2020 NHL Entry Draft Profile: Topi Niemelä

The Finnish defender impressed the Liiga at just 17 years old.

As I continue profiling prospects eligible for the 2020 NHL Entry Draft, I’m doing my best to operate outside of the projected first round to provide a deeper look at this year’s class. When the draft eventually comes, I’ll profile several prospects available at each pick for Nashville, and many of them may come from these preliminary pieces.

The next step in my series will cover Finnish defender Topi Niemelä.

Draft Scouting - On the Forecheck

Previous profiles of entry draft prospects can be found above, as well as my initial top-31 ranking of eligible prospects.

Topi Niemelä - D

Kärpät [Liiga] - 18 - Oulu, Finland

After growing up in the same club as Nashville goaltender Pekka Rinne, Niemelä enjoyed impressive success as a 17-year old defender in the Liiga, playing in 43 games and recording seven total points—good for seventh among all U20 defenders in the league. Niemelä has few peers to compare his production to; in fact, only one other defender in his draft-eligible year played in the Liiga this year: Eemil Viro. But the Liiga does a remarkable job tracking advanced statistics.

Niemelä was nearly a top-30 defender (among those that played in 15+ games) in the entire Liiga in Corsi share this season—53.0%—and had a similar rating for Corsi close—53.9%. What’s also notable for someone his age is that Niemelä started a near equal amount of his shifts at even-strength in the offensive and defensive zones—50.4% to 49.6%.

Through Lassi Alanen’s fantastic tracking data, we can see Niemelä was exceptional among his 2020-eligible peers in the Liiga and U20 level in shot contributions per 60 minutes from the blue line. I encourage you to sift through the remainder of Alanen’s data, including transition rates and shot assists, here.

Niemelä wasn’t particularly gifted at setting up scoring chances for his teammates or producing points himself, but his solid two-way play at that age in a professional league is impressive enough.

Niemelä’s Scouting Report

Good skater with a heavy stride but efficient in his use of speed when hunting down pucksSometimes takes poor angles to attack puck-carriers and has too slow of a crossover step
Decent shooter but has good puck control abilities and likes to engage all over the O-ZoneLikes to connect forcefully when passing - sometimes to a fault giving up possession
Has a good understanding of gap control and excels at pushing shooters out to the half-wallIs sound positionally in the defensive zone but likes to chase up the half-wall and behind the net

As a distinct underage player in the Finnish Liiga, it’s hard for Niemelä to stand out as a flashy player from the blue line. That’s also just not a typical aspect of his game. He loves to cover large swaths of the ice, but mostly in good puck supporting roles and he has the skating ability to maintain good positioning.

In the clip above, Niemelä (#7, black) activates well from the blue line with a good crossover step at the right time. That quick step allows him to pop easily into an open passing scene and crash to the net. He doesn’t convert on his pass attempt, but it’s a good example of the space he can find with his awareness.

At the blue line, Niemelä is active with his hands to keep the puck alive. It’s clear he’s willing to use creative ways to patrol the point without risking too many odd-man rushes. This will be a useful skill at next levels if he can keep reacting quickly to clearing attempts.

Here’s another example of Niemelä’s active range in the offensive zone. From the start of the shift, he moves from a net-front presence to providing good puck support at the blue line and again activating down low when he senses a forthcoming rebound. Later, after recovering the puck along the half-wall, Niemelä bolts to the front of the net after dishing off to his defense partner and chases the loose puck into all four corners of the zone. That positioning will be more refined in an NHL club’s development system, but it’s encouraging to see how well he can pace himself at each layer of the zone.

Niemelä is a decent shooter who prefers his wrist shot, but will look more for a rebound-creating shot when pushed back to the blue line. With time, though, he can unload as seen above.

Niemelä has a good extended skating stride that utilizes his stature to generate power. He doesn’t appear overly explosive, but he skates with a strong base and has a full leg extension. It allows him to time his dive perfectly in the clip above to break up a potential goal.

In gap control, Niemelä is normally very sound. One concern I’ve noticed is his crossover step. In the clip above, he takes an improper angle after failing to realize he will lose the race to a loose puck. Consequently, the attacking player is able to gain an edge on him, as you see his crossover step break down with his inside edge sliding out underneath the step.

In other instances, Niemelä maintains an excellent gap and times a good crossover step to keep his opponents to the perimeter of the zone and force them into low-danger shot attempts.

In the defensive zone, the Finnish defender uses his body well to establish his space in puck battles but is still prone to angling mistakes. In the clip above, notice again how he’s a step behind the opponent heading into the corner but catches a break with his stick play. He recovers well and completes a controlled zone exit before joining the rush for a shot attempt—something he likes doing.

Niemelä’s puck support tendencies extend to the defensive zone, too. In this clip, it looks like he may improperly dash to the corner but he maintains good spacing and is able to disrupt the play when appropriate. Another concern I’ve noticed is he does like to chase the play—sometimes behind the net or sometimes out of position up the ice. In this case, however, he’s successful in clearing the puck.

Finally, I appreciate his more stagnant defensive positioning, too. Early in this clip, Niemelä uses his entire frame to box his opponent out of the high-danger area. When a loose puck is lying at their feet primed for a rebound attempt, Niemelä uses his solid base to check the opponent’s stick and upper body away from the puck before clearing it out of danger. Next, he maintains a good gap forcing the puck-carrier up the wall and to the perimeter without chasing the play and successfully closes off any clear path to the net. He does make an error in the corner towards the end of the shift and, again, could use some correction on his checking angles.

All in all, Niemelä is an above-average skater and puck-mover for his age at this level. Teams covet sound and steady defenders like him who will have plenty of time to fine tune their defensive skills and express their offensive capabilities.

Expected Pick Range

Colin Cudmore (@CudmoreColin) over at silversevensens.com has done remarkable work compiling draft rankings and establishing an ‘Expected Pick Range’ from a variety of different sources. You can read about his methodology here, track the compiled rankings here, and use his data viz (embedded below) here.

Niemelä’s Expected Pick Range: #30 to #49 - 1st to 2nd round

Niemelä has seemingly cemented his status as a second-round pick when the draft happens and that’s a testament to his steady play as a defender well above his age group. His offensive ceiling likely won’t attract teams with an early pick, but he should be an easy selection for any club - especially those with multiple picks in rounds two and three.

All statistics are courtesy of eliteprospects.com, Lassi Alanen, liiga.fi and pick224.com.