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The Edmonton Oilers Prospect Report: Markus Niemelainen 2022-23 Season Review

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Photo credit:Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images
Bruce Curlock
11 months ago
Markus Niemelainen is 25 years old. Markus Niemelainen has played 43 NHL games. Neither of those facts make Markus Niemelainen more or less of a prospect going into the 2023-24 NHL season.
It’s not just the beginning for him. Nor is it the ending for him. As confirmation, both he and Oiler fans need only look over to the right side of the defence group and see Vincent Desharnais occupying an Oiler stall. Desharnais, Niemelainen and many other defencemen over the history of the NHL reinforce one of its most fundamental tents.
Young defencemen do not develop in a straight line. My one piece of advice always is never give up on a prospect until he tells you himself. I double down on that for defensemen. For Markus Niemelainen, I remain excited about this player and what he can do for an NHL team regardless of the uneven 2022-23 season.

What Did I See Last Year?

A little over a year ago I wrote this tweet about Markus Niemelainen.
Jack Han, whose a very smart follow when it comes to the NHL, had this comment about Niemelainen based on the clip.
Did Markus Niemelainen lose the skills that got him to the NHL? No. Did he regress as NHL teams began to understand how to play against him? Most certainly.
This is the toughest league in the world. Some commentators suggested that Niemelainen’s career was stalled and perhaps irreparably. Certainly, his numbers would support that notion. He played only 30 AHL games this season. In part because he spent more than two months with the Edmonton Oilers where he has zero points in 23 games and registered a plus three.
However, he also had two significant injuries causing him to miss 17 games with Bakersfield after Christmas. Niemelainen ended up with 2-5-7 in 30 games while managing just 33 shots on net.
For me, I chalk this up to one season of development. Teams learned how to manage Niemelainen and he struggled. In addition, injuries, which were never specifically announced, but were upper body injuries (maybe concussions – although that is my pure speculation) had a massive role in his season. These things happen to prospects. However, they are not fatal to a career.
The player just needs to get healthy and then focus on the areas of his game that have opportunities for improvement. For Niemelainen, it has all to do with when he has the puck.

The Big Man Plays To Hurt People?

At 6’6″, Markus Niemelainen is an intimidating presence. When you add to this a snarl of physicality, you get uncomfortable shifts for the opposition. I’ve heard people say Vincent Desharnais is a cycle breaker because of his size and physical ability. I believe he is for certain.
I just think Niemelainen is even better at it because his skating allows him to get to spots quicker before the opposition can set up. Here is a sample of clips in a variety of environments that definitely left an impression on his opponents.

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What I love about this element of his game is his composure. He leads with his stick to find the puck to ensure there is a disruption. He then tries to hit into the hands/hips of the player to make sure the puck gets loose.
Finally, he steps through the hit to eliminate the player from resuming the attack. No question that this is the best aspect of his game and it is NHL translatable. He just needs to understand to be more selective.

What About The Offense?

Markus Niemelainen will never be accused of being Chris Pronger offensively. You see some of the same traits defensively, but not offensively. However, it doesn’t mean they do not exist. The big man is a very good skater given his size. In addition, he has a knack for jumping into the offensive side of the game at good times. Quite often after creating a transition play in his own zone.

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What Will Allow Him To Take The Next Step?

Here is what I believe is the biggest opportunity for improvement in Niemelainen’s game. It is also the one that NHL teams will attack, so he needs to develop it and soon.

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In this clip, you see the issue that will cause him grief. Head down on the play. No ability or even willingness to assess options. Ices the puck with full control despite having two clean options for a controlled exit. It is not a natural part of his game, but it will need to be there or NHL teams will force him to be the puck handler ever chance they can to create an advantage.
Now it is not like Niemelainen does not have the ability to do so. Watch this clip as a counter to the above.

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Here, Niemelainen skates head up scanning for options. He even creates a little space and an angle for himself in the corner to open up the mid-lane pass better. This is good stuff. The problem is that I have far more clips of the former than the latter. This needs to change. Here is one more of Niemelainen this time using his feet to exit, which I think he would be wise to do more of.

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The tools are there in the toolbox. He just has to find them more often this season.

What Does It All Mean?

I think Oilers fans will see Markus Niemelainen this fall. His waiver eligibility and his salary will make him challenging to send down to the AHL. Keeping Niemelainen with the Oilers is not a bad option. In nine minutes of ice time per game with the Oilers this year, most of his fancy metrics that were just below break-even. A drastic improvement from his first stint the year prior where he was in over his head.
He did have one fancy stat, goal share, that was above break even at 55.6%. He certainly has the capability to play in the NHL. However, his transition ability with the puck, both passing and skating, need to improve. If they don’t, he probably is a spot starter as a 7th or 8th defenceman.
If they do, there is a player who can provide third-pairing minutes and make an impact on the penalty kill. At a $762,000 salary, it would be a huge bonus for the Edmonton Oilers if this happened. I’m sure the player would be pretty happy too.
That’s it for this week. One more season review next week and then we begin the annual Edmonton Oilers Prospect Countdown. As always, leave your feedback here or find me on Twitter @bcurlock. Have a great week.

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