Maple Leafs Prospects: Niemela, Ho-Sang, Rindell, & More

Welcome to a brand new column here at the Toronto Maple Leafs side of The Hockey Writers, Maple Leafs Prospects Weekly. In this series, I will be getting you up to speed on Maple Leafs prospects who are making headlines in the American Hockey League (AHL), Canadian Hockey League (CHL), NCAA, European Leagues, and everywhere in between.

Josh Ho-Sang - Islanders
Josh Ho-Sang with the New York Islanders in 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Regardless of what the state of the prospect pool is, it’s always interesting keeping tabs on players who could find themselves dawning a Maple Leafs jersey in the future. In the inaugural edition of Maple Leafs prospect corner, I will be discussing hot starts from a pair of prospects in the AHL, as well as a pair of Finns who are in the news for different reasons.

Niemela Stays Torching Finland’s Top Pro League

If there’s any Maple Leafs prospect who decided he wanted people to talk about him more, it was Topi Niemela. The Maple Leafs drafted the Oulu native in the third round of the 2020 NHL Draft after trading down with the Ottawa Senators. He started turning heads at the 2021 World Juniors, where he finished the tournament with eight points in seven games along with Defenseman of the Tournament honours for the bronze medal-winning Finns.

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Unfortunately, an injury-plagued season limited him to only 15 games in his sophomore Liiga campaign, where he finished with four assists. But he’s off to an absolutely sizzling start in his third season with Karpat, with 16 points in 18 games so far. This is good enough for second in the league in points by a defenseman.

With Niemela’s rapid pace this season, it almost seems unfair that he’s going to be able to represent Finland at the World Juniors once again this year. The 5-foot-11 right-handed defenseman doesn’t turn 20 until March, so he’ll be able to suit up for the Finns once again and likely in a leadership role this time around. After this season, you’d have to assume the next step is an entry-level contract and a spot with the AHL’s Toronto Marlies.

Marlies’ Ho-Sang and Semyonov Lead Marlies Through First 7 Games

Speaking of the Marlies, who are 4-3-0 to start their season, let’s have a gander at two players who are leading the charge so far. Russian free agent signing Kirill Semyonov has six points through seven games, while training camp invite Josh Ho-Sang has five points, all goals, through six games.

These two are obviously making a good case for themselves to be the first two candidates to see a call-up should any injuries happen, but Ho-Sang’s case is a little bit more complicated. Because Semyonov is already under contract with the Maple Leafs, and because he plays centre, he likely gets the first nod between the two.

In Ho-Sang’s case, he was signed to an AHL contract after he had an impressive preseason with the Maple Leafs. A first round pick of the New York Islanders in 2014, Ho-Sang’s rocky tenure in Long Island led him to Toronto with a pit stop in Sweden along the way. His gratitude has seemingly won Maple Leafs fans over, and his hot start can only work in his favour as he plays his heart out to earn a contract.

Rindell Joins Fellow Maple Leafs Prospect On Loan

One prospect who goes under the radar in comparison to some of the higher-drafted names is 2020 seventh round pick Axel Rindell. A 6-foot tall, right-handed defenseman, Rindell was selected in his draft plus-1 season, meaning he was a year older than the rest of his draft class. However, putting up 22 points in 47 games in his rookie SM-Liiga season caught the eye of Leafs brass.

He followed that season up with a slight improvement, tallying 26 points in 47 games in 2020-21. Keep in mind that European pro teams don’t care about developing young players for NHL franchises, so Rindell getting the ice time that he is at his age let alone producing like that is an encouraging sign.

This season, on the other hand, he’s had a rather tough go. Despite wearing an “A” for Jukurit of the SM-Liiga in his third season, his offensive production has slowed to a halt with only five assists through 16 games this season. However, it was announced on Sunday that Rindell would be getting loaned to Oulun Karpat to join the aforementioned Niemela. This is a big move for Rindell, as he’ll get a chance to play for a much stronger Karpat team and work towards getting an entry-level contract from the Maple Leafs.

Quick Hits: Steeves Shines in AHL Debut, and Holmberg Stays Hot

To close off the first edition of Maple Leafs Prospects Weekly, we’ll stay with the Marlies with a brief check-in on NCAA free agent signing Alex Steeves. After the former University of Notre Dame forward signed an entry-level contract with the Maple Leafs in March 2021, he kicked off his rookie pro season with the Marlies. He impressed in his debut with an assist, and scored twice in Saturday’s victory over the Belleville Senators.

Meanwhile, heading over to Sweden, 2018 sixth rounder Pontus Holmberg is having his own hot start with Vaxjo Lakers HC, tallying ten points in his first 15 games. The 5-foot-11 forward was the playoff MVP for the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) champion Lakers in 2020-21, and is another prospect sure to be gunning for an entry-level contract after this season.

While the Maple Leafs don’t have a top prospect pool in the NHL, there are still several under-the-radar prospects worth keeping an eye on as the 2021-22 season begins unfolding across the globe.

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