What About Markus?
Photo credit:Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
5 months ago
There isn’t any doubt that Markus Niemelainen provides dimensions – nastiness and physicality – the Edmonton Oilers lack on their blueline. Simply put, the big Finn doesn’t need a written invitation to run people over. He’s a banger who leaves opponents blowing snot bubbles. His calling card is exactly what coach Jay Woodcroft doesn’t have in his line-up.
The question right now, with GM Ken Holland looking to cut salary to be cap compliant and the Oilers likely starting the season with a reduced roster, is how to fit Niemelainen into a mix that includes Darnell Nurse, Cody Ceci, Philip Broberg, Tyson Barrie, Brett Kulak, Evan Bouchard, Jason Demers, and Ryan Murray.
Niemelainen, 24, has played in the Oilers first two pre-season games, a 4-0 win over Winnipeg Sunday and a 3-0 loss to the Seattle Kraken Monday. He hasn’t looked the least bit out of place. He played 15:25 vs. the Jets, scored the 1-0 goal and was plus-2. He logged 17:49 in a low-event yawner in Seattle. He had five hits against the Kraken and six against the Jets.
Niemelainen knows exactly how he has to play to stick in the NHL. That was obvious the other night when reporters tried to get him to talk about his 1-0 goal against the Jets. “I’m not skilled enough, so you have to figure something else out,” he said. The Oilers have lots of offensive talent on the blueline, but nobody who has opponents in cold sweats with their heads on a swivel. Enter Niemelainen.
WHAT THEY SAY
Sep 29, 2021; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Edmonton Oilers defensemen Markus Niemelainen (80) at Canada Life Centre. Mandatory Credit: James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports
“He’s a unique defender. Almost a throwback, in that he’s got that that element of physicality about him,” Woodcroft said after the win over Winnipeg. “He sneaks up on people. People aren’t expecting it. But he’s long, he closes fast, and he’s an excellent skater. He’s put himself in the conversation to compete for ice time on the blue line.”
If Woodcroft pairs Nurse with Ceci, as he did last season, Kulak with Bouchard and Broberg with Barrie to start the season, where does Niemelainen fit? Does he fit? Even with a roster of 22, I can’t imagine the Oilers won’t carry seven D-men (I’m thinking 13-7-2 to start). Might Niemelainen fit as the swingman between the press box and the third pairing?
Maybe, given the cap situation, Niemelainen makes more sense as a call-up from Bakersfield during the season. Ryan Rishaug talked about that with Dustin Nielson today and framed the situation really well: “Let’s change the conversation and take the cap out of it because it’s a more interesting conversation,” Rishaug said.
“Let’s say game 10 of the regular season if they have the ability to come and go and have who they want, can he get himself into that conversation? That’s really what we’re talking about here and I would said say, ‘Yeah, he does have the ability.’ He’s big. He skates well. And he loves to run people over. That’s not a dimension you find very often anymore.
“If he can bring that dimension and can show his hands have sped up a little bit, his decision making has sped up a little bit and he can handle the speed and thought process at the NHL level, you love that dimension.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
At the bottom line, putting a group of defencemen together is about finding the right mix. You can’t ice six rushers and expect success and you can’t get the job done with a half-dozen off-the-glass-and-out stay at home guys who can’t make a 20-foot pass. A variety of skills that covers all the bases makes for balance.
Niemelainen isn’t better than anybody in the top-six right now, but he damn sure is different than Barrie or Broberg or Bouchard. He is what the Oilers don’t have and, from where I sit, that in itself makes it worth taking a long look at him.
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