Niemela celebrating a goal for his native-Finland
Photo credit: Sportsnet

Leafs organization sending top defensive prospect a message with healthy scratch

Published March 16, 2024 at 2:46 PM

The AHL's playoff format is a lot different to the NHL's but it allows for a lot more teams to qualify. In total, 23 teams advance to the post-season but because the divisions are not equal in number, there's a lot of disparity. For the sake of the Toronto Marlies, who are in a 7-team division, the top-5 qualify out of the North Division. Currently, the Marlies are in the thick of a playoff race, sitting in 6th place but only 1 point behind Laval for the 5th and final spot with 16 games remaining.

Heading into today's all-important divisional matchup against the Rochester Americans, the Marlies decided to bench one of their top defensemen - who is also one of the Toronto Maple Leafs' top prospects - in Topi Niemela. It seemed like a strange decision, considering the fact that he had skated in 54 of 56 games to date with 23 assists and 29 points to this point.

The 21-year-old was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft after scoring 7 points in 43 games for Karpat of the Finnish Liiga - the top league in the country. After spending two more seasons in the Liiga where he scored 18 goals and 50 points in his final 106 games, he made the leap to North America with a short 6-game stint with the Marlies.

He started off his 2023-24 season at a blistering pace with 17 points in his first 22 games but has since struggled to the tune of 12 points in his last 32 games and just 2 points in his most recent 11-game stretch.

Niemela also carries a minus-4 rating over his last 11 games and just hasn't looked like himself in recent weeks. Making him a healthy scratch seems more like a ploy from the Marlies to send a message to their top defenseman by sitting him out of a key matchup against a divisional rival.

Look for Niemela to get back in the lineup in short order and hopefully he'll be raring to prove to his coaching staff, developmental staff, and the organization as a whole that he is worthy of playing every game down the stretch and critical minutes at that. Sometimes these things are needed as a bit of a wake-up call.

March 16   |   521 answers
Leafs organization sending top defensive prospect a message with healthy scratch

Do you think Topi Niemela will challenge for a roster spot with the Leafs next season?

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