The Toronto Maple Leafs enter the 2022-23 season with an experienced defensive corps that includes Morgan Rielly, TJ Brodie, former Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano, Jake Muzzin, Justin Holl, and youngsters Timothy Liljegren and Rasmus Sandin. However, with over half of the group over the age of 30 and only Rielly signed beyond next season, the club’s development staff is looking for some of the club’s prospects to develop over the next couple seasons and fill some of
Topi Niemela, a third-round pick in 2020, is regarded as Toronto’s top defensive prospect. The 20-year-old recorded 32 points with Karpat last season, was an extra for Finland at the Beijing Olympics, and after signing his entry-level contract in May, Niemela will likely play one more year in the SM-Liiga before coming over to play in North America in 2023.
The Leafs are moving from a more seasoned AHL group (Joseph Duszak signed with Dynamo Minsk, Kristians Rubins with Ottawa, and Chas Krys in Austria) to a younger group headlined by Finnish defenders Mikko Kokkonen and Axel Rindell, as well as 2020 draftee William Villeneuve.
Kokkonen and Rindell have several seasons of experience in the Finnish league but must prove that they can adapt to the North American game.
There is always a transition, said Leafs assistant general manager Ryan Hardy on Wednesday. You probably take for granted the adjustment for a young kid moving away from home or what is typical and familiar for them, whether it is a smaller rink or just going to North America.
We will be patient with the young players, as we usually are, but they are incredibly talented, so I am certain that they will take up some things quickly.
Villeneuve, who went from being a one-dimensional puck rusher to playing a decent two-way game and won a Memorial Cup with Saint John in his last year of junior, is maybe the most fascinating possibility.
“(Villeneuve) is an exceptionally intelligent player with great composure with the puck.” He’s done an excellent job this summer. When you look at him and the work he’s done on his body, it’s incredible.” Hardy stated. “It undoubtedly shortens the learning curve when athletes transferring from junior to professional take that time and approach it that rigorously.”
That being said, he is another player that everyone is excited about because of what he can do with the puck, his stature, and his right shot, especially at an event like this when you can see some real great flashes from him.”
Villeneuve’s promise, along with the fact that he is right-handed, might hasten his road to the NHL if his two-way talents translate to the professional game. However, given the Leafs’ aging defense, any deal of Sandin (currently an unsigned RFA) would be a pipe dream.