The Oilers signing Marcus Niemelainen to his 2-year NHL Entry Level Contract during “the pause” on April 30th was a surprise to some Oiler fans but it has vaulted him to the 22nd spot in the 2020 Top 25 under 25:
Here is how the voting looks:
Niemelainen was the first of three defencemen the Oilers drafted in the 3rd round in 2016. He was chosen with the 62nd pick in the draft and followed by Matthew Carins with the 84th pick and Filip Berglund with the 91st pick. While Matthew Carins is no longer a d-man of interest, 4 years later, both Berglund and Niemelainen continue to have NHL aspirations.
The 22-year-old 6’5, 205-pound defensive d-man was drafted out of Saginaw of the OHL and, after playing his draft plus 1 season in Saginaw, he moved back overseas to play in the SM-Ligga in Finland. To be honest, after two pedestrian years playing for HPK Hameelinna, this Oiler fan didn’t think an NHL contract with the Oilers was on the horizon.
With that said, despite very modest box-cars of 1 goal and 7 points in 55 games, Niemelainen finally had his arrows turn up after moving to play for Assat Pori for the 2018/19 season. His ice time spiked massively and he ended leading the defensive group with an average of 19:46 per game including just under 3 minutes on the penalty kill per game.
While draft day scouting reports indicated a “two-way defenceman”, after four years of post-draft development, it’s clear that Niemelainen will never be confused with Roman Josi or even Oscar Klefbom as he is a fairly one-dimensional defensive d-man. Niemelainen is indeed a good skater and very mobile, however, he lacks puck skills and does struggle with moving the puck and in the transition game generally. His calling card is that of a mobile stay at home d-man with great reach who can take on material defensive zone starts against the opposition’s top talent and come close to “sawing off” possession. That is exactly what he did for Assat in the 2019/20 season.
While the initial plan was for Niemelainen to re-cross the Atlantic and spend the 2020/21 season in Bakersfield playing for the Condors, of course, Covid-19 has delayed those plans and he is currently on loan to Assat. It is interesting to note that, while his offensive production is “spiking” with 3 assists in 11 games, his average time on ice has been vastly reduced this season as he’s playing only 16:57 per game, 5th among defenders on the team. I query if his NHL signing and intent to join the Oilers organization for camp has led to his coaches reducing his ice time.
As far as projection goes, while I think it was a solid signing by Ken Holland, I don’t anticipate that Niemelainen is close to “NHL ready” and wouldn’t be surprised if he never plays an NHL game. At the same time, I think he will be a valuable player for the Condors over the next two years and, assuming Willie Lagesson is on the NHL roster, I anticipate that Niemelainen will patrol the top 4 of the left side for the Condors along with fellow European Theodor Lennstrom. I would put Niemelainen well behind the 26 year old Lennstrom on the Oilers depth chart and as a call-up option in the near-term.
If I wanted to put on a biased/fan hat, I would throw out the potential that his skill-set of being an agile and lanky defender with a long reach will be better suited to the smaller North American ice and he may see a spike in value once he comes back over but I think I’ll have to stop short of putting my hopes there.
I do anticipate Niemelainen to a solid Condor for a couple of years but not much more.