Background and General Information
Markus Niemelainen is a Finnish defender selected in the third round, 63rd overall, of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft to challenge the Anglo understanding of how letters are combined to create a name. Honestly, there are some hockey reasons too (which will follow) but good luck to anyone looking to put that on the back of a jersey. I checked the spelling like three times and I’m still not sure I got it right!
Niemelainen is a 23-year-old left shooting defender who has primarily played in the Finish Liiga; his first season in North America was the shortened 2020-2021 AHL season. At 6’5” and about 200 lbs, Nielemainen (who I may just start calling Markus) is of a comparable size to several successful NHL defenders.
Niemelainen has two World Juniors U18 medals, one gold and silver. He’s also added one Finnish Liiga championship to his resume. One thing which is important to note is that Niemelainen never played for Finland in the U20 World Junior Championship, something which has negatively impacted his career trajectory.
Last year, splitting time between the Liiga and the AHL, Niemelainen managed 9 points (with 2 goals) in 35 games. While this looks like a dreadfully small number, it’s not out of character for Niemelainen whose previous high had been 7 points in 55 games. Next to that, rattling off 6 points in 21 games in the AHL counts as a little bit of a hot streak.
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Ooooh, look at all this synergy between the Copper and Blue Staff and the Copper and Blue readers. You love to see it.
Why He Made the List
So, there are a couple reasons that Niemelainen made the list. One he’s big, he’s got long arms (especially when we add six feet of hockey stick) and he’s a decent skater, something which is always a bonus in a defender. He’s able to disrupt the offensive efforts with those characteristics.
Niemelainen signed his two-year ELC later than many Oilers prospects. He signed in May of 2020, after a season at Assat saw him play a bigger on ice role with the attendant minutes in the Liiga. Despite, having a team which was Liiga Champions in 2019, Niemelainen seems to have developed more during his time at Assat His transition to the AHL seems to have proven that Niemelainen’s game will not suffer for the change in ice size.
Niemelainen is a player who is comfortable playing a more shut down defensive role; he’s not one to be jumping up into the play and trying to put up points. Instead he’s a solid defensive player who is not a safe and solid potential third pairing defender. The wonderful thing about Niemelainen is while he doesn’t have a high ceiling, he also isn’t a super variable player. At this point, the Oilers have a pretty good idea what they’re going to get with him: a solid, shut down defender who might put up the odd point. Which again is not a bad thing as the Oilers have any number of defenders in their system who have far more variable potential. Niemelainen appears to be very much a case of an as advertised defender the Oilers signed with the hopes of some solid AHL play and the potential for limited NHL minutes in the future.
Why He Made the List at 21
If Niemelainen sees NHL ice this year, it will be as a call up. And he probably won’t be the firtst choice call up, so let’s hope that doesn’t happen. The Oilers defensive group has too many players in front of him. He has nothing that sets him apart from other prospects on this list. His numbers are steady, but they’re not the type of steady that the Oilers wouldn’t be happy to see suddenly change.
His offensive upside is incredibly limited, he’s already 23 years old, and the Oilers probably have defensive prospects who can do what he does better that are younger. The Oilers aren’t taking a big risk for a potential big reward here, and it sort of shows.
The fact that he didn’t make the Finnish U 20 World Juniors squad, had one mediocre year in the OHL, and then disappeared back to Finland where he had a solid but not remarkable run marks Niemelainen out as a middle of the road prospect for the Oilers, hence the rank. Of the 38 available positions, the 21st ranking is sort of an acknowledgment of solid potential without setting the bar too high… because it also wouldn’t be surprising if he never played in the NHL.
For Niemelainen, this longer AHL will be key to seeing if that potential is realized or if it fizzles out…