During the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, the Montreal Canadiens stacked up on left-handed defencemen, using five of their 10 picks to solidify that side of the blue line. Add 2018 selectees Alexander Romanov and Jordan Harris to the mix, and all of a sudden there were seven lefties in the pipeline.
This was a natural solution to a roster issue. With Shea Weber and Jeff Petry playing on the right-hand side, the Habs were pretty much set there. On the left, things looked considerably bleaker. Montreal tried to solve the problem by throwing considerable assets on the left-hand side hoping that a few of them eventually would stick.
Here we are now, just a couple of weeks shy of the 2020 Draft and things are looking much better. Brett Kulak demonstrated in the recent playoffs that trading Matt Taormina and Rinat Valiev for him was nothing short of a master stroke. The signing of Ben Chiarot also turned out well, with him being locked up for two more years at a reasonable cost. Meanwhile, Romanov, Harris, Jayden Struble and Mattias Norlinder are developing nicely and could be primed for NHL duty sooner rather than later. Lastly, Marc Bergevin solidified the presence of the blue line by locking up pending unrestricted free agent Joel Edmundson for the next four years. This was necessary, since no one yet knows what the future holds for restricted free agent Victor Mete.
All of this means that the left part of the defence is suddenly not looking like a position of shortage anymore. Instead, eyes have been turned back toward the right. Weber is the team’s captain and a mainstay for the team, with him being contractually locked up for another six years. Petry is great on the top four, but he has just one year left on his current deal.
Meanwhile, Cale Fleury is young and has already got a share of NHL experience under his belt, but must still be regarded as an unproven commodity at this point. Josh Brook is even more of a blank canvas, who has yet to solidify himself at the pro level.
Barring any trades, the Canadiens will select at number 16 in the first round. With that pick, they would probably go for what they regard to be the best player available, regardless of position. In the second round, however, you can start to look at players who would fill holes in the current prospect pool. For the Habs, that would mean taking an extensive look at goal-scoring wingers and right-handed defencemen.
With this in mind, I think that Topi Niemelä could be just what the doctor ordered at pick 47 or 48.
Birthplace: Oulu, Finland
Date of birth: March 25, 2002
Weight: 163 lbs.
Team: Kärpät (Liiga)
No, he’s not a physical monster. Yes, he’ll need to bulk up before he’s ready to make an impact in the NHL. He has not yet put up the most impressive numbers in the boxscore statistics. Still, he does seem to check a lot of other boxes, which should entice the Canadiens’ front office.
Niemelä made the impressive leap to Liiga as a 17-year-old last year after spending just one year with the under-20 squad in the Jr. A SML-liga. Smart and poised are two words analysts tend to use when they’re describing his game. Topi Niemelä is a responsible puck-handler as well as being a quick and efficient skater.
What really stands out is his intelligence and his ability to quickly translate his game so that it fits any level of opposition. As a 15-year-old, he played well above his age in the under-18 SM-sarja. One year later, he made quite the impression in the Jr. A SM-liiga, often playing against opponents four years his senior. This last year, nobody expected him to be pro-ready, but once he got the chance, he immediately took it.
Kärpät found itself having a few injuries on the back end and turned its attention to Niemelä in an effort to sort the problem. The youngster took a spot on the third pairing and never let it go, impressing scouts with his mature style of play.
It’s important to note that Kärpät is a quality team, one that is not known for just handing out roster spots to under-aged players. When they do, it’s usually because they have spotted someone with a talent out of the ordinary. In just the last few years, Kärpät has been laying the developmental foundation for Sebastian Aho, Jesse Puljujärvi, Rasmus Kupari and 2021 top prospect Aatu Räty. Having this in mind makes Niemelä’s rookie season even more eye-opening.
Since everything has moved so fast these last couple of seasons, this will be a great year for young Topi. Now that he is more of a known commodity in Liiga, he can start to work on the details which could transform him from a solid defensive prospect to the two-way monster he has the potential of one day becoming.
So far, he has not been put in a playmaking role with Kärpät. His focus has been on playing a risk-minimized game where he has kept things safe and stable on the backend. Moving forward, it would be great to see him use his skating ability to become a more prominent figure in the transitions between defence and offence. His offensive game would benefit from him joining the rush more than occasionally. This should happen as he gets increasingly comfortable playing pro-league hockey.
Elite Prospects: #40
Future Considerations: #37
Hockey Prospect: #69
McKeen’s Hockey: #42
NHL Central Scouting: #8 (European skaters)
Scott Wheeler (The Athletic): #54
It is interesting to compare Niemelä with the polarizing Shakir Mukhamadullin, whom I wrote about just a few days ago. As far as prospects go, they are about as different as they come. Mukhamadullin is tall, sturdy and has a rocket for a shot while his defence leaves more to be desired. Niemelä on the other hand is shorter and slighter, does not have an obvious offensive weapon to his game, but compensates by consistently making correct reads and good decisions with the puck as well as without it.
I would not be surprised at all to see Mukhamadullin selected ahead of Niemelä on October 7. It only takes one front office who sees the traits of Big Shak and falls in love with the idea that he one day could develop into Shea Weber.
I personally would rather bank on Niemelä, thanks to his intelligence. It is easier to make a smart player lift weights than to force a physically developed player to change his overall movement in the defensive zone. I think Niemelä has every chance of making it to the NHL. If he continues his upward trajectory, it wouldn’t be unlikely to see him in an all-around role in the top four a few years from now.
The rankings out there are placing this Finnish youngster in a broad spectrum, from fringe first– to early third-rounder. If he is still available when we reach the late 40s, I would be vastly excited to see Topi Niemelä become the newest Montreal Canadien.