Oilers’ Niemelainen Outplaying Fellow Young Defensemen

There is much excitement around the young defenseman in the Edmonton Oilers organization. Evan Bouchard, who was drafted 10th overall in 2018, is already playing top minutes in Edmonton. The Oilers’ cupboard is stocked with prospects, with the likes of Dmitri Samorukov, 22, cutting their teeth in the American Hockey League with the Bakersfield Condors.

A recent rash of injuries to veterans on Edmonton’s backend necessitated multiple defensemen being recalled from Bakersfield. First came 25-year-old William Lagesson, who played a handful of games with the Oilers the last two seasons, and Philip Broberg, the eighth overall pick in 2019.

The least heralded blueliner to be recalled, 23-year-old Markus Niemelainen, arrived on Nov. 30. And by Thursday (Dec. 9), he was the only one of the call-ups still in the lineup, playing his fifth game as Edmonton hosted the Boston Bruins.

Though the Oilers lost, 3-2, it wasn’t for lack of steady play from the former member of the Ontario Hockey League’s Saginaw Spirit, whom Edmonton drafted 63rd overall in 2016. Niemelainen had a team-high five hits and prevented a sure goal when he swept the puck away from Jake Debrusk just as the Bruins forward was about to bury the biscuit.

The product of Tempere, Finland, has 24 hits since being called up, triple that of any other Oiler during that span. He also has eight blocked shots, second-most on the team over the last five games, behind only the NHL’s all-time blocks leader, Kris Russell.

Best of the Young Bunch

The 21-year-old Broberg was impressive upon his debut in Edmonton but had struggled recently, with a minus rating in six consecutive games, before returning to Bakersfield on Thursday when Edmonton activated Cody Ceci from COVID protocol.

Lagesson’s suited up just four times and has been a healthy scratch for the last three games since Darnell Nurse was activated from injured reserve last weekend. He’s seemingly fallen out of favor with Oilers coach Dave Tippett, and last Sunday (Dec. 5), his agent Alan Walsh lashed out at Edmonton’s bench boss in a tweet.

Meanwhile, it’s Niemelainen who has earned Tippett’s while emerging as the young rearguard that can most help the Oilers now as they look to snap out of a losing streak that sits at four games following Thursday’s defeat.

Bringing the Physicality

Niemelainen’s mindset and build set him apart from not only his fellow young blueliners but any other player on Edmonton’s current roster.

The 6-foot-5, 205-pounder has size, knows how to use it, and isn’t afraid to do so. In fact, he quite likes throwing his weight around and has the speed to execute on those ill intentions, rather than being left in the dust, grasping at air.

Saginaw Spirit, Markus Niemelainen, OHL, NHL Entry Draft
Markus Niemelainen with the Saginaw Spirit. (Photo by Terry Wilson / OHL Images)

This element of Niemelainen’s game has been there since his Saginaw days and was on full display with the Condors. Still, it’s one thing to be the big fish in the AHL pond, quite another to swim with the sharks in NHL waters, and Niemelainen has transitioned seamlessly. Among defensemen who have played at least five games this season, he ranks second in the NHL with an average of 19.83 blocks per 60 minutes.

“He’s a competitive guy, really competitive,” Tippett said of Niemelainen during the coach’s media availability following Edmonton’s loss to the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday (Dec. 7).

“He’s got the size and weight to compete in a game like that, which you like. There’s some puck stuff that he’s going to have to continue to improve …. but Niemelainen, for a first real taste of it, has done alright.”

The Future is Bright

Niemelainen, who has just one shot and no points with the Oilers, can certainly develop more offensively. Before joining Bakersfield, Niemelainen totaled just three goals and 12 assists in 161 games over parts of four seasons in the Swedish Hockey League (2017-18 and 2018-19 with HPK; 2019-20 and 2020-21 with Assat).

Related Link: 5 Things to Know About New Oilers Defenseman Markus Niemelainen

But defensively, Niemelainen is already proving rock solid, which is particularly impressive, not only given his age but his experience: Thursday’s game was just the 40th as a pro in North America for Niemelainen, who has appeared in 35 games for Bakersfield over the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons.

Speculation had already started that the Oilers might keep Niemelainen in Edmonton, even after veteran defensemen Duncan Keith and Slater Koekkoek return from injured reserve. That only seems more likely now, at least for the time being, after Russell was hurt on a hit Thursday; Following the game, Tippett said that “it didn’t look very good” and “I’ve got a feeling he might miss some time.”

As the Oilers suffer through their biggest slump in more than two years, these are trying times in Oil Country. Niemelainen’s performance is at least one thing for Edmonton to feel good about.

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