Markus Niemelainen definitely stands out in a crowd. The Oilers defender finds himself on the cusp of NHL action, an area where his waiver exempt status might have made it easier to cut him than other options on the blueline.
Despite this, Niemelainen offers a style and level of play that might see him become an important piece to the defensive puzzle by season’s end. The left shot defender has continued to develop, slowly and consistently marching towards a regular roster spot.
The Oilers sign Niemelainen to a contract extension
Niemelainen extended his contract to a two year deal with an AAV of $762,500. Although his cap hit is quite small, the Oilers proximity to the cap, like many other contending teams across the league, is quite precarious. His waiver exemption makes it all the more likely that the Oilers move him up and down from the AHL circumstantially.
Niemelainen’s playing style
Although he won’t be headlining lists of top rookies, Niemelainen does offer utility. Niemelainen is a big physical defender with surprising skating skills. He leverages these skills in a number of defensive applications.
A force in defensive zone play, Niemelainen uses his reach, strength, and skating in low battles. In transition, he can maintain or close gaps on opponents, using his reach to knock pucks off of attackers or his mobility to throw daring hits. The physical tools are certainly present for Niemelainen to become a strong defensive option.
The question of upside might lie in Niemelainen’s decision making and processing. To this point he seems quite comfortable in his lane as a defence first player, where his teammates and defence partners can rely on his filling such a role as well.
Niemelainen’s speed can help him contribute as a puck carrier in transition, but his best contributions with the puck might lie through making smart support passes to teammates with more puck skills.
Where does he fit on the lineup
As a defensive and physical presence on the left side, Niemelainen has several interesting paths to a potential stewardship alongside either Tyson Barrie or Evan Bouchard. Both Barrie and Bouchard excel at the offensive aspects of the game, which covers much of Niemelainen’s shortcomings, just as Niemelainen’s defensive prowess is a welcomed sight for the pair of talented righties.
To this point it seems as though Coach Jay Woodcroft has been content to let the duo of Brett Kulak and Tyson Barrie try to replicate their strong showing as partners last season. They have essentially been the Oilers second pair early into the 2022–23 season, although the early results in the Oilers defensive efforts as a whole have been underwhelming. It is worthwhile to continue to deploy this pairing together, but the Oilers should not be too worried to change things up if they aren’t going well.
Barrie is a limited player in that he needs a partner with a certain level of physicality. Kulak does appear to fit the criteria, while the same cannot be known for sure about Ryan Murray. The coaching staff might be reluctant to pair Barrie with Murray, something that cannot be said for a potential Barrie and Niemelainen pairing. Barrie and Niemelainen have the potential for a great deal of synergy and they showed some flashes of such when they were paired together briefly last season.
Meanwhile, Murray has been deployed alongside Bouchard on what might be called the Oilers’ third pairing. There is a duality to Bouchard’s game at the moment, as some awkward skating and defensive miscues have some questioning whether or not he can handle top four minutes right now. There is still a lot of time for Bouchard’s game to round out and there should not be too much panic if he does not continue to surpass expectations endlessly.
At the same time there are those who think Bouchard should be thrust into a bigger role, in particular on the power play where he is still the 1B to Barrie’s 1A on the top unit. The potential Bouchard has shown can inflate, just as Barrie’s contributions can be undersold. Oilers fans and management want Bouchard to keep pushing up the lineup, even challenging for the mantle of the Oilers best defenceman, but it is a good thing that the Oilers have some competition ahead of him so he can come into his role at his own time.
Bouchard’s pairing with Murray has a logical viability and there have been some good signs, but it’s true that Bouchard has more options where it comes to potential partners. Niemelainen might compliment Bouchard just as well as he does Barrie, as the two towers cover each other’s weaknesses.
Niemelainen allows the Oilers more flexibility
By another token, Niemelainen’s potential pairing with Barrie might free up Kulak to be paired with Bouchard. In a sense, Niemelainen offers a great deal of potential flexibility in creating a second and third pair that can push each other for minutes, or at least more than Ryan Murray might offer.
On top of this, Niemelainen diversifies the skill portfolio of the Oilers blueline as a whole, as his physical and defensive style presents a flavour distinct from the rest of the group. There are concerns that having both Barrie and Bouchard on the same team might be too much of the same skill sets, but having Niemelainen join might help balance things to a degree.
It is for these reasons that Niemelainen might be a strong choice to round out the Oilers blueline, even if he is not as strong a player as Ryan Murray or Philip Broberg in a vacuum.
Photo by Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire