Oilers Must Recall Niemelainen or Acquire a Defenceman

The Edmonton Oilers are going to have to make some decisions before the trade deadline. With a top-six forward already acquired in Evander Kane, what’s left on their list is to acquire a starting goaltender one way or another, bring in a third-pairing defenceman who has a defence-first mindset, and possibly trade for a physical fourth-line forward.

Related: Oilers Must Decide to Trade or Keep Warren Foegele

Goaltending is the most important, but upgrading the third pairing is also important to give whatever netminder is playing a better chance at performing well every night. This brings us to the question, what do the Oilers do in regards to a defensive upgrade?

There looks to be these options in front of them:

  1. Call up a defenceman (most notably Markus Niemelainen).
  2. Trade for a rental defenceman.
  3. Trade for a defenceman with term.

These each bring different advantages and possible disadvantages that we are going to take a look at.

Recall Niemelainen From AHL

Nobody expected Niemelainen to instantly impress like he did when he was recalled from the Bakersfield Condors of the American Hockey League (AHL). But he emerged as the best option the Oilers have at this time in the minors to make the jump this season after William Lagesson, Philip Broberg, and Dmitri Samorukov also made the jump. Lagesson is with the team currently but he will be discussed further. This wouldn’t have played out the same way if it weren’t for COVID and injuries running through the Oilers’ defence. But sometimes things play out perfectly.

It costs nothing to recall a defenceman that is already part of the organization. Instead of taking a chance and giving up assets to acquire someone with more experience, they could remember how big Niemelainen played for the Oilers and how impactful he was right off the bat. It is a risky time to be testing out players while in the thick of a playoff race in a tight division, but he brings some of the key attributes the team should be looking for in a bottom-pairing defenceman anyways.

Markus Niemelainen Edmonton Oilers
Markus Niemelainen, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Niemelainen is 6’5, 205 lbs and uses his body very well for someone of that age. In the seven games, he played in for the Oilers he made 36 hits, and they weren’t weak on the fence hits. He stepped up and made his presence known. Take a look at Cody Ceci’s game as of late and you can find similarities with how they stop the rush at the blue line and make the opposing forwards think twice about bringing the puck down that wing again.

Niemelainen comes cheap and the Oilers would be able to fit him in with no cap issues at all. Most other moves would require some cap rearranging and one of the roster players being moved out in order to create space. You see it often with many teams that NHL-ready talent get shots in the NHL for the playoff push to give the team a competitive advantage at no cost to themselves.

The big style of play and defensive ability is exactly what the Oilers are looking to acquire, the only issue may come in the form of inexperience. Given how well the seven-game trial went for Niemelainen that got cut a little short due to an injury, there would be no harm in giving him a shot right now since Kris Russell just became unavailable due to an injury. If and when Russell is available to return, it would have given the Oilers enough time to judge the performance of Niemelainen, and he is still waiver exempt.

Trade for a Rental Defenceman

There are both pros and cons to acquiring a rental defenceman at the deadline. It’s a risky move to trade for any player that is going to spend less than half a season with the club and only have the possibility of playing in playoffs.

Most of the time players take some time to get acclimated to the new system and style of play, along with forming chemistry. A lot of the time rentals don’t work out one bit. Take for example a couple of rentals the Oilers have acquired over the past couple of seasons. In 2020-21, the Oilers traded for Dmitry Kulikov at the deadline. He played 10 regular-season games and three of the four postseason games. He recorded two assists and served as the depth addition, but with the Oilers failing to even win a playoff game, they gave up a fourth-round pick in 2022 for nothing.

In 2020, the Oilers made a series of moves at the deadline acquiring Tyler Ennis, Andreas Athanasiou, and Mike Green. Only one of these turned into anything more than a late-season addition and the Oilers gave up a 2020 fourth-round pick, 2021 fifth-round pick, and most notably 2020 and 2021 second-round picks to the Detroit Red Wings that have turned into Brock Faber and Aatu Raty.

Andreas Athanasiou Edmonton Oilers
Andreas Athanasiou, Edmonton Oilers (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Ennis, who was acquired for the least, helped out the Oilers the most. He recorded six points in 12 games in the regular season and playoffs combined and then re-signed with the team for the 2020-21 season. He didn’t do as well in 2020-21, but for the price of a fifth-round pick, they got more from Ennis than he cost.

For a 30-goal scorer the year before with restricted free agent (RFA) status after the season, it was understandable Athanasiou cost a good amount. But there was a risk since he had only scored 11 goals in 55 games for the Red Wings so far that season. That production carried over and he tallied just one goal and two points in 13 combined regular season and playoff games while playing in the bottom six. The Los Angeles Kings ended up signing him the following season. Green played a total of two games for the Oilers and then retired. The Oilers lost both the trades made with Ken Holland’s former team.

I think the Oilers have enough in their system to be able to fill any void and not give up any future assets for what will likely be a sideways move.

Trade for a Defenceman With Term

This could be the option Holland is looking into most at this moment. Slater Koekkoek has been sent down to the AHL because William Lagesson has outplayed him. But with the future of Lagesson up in the air after this season being an RFA, how much trust does the coaching staff and general manager have in him? Is he just a fill-in candidate for the rest of the year, or are there longer-term plans for him?

It will also be tougher to acquire a defenceman with term left on his contract that suits the Oilers’ needs. First, it has to be a defensive defenceman or a reliable two-way defenceman and on a team in the position and willing to part ways with the player. Second, the team will probably have to have some cap space available and be willing to retain or take back a bad contract in order to make the deal work. And finally, the big question. Is it worth it to acquire a defenceman who will be on the team for longer than this season?

I think the decision has to come after really evaluating players like Lagesson, Niemelainen, and Broberg to see if they can make the full-time jump and be impactful next season. It may be a different conversation if the Oilers are looking to move Tyson Barrie and his $4.5 million cap hit for the next two seasons with the emergence of Evan Bouchard. That is speculation but also logical.

Related: Oilers & Devils Should be Talking Trade Involving Koskinen & Graves

Lagesson has the ability right now to be a sixth or seventh defenceman on the Oilers, while Broberg should only be inserted once Duncan Keith’s contract is up with the team so that Broberg can fill that spot effectively. While Niemelainen can be used in a shutdown pairing or with a more offensively-minded defenceman and play in all situations in his own end.

My evaluation of the situation would come after taking another look at Niemelainen before the trade deadline this season. Once he gets some games in and management can get a second look at where he is in his development, then make a decision whether or not to risk it by trading for a player who may or may not work out.

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