In a season best described as a roller coaster experience, one story that will not get the attention it otherwise would is that of the twenty game appetizer Markus Niemelainen gave Oiler fans and management. Niemelainen, a 2016 third round pick, was called up to fill in on an injury depleted Oilers blueline against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Paired with his Condors teammate, Philip Broberg, Niemelainen acquitted himself well in a 5-2 Oiler victory. Niemelainen was returned to Bakersfield after 7 games, only to return in February for the debut of Jay Woodcroft as head coach of the Edmonton Oilers. He played thirteen more games with the Oilers before being returned to Bakersfield often experiencing the same roller coaster journey as the team itself.
What can be taken away from his twenty games with the Oilers?
Markus Niemelainen is not the perfect prospect, but he is one whose skillsets make a compelling match for this Edmonton Oiler team. For Niemelainen, maybe, just maybe timing might be everything.
Who Is This Guy?
No one could be blamed for not remembering Markus Niemelainen was an Oiler prospect of some regard. His journey, much like this Oiler season, has been a roller coaster. Niemelainen was drafted in the third round of the 2016 draft out of the Saginaw Spirit of the OHL. While most focused on the size and skating ability of Niemelainen and immediately suggested that he was a shutdown defensive prospect, there were others that noted his offense and wondered whether there was potential there for more. Unfortunately for Niemelainen, he found out the importance of coaching in his time with the Spirit. The team went through three coaches in Niemelainen’s two years, and his development suffered noticeably. He went from twenty-seven points in sixty-five games in his draft year to nine points in fifty-nine games in his draft plus one year. More surprisingly, he lost his defensive confidence and struggled to handle defending the attack and in zone defending despite his superior size and good skating ability.
In what now has to be considered a career altering move, Niemelainen went back home to Finland for four years to re-discover his game. The risk of course was that he was taking himself out of the spotlight of North American hockey and Oilers management (in particular, new GM, Ken Holland). Fortunately for all, Holland signed Niemelainen to his first pro contract and has subsequently re-signed him to a further year deal that starts in the 2022/23 NHL season. This gives the organization two years to learn what Markus Niemelainen can do for the Oilers in their quest for the Stanley Cup.
So, What Can the Big Finn Bring?
The article is named “Timing is Everything” for a few reasons, but one of the most important is Markus Niemelainen brings a set of skills that are lacking in the Oilers organization. While most of the Oiler defenders use their feet and sticks to defend, Niemelainen uses his size and physicality to defend. The clips below show a confident decision-maker who wants to ensure that the opponent remembers that coming through his area can be cause for concern.
There are very few Oiler defensemen in the organization that focus on defending in such a physical manner. Perhaps Darnell Nurse at the NHL level and Niemelainen’s Condor teammate, Dmitr Samorukov, are close comparables. However, neither of them is as consistent in defending this way, nor bring the same level of physicality to an individual play. It is certainly a skill set that could accelerate his push for a NHL role.
While this physical defending is impressive that is not his only skill. As mentioned, some saw him as a two-way defenseman back in the OHL. However, when his OHL career began to stagnant, his ability to contribute to the offensive aspect of the game went very quickly as well. Whether it was going home to Finland for four years or almost two years of Dave Manson tutelage or both, this part of the game has returned. While Niemelainen is never going to be Victor Hedman or Brent Burns, he can help his team score. The series of clips below show a player who is confident to find space, receive a pass and then transport the puck up the ice before distributing to a better option to continue the attack.
If you are unsure about his ability to execute this at the NHL level, I posted this tweet from one of his better NHL games. If you watch closely, you can that McDavid is shocked as to where Niemelainen is when he starts his offensive attack and actually could have sent the pass to Niemelainen for a high danger scoring chance.
For those wondering what Dave Manson will instill in his D, watch this Niemelainen shift. The expectation is for that D is to be up the ice in the play on the weakside.— bcurlock (@bcurlock) February 15, 2022
I actually think 97 makes the wrong read likely because he cannot believe what's happening. Lol. pic.twitter.com/Acc2LQYsJZ
So, did the Oilers draft a Chris Pronger 2.0? No, of course not. In fact, even comparing him to his Dmitri Samorukov, he has a lower ceiling. Technically, he has one skating issue that requires work. While he manages his lateral footwork to the outside extremely well, his first steps inside can be clunky and throw him off balance. As he plays NHL players, who are more confident attacking the middle with speed, this is needs to be cleaned up to ensure that he has a NHL career of length.
What really makes his ceiling lower than a Samorukov is that his offensive zone work is very basic. He is not confident in walking the line with the puck in zone. He stays very simple with the usual play being a D to D pass or a shot to the goal when he feels pressure. Now his puck patience has improved, and his puck skills are better than his first year with the Condors, but this is an area that will limit his ability to climb the depth chart in Edmonton.
But You Said Timing Is Everything?
Using fancy stats, Niemelainen’s twenty games with Edmonton were good for a newcomer playing under less than ideal circumstances due to the team’s injuries at the time and the challenges of the former head coach Dave Tippett. Niemelainen’s most common partner was Tyson Barrie, who is not an ideal partner for any young defenseman given his limited skills in his own zone and his own struggles exiting. So why is his timing good? For three critical reasons:
1. He brings a skillset that is virtually non-existent within the Oilers organization, and it is one that is valued especially at playoff time;
2. He arrives with his AHL coaching staff of Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson. His progression under their mentorship has been excellent; and
3. Thanks to Ken Holland’s salary cap mismanagement, the Oilers need contributors at the bottom end of the roster on cheap contracts.
Markus Niemelainen has already announced his presence with authority to Oilers fan and management. Yes, the timing of his current situation only helps, but he has already done the most difficult part.
What can he be? His progression this year in terms of the confidence he plays with is exciting. Can he improve in some areas identified above? Given this development this year, I would say yes. Where does that take him as a player? I think this is a reasonable comparable for who he can be.