Vancouver Canucks top scorer J.T. Miller has been in trade rumours for a few months now and it doesn’t look like that will end any time soon. At least, not until the trade deadline anyway. Until then, teams will continue to call general manager (GM) Patrik Allvin and president Jim Rutherford to gauge their interest in a possible deal involving him. Despite Allvin stating recently that Miller was their most consistent and best player and that he “wasn’t going to trade [him] just for the media”, rumours still continue to swirl about him being moved before the trade deadline on Mar. 21.
Elliotte Friedman poured more gas on that particular fire Tuesday when he stated in the intermission of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets game that he believed the Leafs would be interested in Miller if Jake Muzzin’s $5.6 million cap hit went on long-term injury reserve (LTIR). So, naturally, that ignited a discussion on Twitter about possible assets the Canucks could receive in return for the star forward.
One suggestion in particular from Cam Robinson of Elite Prospects caught my eye, Finnish defenceman Topi Niemelä. The Canucks need more elite prospects everywhere in their pipeline, but the right side of the blue line is particularly weak when it comes to young talent. The best they have right now is Viktor Persson, who was a seventh-round pick back in 2020. For a team trying to become a perennial Stanley Cup contender, that’s just not good enough even if he does eventually become a serviceable NHL defenceman. What they really need is another blueliner like Quinn Hughes, just on the right side.
So, why would Niemelä, a third-round pick of the Maple Leafs back in 2020, be a central piece in a trade package coming back to the Canucks for Miller? Well, as you will soon see, his value is way higher now than when he was drafted 64th overall a couple of seasons ago.
Niemelä Has Top-Pairing Potential in the NHL
Right now, the Canucks only have Hughes as a legitimate, top-pairing defenceman. Oliver Ekman-Larsson can probably be classified as one too, but he’s not the same dynamic defender he used to be when he was putting up consistent 40-point seasons. The problem is, both of them play the left side. They need someone like them, but on the right side. Enter Niemela. Robinson, who originally brought it up on Twitter agrees.
He’s [Niemela] so good at both ends of the rink. Good feet, loves to activate, has nuanced defensive instincts and habits. I think he has legit top pair upside.
Playing on the right side, Niemela could be a great partner for Hughes in the future. With his developing defensive game and Niemela’s two-way acumen, they could turn out to be a superstar pairing each capable of putting up 50-point seasons.
Niemelä’s game revolves around his skating, hockey IQ and ability to be calm in all zones on the ice. While more refined defensively, he’s got a lot of the same attributes Hughes does. His ability to transition the puck and use his playmaking skills to set up scoring chances, whether it’s in the offensive zone or through neutral ice is something to behold. He’s also not afraid to engage physically, despite being on the smaller side. All in all, he’s just a great all-around defenceman already, and he’s only 19 years old.
Some may argue a pairing of Hughes and Niemelä might be too small to be a top unit, but I beg to differ. When you are able to beat the forecheck by skating it out or making the perfect outlet pass, you don’t need to be big to succeed as a top-pairing defender.
Niemela’s Development From a Third-Round Pick to a Blue-Chip Prospect
When Niemelä was selected in the third round by the Maple Leafs in 2020, he was looked at as more of a mobile shutdown defenceman in the vein of John Marino of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Smart and poised with the puck, but not really anything special offensively. Scott Wheeler of The Athletic identified him as someone who felt like an NHLer, but nothing more than just a third-pairing option when he hits his potential.
Fast forward to today, and Wheeler has changed his tone. In his most recent prospect pool rankings, he praised Niemela’s quick progression saying, “On his draft day, Niemela played a modern style that projected into a third pairing ceiling. Today, he’s got legitimate top-four aspirations…[He] is a poised, calculating, one-step-ahead player who makes the game looks easy” (from “Wheeler’s 2022 NHL prospect pool rankings: No. 15 Toronto Maple Leafs”, The Athletic, 1/27/22).
From being named the top defender at the 2021 World Juniors after putting up eight points in seven games to recording 30 points in 43 games in the Finnish Liiga this season, Niemela has proven to be a legitimate blue-chip prospect for the Leafs. Identified by THW’s own Alex Hobson as untouchable over top prospects like Nick Robertson and Matthew Knies, he has certainly come a long way from being a third-round pick with only a ceiling of a safe, third-pairing defender.
What Other Pieces Should the Canucks Ask For?
As much as Niemelä’s value has risen, the Canucks should not settle for him alone in a package involving Miller, who currently leads the team with 18 goals and 53 points and is projected to hit a career-high of 85 points. Not only is he having a career year, but he’s also still on a budget-friendly contract for one more season beyond 2021-22. Those things alone should warrant a package that includes not only Niemelä but also a first-round pick, second-round pick, a roster player like Ilya Mikheyev and a center prospect like Roni Hirvonen.
Considering Rutherford and Allvin want to add more speed and skill to the Canucks’ roster, Mikheyev would be the perfect fit. He checks both boxes as he possesses blazing speed and intriguing skill. He also is versatile enough to play on both the power play and penalty kill and could, with the right linemates, score 20-25 goals.
The only thing that could preclude Mikheyev from this deal is the fact that he will be an unrestricted free agent (UFA) at the end of the season. They might not want to get an asset like him if they are not guaranteed his services beyond 2021-22.
Other Options: Alex Kerfoot, Timothy Liljegren, Travis Dermott
In addition to the lack of right-side defence prospects, the Canucks are in dire need of depth down the middle. Hirvonen, who projects as a solid two-way center in the NHL could be a perfect addition to help shore up that weakness. He’s not overly big at 5-foot-9, but he’s strong on his skates and has been known to win battles along the boards against much bigger opponents.
To go along with all that, Hirvonen has an excellent shot, which he showcased frequently at both the 2021 and 2022 World Juniors. A prime example of it was seen in Finland’s 4-3 comeback win over the United States this past December when he absolutely ripped the overtime winner past American goaltender Dylan Silverstein.
Other Options: Rodion Amirov, Nick Abruzzese, Matthew Knies
Maple Leafs Might Not Have the Assets To Compete in the Miller Market
If the rumours turn out to be true and Miller is in fact on the trade block, many teams will be involved in the talks. I’m sure a plethora of them have already phoned Allvin and Rutherford with offers for the Canucks’ leading scorer. In the end, as good as Niemelä is, the Leafs might not have enough assets to close the deal. With the New York Rangers being able to put together a package that could include a combination of Braden Schneider, Vitali Kravtsov, Nils Lundqvist, and Brennan Othmann, they might be outbid the minute GM Kyle Dubas makes his first and best offer.
What’s clear is that the Canucks will get value for Miller. He’s their best player and in turn, the most valuable asset they have in their possession right now (well, of the ones they’re willing to give up). I still don’t think he will be traded in-season, but stranger things have happened. As we all know from trade deadlines past, GMs do silly things when they are desperate to win a championship.
Matthew Zator is a THW freelance writer, media editor, and scout who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.