Prospect Deep Dive: Topi Niemelä

by Jokke Nevalainen on March 8, 2020

 

Topi Niemelä is a 17-year-old right-handed shot defenseman who plays for Kärpät in the Finnish Liiga, the top men’s level in the country, and he is eligible for the 2020 NHL Entry Draft. Here are the basic facts of him:

 

Name: Topi Niemelä

Team: Kärpät (Liiga)

Position: defenseman

Date of Birth: March 25, 2002

Size: 6’0”, 163 lbs

Shoots: right

Rankings:
#16 by Cam Robinson
#24 by FutureConsiderations
#36 by EliteProspects
#51 by TSN/Bob McKenzie

 

Niemelä is a puck-mover who has the skating and smarts required to play that type of a role. But if you only look at stats, he may not look all that interesting. Seven points in 43 games this season. Eight points in 39 games before that. And nine points in 36 games before that.

 

But it is very important to notice that he has always played way above his age group. At age 15, he played in the under-18 league. At age 16, he played in the under-20 league. And at age 17, he’s playing in the men’s league. Whenever he’s played against his peers, he’s been excellent or even dominant.

 

According to my notes, I have had over 30 viewings of Niemelä over the past two years. Additionally, I collected almost 20 minutes of interviews about him. This is my deep dive into the player that is Topi Niemelä.

 

2019-2020 season

 

Outside of Finland, not many people knew about Niemelä before this season. Sure, he played at the U18 Worlds last spring as an underager but I doubt a lot of people even remember that. He wasn’t even in the top 100 on FutureConsideration’s preliminary ranking – but he was given a draft range of 50 to 70 in our preliminary ranking because I was a big fan of him last 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.

 

Even Niemelä himself has been surprised he’s managed to become a full-time Liiga player at such a young age. “I couldn’t have imagined playing so many Liiga games this season. It was my goal to get some Liiga games but it’s been a positive surprise that I’ve been getting so many”, Niemelä said.

 

Niemelä played a couple of preseason games with a different number before getting his number seven for the first official game of the season. I wondered if that was a big moment for him. “Not really, both times the number was just given to me, it wasn’t a big deal or anything”, Niemelä said. But he clarified that seven is his preferred number. “I like number seven, I’ve used it for many years now. If I get to decide, that’s pretty much my favorite number. There’s no bigger reason for it, I’ve just always liked it. My dad used to play with the same number”, Niemelä explained.

 

Kärpät is a rich organization, so they could have easily acquired a replacement for Niemelä if they felt the need at any point. “Our team has been playing very well and Topi has been helping the team to succeed, so we haven’t had a need to look for a replacement at any point during the season”, Manner explained.

 

Because of his strong performance at the Liiga level this season, Niemelä has been rising on draft rankings throughout the season – he was given a draft range of 25 to 45 in our latest ranking.

 

Pro vs Junior

 

Niemelä has averaged just 12:51 of ice time in the Liiga this season, and that has only included a few shifts on special teams. It is an annual tradition among the online scouting community to debate whether it is better to play smaller minutes at the pro level or big minutes at the junior level. “Of course there are two sides of the same coin”, Niemelä said. “In the junior league, I could have played on power play and penalty kill, getting big responsibility. But here I get to battle against men in a league that has much higher tempo, better quality of competition, and higher requirements for the game. So maybe it does develop more to play at the men’s level. Of course it would have been nice to play a few games in the junior league this season but I can’t really complain for being in this situation as a 17-year-old.”

 

As an added bonus, Niemelä gets to be in the same locker room with Jesse Puljujärvi and Juho Lammikko who are big stars in the league and spent parts of last season in the NHL. But even more importantly, Niemelä gets to learn from respected veteran players like Jussi Jokinen and his 951 games of NHL experience, and Lasse Kukkonen. Even though Kukkonen’s NHL career was short-lived, he is a legend in the Kärpät organization, and he’s won multiple league championships as well as multiple medals both at the Olympics and at the World Championship tournaments as well.

 

Niemelä has spent most of the season alongside Kukkonen on the third pair. “The veteran players have helped a lot. Lasse especially has been a huge help on the ice. But also off the ice, I’ve received help on how to play against men and how to act in a men’s locker room”, Niemelä said. “Especially if I’ve had a bad day and one of them has noticed, they come and cheer me up.”

