Top 5 Maple Leafs Prospects: Get excited about Topi Niemelä

Finland's Topi Niemela (7) and Juuso Parssinen (27) celebrate a goal against the United States during second period IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship pre-competition action in Edmonton on Tuesday, December 22, 2020. (Jason Franson/CP)

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ prospect pool has been drained significantly during their window of contention, as GM Kyle Dubas has repeatedly spent chunks of the future to invest in the now.

Yet that doesn’t mean there aren’t several emerging talents in the system playing overseas, in college, and on the Toronto Marlies.

Three of them will be playing in the upcoming world junior tournament and should command your attention.

Here’s a rundown of the Leafs’ top five prospects and how their seasons are going.

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1. Nick Robertson, LW, Toronto Marlies

GP: 2 | G: 0 | A: 2 | PTS: 2

The Leafs’ top prospect has had the absolute worst luck.

After dominating development camp and turning heads in training camp, the 20-year-old snipe show suffered a broken leg just two games into what was supposed to be his first full pro season.

It feels like ages ago that a teenage Robertson was called up and scored a playoff goal for the Maple Leafs in the 2020 bubble. Since then, he’s battled through multiple injuries, watched Team USA win world junior gold without him, and rooted on his Calder finalist older brother, Jason, in Dallas.

“You feel for Nick,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said. “But I also know because of how hard he works and the commitment that he has, that if anybody’s going to work their way through that and bounce back, he’s going to do that. He battled some injuries last season as well, and this will be no different.

“As unfortunate it is, these things happen, and you’ve got to find your way through it.”

What stands out most to Hayley Wickenheiser, the club’s senior director of player development, is Robertson’s intensity and drive “to be perfect and great in every aspect of his life.” But there is some concern that Robertson may need to dial back that intensity one notch and let the game come to him.

Injuries won’t rob Robertson of top billing on our list, but you have to wonder if they are starting to derail his dream.

Nick Robertson with the primary assist.

— Kevin Papetti (@KPapetti) October 16, 2021

2. Topi Niemelä, RD, Karpat

GP: 31 | G: 6 | A: 18 | PTS: 24

Crowned the best defenceman of the 2020 world juniors, the 19-year-old right shot returns to the tournament in hopes of upgrading Team Finland’s medal from bronze to gold.

Niemelä has all the makings of a third-round gem for Toronto. Because his game is built on a foundation of solid defensive work, the five-foot-11, 165-pounder’s playmaking prowess makes him all the more intriguing.

Following up the eight points in seven games he put up in the 2020 world juniors, Niemelä has now broken out as the highest-scoring blueliner in Liiga, the top pro circuit in Finland, while taking on tougher defensive assignments and skating more than 23 minutes some nights.

With reports of the Maple Leafs being willing to trade away a right-side defenceman like Justin Holl or Travis Dermott, we can imagine Kyle Dubas salivating at the cap flexibility Niemelä’s entry-level years could bring.

In addition to a Toronto prospect quarterbacking one of the worlds’ better entries, a second Leafs prospect — centre Roni Hirvonen, a 2020 second-rounder — will captain Team Finland at the U-20s.

That’s the other country Leafs Nation should keep one eye on over the Christmas holidays.

3. Rodion Amirov, LW, Salavat Yulayev Ufa

GP: 4 | G: 0 | A: 2 | PTS: 2

Not unlike Robertson, the buzz around the 20-year-old Amirov has quieted due to an (undisclosed) early-season injury.

Now in his third KHL run, the Maple Leafs’ 2020 first-rounder is finally healthy… and yet he’s been healthy scratched multiple times by Ufa, throwing a wrench into his development.

When Amirov signed his ELC with Toronto in April, he flew to Canada and spent some time training in the Leafs’ practice facility. Dubas is high on Amirov’s speed and his decision-making with and without the puck.

If he can’t get on track and start seeing regular shifts in his native Russia, we do wonder if Amirov’s progression might be better served by getting him in a Marlies uniform.

4. Matthew Knies, LW, University of Minnesota Golden Gophers

GP: 18 | G: 7 | A: 9 | PTS: 16

You will have seen this image before: a highly touted Arizona-born Maple Leafs prospect proudly wearing a Team USA sweater.

Yes, Matt Knies the Prospect Guy — the 57th selection of the 2021 draft — has made the American world juniors squad after lighting it up as a Big-10 freshman and establishing a top-six presence on a strong Gophers group.

The 19-year-old Phoenix native packages soft hands with a power forward frame (six-foot-three, 210 pounds) and ultimately might well serve as a reliable checking forward if he can’t one day crack the top end of the Leafs’ roster.

Certainly, there is bubbling excitement over the blend of strength and finesse — plus a blistering shot — that Knies could eventually bring to the big club.

5. Alex Steeves, F, Toronto Marlies

GP: 12 | G: 7 | A: 5 | PTS: 12

Signed as an NCAA free agent, the late-blooming and undrafted Steeves wowed the Maple Leafs staff at development camp. Then, despite suffering a September shoulder injury and missing training camp entirely, Steeves burst out of the gates in his first pro campaign, putting up 12 points in 12 games for the Marlies.

When the injury bug snapped at the Maple Leafs forward corps, the versatile Steeves earned a three-game callup to the show. Skating on a sheltered fourth line, he chipped in one assist at the NHL level before being returned to the farm.

Though he played centre at Notre Dame, Steeves is being eased into pro life on the wing. The 22-year-old’s confidence and determination are striking.

“He’s got a good shot. He’s very strong. He’s powerful,” Wickenheiser says. “To me, he looks like a pro player on the ice. He’s a man, the way he’s built.

“There’s no concerns for his work ethic or his ability to show up every day and be a professional on the ice. He’s very diligent and a very serious guy. I like his approach.”

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