, represent Finland at the World Juniors this August. Both were big parts of Team Finland in 2021; Hirvonen was the team’s captain and Niemela their top defenseman in the few games they were able to play in this year’s World Juniors before COVID shut it down.