The same day former Edmonton Oilers head coach Dave Tippett gets fired, three players land on the injured reserve (IR). Zack Kassian is expected to miss four to eight weeks with a fractured jaw and was placed on long term injured reserve (LTIR), Duncan Keith is in concussion protocol and has some upper-body soreness that will keep him out two to four weeks, while Kyle Turris is on the IR with an undisclosed injury.
With Kris Russell already on the IR and Slater Koekkoek recently sent down to the Bakersfield Condors of the American Hockey League (AHL), the Oilers have called up Markus Niemelainen and Philip Broberg. Coincidentally, on the same day as new head coach Jay Woodcroft and assistant coach Dave Manson were hired. The connection is, both coaches have been with the organization coaching the Condors while these two defencemen have developed in the AHL.
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This opportunity for Niemelainen and Broberg comes at a very important time for the Oilers, as they are still in the playoff race with games in hand.
Oilers Must Start Winning Now
The Oilers have lost 13 of 15 games, going on a 5-0-1 stretch before the All-Star break, and then dropping two important matchups by a combined score of 8-1. They are in a stretch of 18 games in 36 days before the trade deadline, so it will be integral to the decisions to win more than they lose to put themselves in a position to become buyers and not waste another season.
Impact on Defence Pairings & Special Teams
Despite being inexperienced, Niemelainen and Broberg were a part of the Oilers when the entire left side was injured in the second half of November, as they stayed afloat at the top of the standings. Woodcroft and Manson aren’t expected to favour veterans over younger players, so even if there are growing pains or mistakes, I wouldn’t expect to see one of these defencemen sit on the bench for two and a half periods.
Broberg and Niemelainen combined for a total of 11 minutes on the penalty kill in 15 games and three minutes on the power play which is more understandable. Regardless, inserting two young defencemen into the lineup and limiting their playing time by a lot could hurt their confidence when they’ve been playing those minutes in the AHL, as well as tire the other defenders out.
Niemelainen should be expected to get more playing time than Broberg in the next few weeks seeing as he performed the best among the young defencemen who first got the call-up earlier in the year. That being said, it would be beneficial to play Niemelainen with an offensive defenceman like Barrie and Broberg to be supported on a pairing with Cody Ceci. Even though a shutdown pairing of Niemelainen and Ceci sounds menacing, that pairing may only be used in key times to protect a lead or slow down a hot line.
Strong Play Will Allow Oilers to Focus on Upgrading Other Areas
The biggest need for the Oilers continues to be goaltending. But after that, a strong shutdown defenceman that can play the right or left side. Niemelainen and Broberg are the furthest along in their development and have already played seven and eight games this season respectively.
Their services have been called upon again, as the left side is plagued with injuries. This could be a good thing for the Oilers, as it gives them a chance to get a solid look at both defenders once again this season after some more time spent in the minors. If either or even both can show improvement from earlier in the year, Ken Holland may be able to focus all of his efforts on dealing with the goaltending situation and address the defence in the offseason.
There of course is the route of adding a defenceman by the trade deadline, but it’s also very risky giving up assets for a rental. Niemelainen is the type of defenceman who is big, strong, and defensive-minded, something that the Oilers need. To grow that internally will save cap space this year and beyond and save picks and prospects for the future.
The Oilers would love it if Broberg can grow into a solid two-way second pairing defenceman behind Darnell Nurse and have Ceci as a partner for the next few years. He is expected to be NHL-ready by the time Keith’s contract is over at the end of 2022-23, but a second opportunity with the Oilers in a dire time could allow them to move on from him earlier, similar to the Evan Bouchard/Tyson Barrie situation (from ‘Will the real Philip Broberg please stand up? (Or maybe we should have a bit of patience)’, Edmonton Journal, 9/6/21).
Niemelainen’s physicality and Broberg’s skating and puck-moving ability could shine through even more under Dave Manson in the NHL. That would allow the Oilers to have Nurse, Broberg, and Niemelainen as the three left side defencemen on a nightly basis as soon as next season.