Toronto Maple Leafs

Could unsung international free agent impact Leafs D-core?

Could 24-year old, international free agent Teemu Kivihalme save the Leafs some money on the back end and crack the starting line up in Toronto?

As is becoming a tradition for the Leafs, Mike Babcock, Kyle Dubas, and Brenden Shanahan made the most out the World Hockey Championship after their playoffs ended. But forget Ilya Mikheyev, it’s Teemu Kivihalme who could make a statement out of training camp.

Jake Gardiner will be priced out of Toronto, Nikita Zaitsev has requested a trade, Travis Dermott will miss the start of the season with a shoulder injury. The Leafs have holes to fill on the back end, and with their elite D prospects still not ready, it’s time to lean on an unproven commodity.

That commodity is Teemu Kivihalme, the former Nashville Predators fifth-round selection in the 2013 NHL draft. The Finnish defenseman returned to Finland after playing in the NCAA for three seasons with Colorado College.

At 6′ tall, 200 lbs, Kivihalme doesn’t check the box for a towering defender like a Roman Polak, but he also breaks the Leafs stereotype of an undersized skill player, too. Scouting reports suggest he is an offensive defenseman that gains a defensive edge with his tenacity and willingness to mix it up with any size of opposing player.

Statistically, Kivihalme is going to chip in on the scoresheet if given the opportunity. He consistently scored in college with 11, 15, and 10 points across his seasons with Colorado, and bumped this up to 20 and 30 points in his two season with Karpat of the Finnish Elite League. If you’re a believer in +/- as I am Kivihalme turned around his rating from his college minuses to +16 and +26 ratings over his last two seasons.

How will he fit in?

He’s a left shot defenseman which puts him behind Morgan Rielly, Jake Muzzin, and Calle Rosen who are all seemingly locks to make the team. However, Mike Babcock proved last season that he is more than willing to play rotations on the back end (shown through the Gardiner/Dermott absences last season).

In this time he also proved he’ll play defenders off their natural side, outside of Rielly. The should-be Norris Trophy defenseman needs a dynamic defender who prioritizes defense first, Muzzin needs a stay at home defenseman, and Rosen can play both sides of the puck, although his offensive upside does look tantalizing. So this really only leaves him as a bottom-two player.

If Kivihalme is going to crack the line up out of training camp, he’s going to need to prove that he is defensively sound and show that he will prioritize defending first. It’s a development the 24-year-old will need to take in stride, however, if he’s motivated to make it in the NHL and contribute to an exciting team like the Leafs, he’ll adjust.

I think he’ll start the season as the seventh defenseman who will timeshare with Calle Rosen or even pair with him on his off side. If he impresses in preseason and training camp the Leafs could save themselves cap space and assets in their search to solidify their back end.

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