With their defensive ranks thinning by the day, the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday (Nov. 30) recalled defenceman Markus Niemelainen from the American Hockey League’s Bakersfield Condors.
The 23-year-old from Tempere, Finland, who Edmonton drafted 63rd overall in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft and signed to a two-year Entry Level Contract in 2020, will make his National Hockey League debut on Wednesday (Dec. 1) when the Oilers host the Pittsburgh Penguins at Rogers Place.
The arrival of Niemelainen provides some much-needed reinforcement for a severely under-manned Oilers blue line. Defenceman Duncan Keith, Slater Koekkoek and Darnell Nurse are all on injured reserve, while fellow veteran rearguard Cody Ceci was placed in COVID protocol Tuesday.
Niemelainen stands 6-foot-5, weighs 203 pounds, and shoots left. Here are five other things to know about the latest addition to Edmonton’s back end:
He Was Drafted Three Times in One Year
Niemelainen’s services were in high demand in spring 2015, when he was drafted 18th overall in the Canadian Hockey League Import Draft by the Saginaw Spirit, 63rd overall in the Kontinental Hockey League Draft by Dinamo Riga, and 199th in the United States Hockey League Entry Draft by the Fargo Force.
He decided on Saginaw, coming to terms with the Spirit on an Ontario Hockey League Educational Package agreement on July 22, 2015.
He Came to North America as a Teenager
Niemelainen had just turned 17 when he packed up and moved overseas from Finland to Michigan for the 2015-16 OHL season.
“I wanted to learn how to play the North American style of hockey, and I think this is the best way to do development and become an NHL player,” Niemelainen said during his 2016 Draft media availability after being selected by Edmonton in the third round.
The Oilers were clearly impressed by Niemelainen during his first OHL season. He had one goal and 27 points in 65 games and ranked second on the Spirit with 26 assists.
“I think it was pretty easy for me,” he also said at the draft. “I think I adjusted pretty well and pretty quick for the North American style.”
He Goes Way Back With the Bison King
In Edmonton, Niemelainen is being reunited with Oilers forward (and the newly crowned “Bison King”) Jesse Puljujarvi, who he has already crossed paths with several times during his hockey career.
The two were teammates on Team Finland at the IIHF U18 World Championship in both 2015 and 2016, winning silver and gold, respectively.
At the 2015 U18 Worlds, in Switzerland, Finland lost the final to the United States 2-1 in overtime. The following year, Finland won gold in Grand Forks, North Dakota, with Puljujarvi scoring a hat trick in a 6-1 championship victory over Sweden on April 24, 2016.
Exactly two months later, Niemelainen and Puljujarvi were both selected by Edmonton at the 2016 NHL Draft, with the latter being taken fourth overall in the first round on June 24, 2006.
He’s More Defensive than Offensive
Niemelainen has never been much of a goal scorer. Over two seasons (2015-16 and 2016-17) in Saginaw, he scored four times in 126 OHL games. He then played in the Swedish Elite League for parts of four seasons (2017-18 and 2018-19 with HPK; 2019-20 and 2020-21 with Assat), totalling three goals over 161 Liiga games.
Since making his Condors debut in February, Niemelainen already has as many goals in the American Hockey League as he did in his entire Liiga career. He scored twice in 21 games for Bakersfield in 2020-21 and started this season with one goal in 14 games before being recalled.
Niemelainen is getting a lot more pucks on net this season, averaging 1.71 shot per game, nearly doubling his rate of 0.90 with Bakersfield in 2020-21.
He’s the Newest of Edmonton’s New Kids on the Block
Niemelainen will be the second defenceman to make his NHL debut with the Oilers in 12 days, joining 20-year-old Swede Philip Broberg, who has played four games with Edmonton since being recalled from Bakersfield.
Related Link: Oilers Young & Inexperienced Defence Will be Tested
With William Lagesson having also been called up from Bakersfield on Nov. 19, Edmonton’s roster now includes three defensemen that were in the American Hockey League less than two weeks ago.
Against Pittsburgh on Wednesday, the Oilers’ blue line will feature four rearguards (Evan Bouchard, Broberg, Lagesson, and Niemelainen) age 25 and younger who have a total of 74 games NHL experience among them.
Edmonton’s crop of young blueliners has been a source of great anticipation in Oil Country, and thanks to a perfect storm, the future is suddenly now. Ready or not, here Niemelainen comes.
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.