 

Player type

 

At this point, you might be wondering what exactly makes Niemelä so good. If there was one part of his game that makes him so good, I could probably find a good video clip to show that. But the truth is that there is no such one thing that stands out above the rest. He has a number of strengths but perhaps the biggest thing is his versatility because he can play the game in different ways while still being effective.

 

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.

 

“I’m trying to be a modern, versatile defenseman who can play both offensive and defensive game at a good level. I’m trying to turn the play from defense to offense quickly, skate a lot, defend well, and produce in the offensive end”, Niemelä explained. “I’m a good skater and good with the puck – those have always been my strengths. This season, my defensive game has improved; before my strengths were in the offensive end but now I’ve learned to be more consistent in the defensive end as well.”

 

“Topi moves well, he’s smart, and he sees the ice very well. It’s pretty easy to play with him. He understands the game really well. Good young kid, works hard”, said his defensive partner Kukkonen. “Topi moves very well and is eager to practice. Obviously a player who is so young and physically immature is not expected to be completely ready as a player but he’s eagerly learning hockey every day. A positive person, always in a good mood, works hard at practice”, said his head coach Manner.

 

Kukkonen and Manner are very respected hockey people in Finland, and they were more than happy to share complements about the kid. That shows what kind of an impression he’s already left on them.

 

Most young players have idols that they’re trying to model their game after, and Niemelä is no exception. “I’ve always liked Erik Karlsson ever since I was a kid. Perhaps more recently things have changed a bit and I like to look at Cale Makar, Miro Heiskanen, and Mikko Lehtonen from the KHL. Those are some good defensemen that I like to watch”, Niemelä explained. He also added that the Kärpät video coach puts together videos of those players for Niemelä to use for learning purposes.

 

International tournaments

 

Last season, Niemelä played both with the under-17 and under-18 team in multiple international events, representing his country both at the U17 World Hockey Challenge and at the U18 World Championship tournament.

 

This season, Niemelä has been a top player on the under-18 team. He started the season with a great performance at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, and more recently he was Finland’s clear-cut number one defenseman at a Five Nations tournament in Czech Republic. “I was in a great mood after that tournament. I got to play a big role, over 20 minutes per game, play in the final minutes of the games – I haven’t played as much as I did there anywhere else this season. It was very refreshing. I got to see that my power play skills haven’t completely disappeared, that they’re not at a catastrophic level. But you could probably see that I haven’t played on the power play”, Niemelä explained.

 

Kärpät have not used Niemelä on the power play this season in the men’s league, and they didn’t use him on the power play last season in the junior league either. But in international events, when he’s playing against his age group, he’s usually a regular option on the power play. That is probably why he would have wanted to play a few games on the junior league this season because he would have been a power play option for them this time around.

 

Despite his strong performance in international events in the past and at the men’s level this season, Niemelä was cut from the U20 World Junior Championship tournament which was a big surprise for me. He had a strong performance with the under-20 team in a Four Nations tournament in November, although he only got to play two games in that tournament. Niemelä confirmed it wasn’t because of injury or illness. “They told me before the tournament that I’ll sit for a game”, he said. But in the two games he did play, he was on the top pair and was arguably the most reliable defenseman on the entire team.

 

I wondered if Niemelä was given some sort of an explanation as to why he wasn’t chosen to the final team. “No, there was no explanation. I just got an email where they said I’m an injury replacement option. Of course I felt bad about it but I sort of saw it coming, I didn’t play my best games in November. But that’s in the past and there’s no reason to worry about it anymore”, Niemelä said.

 

Niemelä is eligible for the next two U20 World Junior Championship tournaments, so he has lots of time to make his mark in that event. He will certainly play a big role on the team next year.

 

Road to the NHL

 

In all likelihood, after Niemelä gets drafted, he will spend another year in Finland and re-evaluate his options after that. He seems to have a good grasp of things he needs to improve before getting to the NHL. “I guess a little bit of everything. My body is still scrawny. I need to be stronger and sturdier in the defensive end. Those are probably my biggest development areas, to build more muscle and improve my defensive game. The NHL has the world’s best forwards, so you need to be ready for that”, Niemelä explained.

 

But Niemelä also emphasized that he’s not in a hurry to add weight. “You’ll easily lose your legs if you add too much, and skating has always been my strength. I’m trying to add weight gradually, I’m not in a hurry to get anywhere. Of course you need to add some weight in the summer but not too much at once”, he explained.

