Welcome back to The Journey, where we follow hockey prospects and their paths to the NHL, providing fantasy predictions and analysis along the way. This week we’ll take a look at three defenders, one from Liiga, SHL and Allsvenskan, who are all having great seasons. All three are prime examples of “modern” defenders in the sense that they are undersized, fluid skaters and defensively capable.
League: Topi Niemela (TOR)
Niemela’s development curve has been up sharply since the Leafs nabbed him in the 3rd round of 2020. He scored just seven points in 43 games that year as a rookie in Finland’s top men’s league, and his earlier production at the junior level never really jumped off the page either, that is until you factor in the fact that he scored 12 points in just four games against his peers in the U16 league at 15, then spent the rest of his career so far playing players 2–4 years older than him. Here is his Hockey Prospecting profile:
His 24 points in 33 games this year as a 19-year-old is finally starting to turn heads outside the Finnish scouting and hockey communities; Niemela, currently leading all U20 skaters and tied for the lead in defenseman scoring with Arizona prospect Vili Saarijarvi, is quickly becoming a hot hideout in the goalie and dynasty leagues. He takes three shots per game and only one of those 24 points came on the power play.
When former Dobber writer Jokke Nevalainen took a deep dive on Niemela a few years ago, he compared him in terms of style and attacking advantage to a player like Matt Niskanen: a solid 30-point, two-way defender with an advantage. Ian Cole is another player that Niemela’s trajectory resembles at this stage.
These might not be the most flattering comparisons from a fantasy standpoint, but Niemela’s ultimate advantage remains intriguing. He’s always dominated the game against his peers in the past, so what can he do in the next two years against the men as he begins to flex his adult muscles? Scouting reports are unified to rave about his responsible defensive play and excellent transition play. Attack was always meant to be secondary with Niemela and yet here he is scoring 0.76 points per game in one of the best professional leagues in the world.
Niemela told Nevalainen he models his game after Miro Heiskanen, Cale Makar and Erik Karlsson – a fast defenseman who moves the puck and transitions efficiently, excels on the power play and uses active sticks and great positioning to stop the attackers. Apparently Karpat’s trainers regularly prepare footage of these guys for him to review. Although he is very unlikely to reach the heights of these three, perhaps he will reach somewhere between Niskanen and Heiskanen. That would be a great payback for the Leafs’ third-round pick.
SHL: Albert Johanson (TED)
Many Red Wings fans were hoping to see Johansson in the NHL, or at least the AHL, already this year; instead, he opted to join Farjestad for one more season. Last year, he finished second in scoring among all SHL defensemen under 20 behind fellow Wings prospect Moritz Seider with 19 points in 44 games (0.43 points per game). This year he has increased his scoring pace, currently with 17 points in just 34 games (0.5 points per game).
In many ways, Johansson is a similar defender to Niemela: they’re almost exactly the same height and weight (meaning they’re tall enough but light enough), and he skates well and excels at offensive transitions, protecting the puck and generating scoring chances to rush.
Just like Niemela, Johansson is also very solid defensively. Being a smaller player, he uses an active stick as well as excellent gap control and positioning to break up plays in the defensive zone. Many observers have expressed confidence in Johansson’s ability to make the smooth transition to North American play due to his strong defensive fundamentals. While there’s bound to be an adjustment period and concerns have been raised about his shooting accuracy, Johansson should be firmly in the game for a spot with the Wings in the fall.
In terms of historical comparables, a player like Matt Carle statistically looks quite similar to Johansson right now: a 30-40 point defenseman who has played over 700 NHL games. Hockey Prospecting gives Johansson an 81% chance of playing at least 200 games and a 25% chance of averaging over 37 points in his career. As part of an exciting Red Wings squad that includes a dynamic young core of players like Lucas Raymond, Jakub Vrana, Filip Zadina and Simon Edvinsson, Johansson should become a useful fantasy player before long.
Allsvenska: Emile Andrae (ISP)
Andrae is another small offensive defenseman (5-foot-9, 183 pounds) who skates well and has a solid defensive toolbox. With 17 points in 22 games (0.77 points per game), he is fourth in the league in points per game, just behind the top three (0.78, 0.78, 0.79). This solid season makes him look like a Johansson clone in terms of odds: an 81% chance of playing 200 NHL games and a 25% chance of becoming a star producer.
Yet while Niemela and Johansson have already played 92 and 123 games respectively in the men’s professional leagues, Andrae has only 41 SHL games under his belt at this point. He scored seven points during that streak, in which he was 18 and 19, and played all that year in the lower-tier Allsvenskan. Given his relative inexperience, he should be considered a longer wait than the other two and thus knocked down a peg or two on the fantasy rankings.
It’s a shame that the World Juniors was canceled. Andrae was Sweden’s captain and came out of the gates strong with two points in his first (and only) two games. The month before at the U20 Four Nations Cup, he was named best defender.
Here is his goal over Yaroslav Askarov (Russia) at the WJC. He times his shot perfectly to take advantage of the player in front who filters the goalkeeper:
If he can move full-time to the SHL next year and maintain his offensive production and smart defensive game, Andrae will likely make the transition to North America soon after and start seeing games for the Flyers. as early as 2023-24, although there will likely be some AHL time sprinkled in there as well. One thing to keep in mind with Andrae is that as a small player, he’ll probably take 400 games instead of the usual 200 to reach his breakout threshold, which is a more accurate version of the traditional breakout theory. fourth grade escape. He will wait a long time but it will be fun to see him evolve.