Very reliable and smart two-way defenseman who will join the rush and get involved offensively. Reliable defensively already at young age which bodes well for his NHL future.
Click to Expand
May 2022 – Following an outstanding season in Liiga that saw him establish himself as a high-end prospect, Niemelä signed a three-year entry level contract with the Maple Leafs. He is also under contract with Kärpät again next season and barring a surprise training camp that earns him a spot on Toronto’s NHL roster, it is expected that he will be loaned back to Kärpät for at least one more season. Though he may still be a year or two away from making a legitimate push for NHL minutes, this is another step in the process and Niemelä should earn some valuable experience over the summer and into Leafs camp next fall. Nick Richard
January 2022 – Niemelä recently signed a one-year contract extension with Kärpät. It is still possible, if not likely, that he signs an entry level contract with the Leafs this coming offseason but unless he cracks the NHL roster out of camp, he will be loaned back to Liiga for the 2022-23 season. Nick Richard
December 2021 – Niemelä has been outstanding for Kärpät through the first couple months of the Liiga season. He currently leads his team – as well as all Liiga defenders – in scoring and is just a few points back of the overall league scoring lead as he tracks towards one of the best U20 seasons in Liiga history. It has been a steady climb for Niemelä since last year’s World Juniors and he is developing into one of the most exciting defensive prospects in hockey. He was recently named to Finland’s WJC roster for the second straight year and he is expected to be one of the stars of the tournament again this time around. The Leafs have to be thrilled with Niemelä’s progression since they took him in the third round of the 2020 NHL Draft. Nick Richard
August 2021 – Niemelä was something of a breakout star at last year’s World Juniors, earning Top Defenseman honors while helping Finland take home the bronze medal. He missed most of the second half of the Liiga season following the WJC as the result of a shoulder injury but seemed to pick up where he left off, tying for the scoring lead among defensemen at the World Junior Summer Showcase with two goals and four assists in six games.
Niemelä played a huge role at the WJSS, averaging just under 24 minutes of ice time per game, including time on both special teams units, and appears locked in as Finland’s top defenseman heading into the World Juniors. The young Finn drives play from the back end with good defensive reads and the mobility to elude oncoming forecheckers. His skating ability helps him maintain tight gaps in defensive transition because he can quickly recover on occasions where the play gets behind him. He still needs to add strength to his slight frame to become a more effective in-zone defender but he is a willing combatant in front of his net and along the boards, and his size doesn’t hold him back as much against his peers as it does at the Liiga level. The strongest parts of his game are his skating and overall hockey sense, and those skills should put him in contention for top defenseman honors once again when the World Juniors get underway. Nick Richard
April 2021 – Niemela has returned from his upper-body injury and has joined Karpat for the Liiga playoffs. He has picked up right where he left off in ice time (actually slightly up to the 17-minute mark) and in production with 2 points in 4 contests. Hayden Soboleski
February 2021 – Just 6 games back from his WJC injury, Niemela is now out for 6-8 weeks after a heavy hit into the boards. The injury appears to be upper-body but has not been officially disclosed. Hayden Soboleski
February 2021 – Niemela has returned from injury and is back in the lineup in Liiga. After his outstanding performance at the WJC, his ice time has jumped for Karpat which in turn has led to a jump in SOG totals – now averaging over 4 per game. His fantasy stock and expectations from Leafs fans continue to rise, it will be interesting to see which leagues the organization asks him to play in for 2022 and beyond. Hayden Soboleski
January 2021 – Anyone who didn’t know Niemela’s name before the WJC certainly knows it now. The 3rd-round pick was named the top defenseman of the tournament after tallying 8 points in 7 games and winning bronze with Team Finland. He put up these points even though he remained on the second powerplay unit for the majority of the contests. His stock has skyrocketed for anyone who already owns him, and he will be one of the most anticipated prospects to watch in next year’s tournament where is he eligible to return. Hayden Soboleski
December 2020 – Niemela has been named to Team Finland’s preliminary WJC roster. He’s spent time with both the Liiga and U20 Karpat squads so far in 2020-21 and has continued to show off his smarts on the blueline. He will never be a scoring dynamo or overly notable in points-only fantasy formats, but he continues to show good playmaking vision that leads to team offense – excellent vital signs. Hayden Soboleski
October 2020 – The Maple Leafs have selected Niemela in the 3rd round of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. This was an excellent value pick considering most pre-draft scouting rankings had him early or mid-second round. Like fellow Leafs draftee Hirvonen, 18-year-old Niemela already has a full year of Liiga hockey under his belt, currently in his second season playing against men. He isn’t a big point producer but his strong transition play and skating skill makes him a relatively “safe” pick by draft standards. He projects as a 2nd or 3rd-pair dman capable of multi-category value should he take the next step as a bigger-minute player than he currently is in Liiga. Hayden Soboleski
November 2019 – Niemelä surprised a lot of people when he started the season with Kärpät’s Liiga team. Last season was his first at the top junior level, and he played a relatively limited role there. The expectation was that Niemelä would play a major role at the junior level and maybe get a game or two at the men’s level – especially because he’s in the Kärpät organization which is known for their crazy amount of depth. But Niemelä forced the issue by playing so well that it was impossible for the Kärpät coaching staff to send him back to junior. Niemelä hasn’t played a big role this season but he’s played almost all the games and been a regular on the third pair even though they usually have seven defensemen on the roster each game. Niemelä has averaged 13:32 per game which is sixth most on the team among defensemen. He has played some shifts on both special teams but hasn’t been a regular on either.
Niemelä’s biggest strength is his hockey smarts. He always knows where he should be and where his teammates are. He understands when he should join the rush and support an attack but he also knows when to hold back to make sure the opposing team doesn’t get a dangerous scoring chance. Niemelä is also a great skater which allows him to play that type of role. He can make above-average plays but isn’t the type of player who will make flashy high-end plays constantly. His hands and shot are good but not elite. His tools are good enough to get involved offensively but he won’t be a huge point-producer.
Niemelä had an impressive performance at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, and he is a lock for Team Finland at the U18 Worlds. But there’s a very good chance he gets to play at the U20 World Juniors as well. His stats may not look impressive but it’s important to remember he’s always played way above his age group which has limited his offensive opportunities. Right now, Niemelä is a projected second round pick for the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. But as we saw this past summer with Tobias Björnfot, Niemelä could get drafted much higher if a team really likes a player who projects to become a minute-muncher at the NHL level and doesn’t require a whole lot of time before he’s ready to play there. Jokke Nevalainen