 

Another important thing for young Europeans going to the NHL is the ability to speak English. Niemelä said he still has some work left in that area. “I’ll still need to practice it but it’s been getting better throughout the season. We have a lot of foreign players on the team, so you can’t really get by with just Finnish. It’s been getting better, and it’ll come, surprisingly quickly even”, he explained.

 

Kärpät as an organization

 

Kärpät is an organization that is fighting for league championship each year both at the men’s level in the Liiga as well as the junior level in Jr. SM-liiga (and in lower junior levels as well). They develop so much young talent within their organization that it is overflowing at times. This past summer alone, they lost forward Oliver Suni (2020) and defensemen Kalle Loponen (TOR), Kasper Puutio (2020) and Ville Ottavainen (2020) to the Canadian Hockey League.

 

But coach Manner doesn’t see it as a problem. “You can always manage when you have too much. When age groups are doing a good job and sparring each other, it’s a natural thing to occur”, Manner explained. For Niemelä, the choice seemed pretty obvious. “Kärpät was always my number one choice; they’ve developed me and I get to live at home. Of course we considered other options as well but not that seriously. We saw that it was my best option to stay here”, Niemelä explained.

 

“Topi is a good example to other juniors in the Kärpät system that they can rise up to the Liiga team, we don’t always acquire a lot of players from the outside before the season starts. You need a good mix of veteran players and young future stars”, Manner explained.

 

Puutio is an interesting comparison to Niemelä because they’re both right-handed shot defensemen with similar size, age, and strengths to their game, and they’ve followed the same exact development path. Most preliminary rankings had Puutio ahead of Niemelä, including mine. Puutio was taken first overall in the CHL Import Draft but hasn’t had the kind of immediate impact that was expected from him.

 

I wondered if Puutio leaving made it easier for Niemelä to stay. “I actually signed my contract before I knew Puutio would leave”, Niemelä said. “And on the other hand, it would be good to have two similar level players pushing each other to be better. Puutio and I have been pushing each other for many years now.”

 

Last year, three players were drafted from the Kärpät organization. The year before that, that number was four. This year, that number will likely be just two; goalie Joel Blomqvist is another highly ranked prospect in their system. Next year, that number could be higher once again unless they lose their players to the Canadian Hockey League or perhaps even the USHL.

 

“We are trying to raise them to be resilient and eager to learn. But the kids today are in a rush to get to the bright lights. In professional sports, there are always setbacks and disappointments, so we’re trying to provide them with options that keep them close to home as long as possible because home is usually a good place to be. But if there is no spot available, it’s natural to want to go to another team for example. We will welcome them back if they want to return in the future”, Manner explained.

 

But what exactly makes Kärpät so good at developing young talent? “Of course location helps, being a team for half a Finland, and good outdoor skating opportunities. But the bigger thing is the culture that former players and current star players have created in that city. A culture of behavior and what to value: team play, good behavior, caring about others, integrity, working hard… These things feed the culture”, Manner explained.

 

Projection

 

The Jr. SM-liiga regular season has already ended, and the Liiga will have its final regular season games on March 14th. It will be interesting to see if Niemelä gets to keep his regular spot on the Liiga lineup during the playoffs as well or if he’ll be sent down to the junior league playoffs instead. “We have a good situation with our junior team. At any point, we may have someone jump up to the men’s level from there, and we can also send our young players to the junior team at times. Both teams will be playing at the playoffs”, Manner said. “If Topi plays with us, then he’s trusted to be here. If he’s playing on the junior team, then it’s his job help the team and lead with his example.”

 

If Niemelä would play at the U18 Worlds this spring, he would be Finland’s number one defenseman there. But the Liiga finals overlap with that tournament, so it’s not a sure thing Niemelä would even be released for it – but that might be a moot point anyways because it sounds like IIHF will be cancelling the entire tournament this year because of the coronavirus situation.

 

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.

 

He may not be the flashiest option available but if Niemelä can have a similar career as Niskanen, any team would be happy to look back, knowing they only spent a late first round pick to get him.

 

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And that’s all for now, thanks for reading. Remember to follow me on Twitter @JokkeNevalainen.

 

 

Main picture courtesy of Karpat.fi