The Edmonton Oilers have a solid bunch of defensive prospects working their way up to the NHL. Even though he didn’t make my recent list of the top five Edmonton Oilers prospects, this defensive prospect remains one of my favourite players in the team’s pipeline. For that reason, I wanted to do a bit of a prospect profile for Markus Niemelainen to get ready for him to compete for a spot in Edmonton this fall.
At this point, Niemelainen is an older prospect, as he was drafted in the third round back in 2016. He just made his NHL debut this past season, appearing in 20 games and recording one assist.
Since being drafted, his development curve has also been anything but a sure thing. In his draft year, he looked to be a blossoming two-way defender. A unique blend of size and speed and a player who contributed at both ends of the rink. With 27 points in 65 games as a rookie with the Saginaw Spirit of the OHL, Niemelainen seemed to be a player ready to break out in juniors after being drafted and poised to become a steal for the Edmonton Oilers prospect pool.
But he took some major steps back the next season. Niemelainen only recorded 9 points in 59 games as his team missed the playoffs. His development sort of stalled out and this was his general trajectory over the next four seasons.
To get himself out of the spotlight after a difficult 2016-17 season, Markus Niemelainen decided to go back to Finland, where he spent most of the next four seasons.
He did not stand out much at all during his time in Finland. Any offensive upside he may have shown during his draft year dwindled away. He recorded just 18 points in 161 games playing in the Liiga, but ultimately at this point, that was no longer the focus of his game. He had shifted into being a defensive defender, a player who used his size and speed to shut down the opponents instead.
Something stood out during this period in Finland, as Markus Niemelainen received an entry-level deal from the Oilers and came back to North America. From there, he has rocketed up the depth charts in Edmonton.
One of the biggest reasons I am such a fan of Niemelainen is that he provides a skillset that is severely lacking on the Oilers’ blue line. At 6”6’, he is the tallest defender on the roster. And his physical style of play stands out as no one else really comes close to matching that presence. Darnell Nurse offers a bit in that regard, but not at the same level the subject of this article has.
Dustin Brown is no slouch and is typically one of the strongest and most physical players in the league, but here is Niemelainen standing him up and coming out of it no worse for wear.
In 20 games last season, Niemelainen had 82 hits, an average of slightly over four per game. Of all players who played over 15 games in 2021-22, he was seventh in the entire league in hits/60, as well as the second among defenders in that stat.
Despite his big frame and physical playstyle, Niemelainen is a solid and smooth skater which places him high in the order of the Edmonton Oilers prospects. The days of the towering, physical defender who could get away with below-average skating are long gone. But he has been able to preserve that skill set and transfer it to the modern NHL game by possessing excellent skating skills.
Just watch this breakout play where Markus Niemelainen goes end to end and is able to keep up to a Connor McDavid offence.
Niemelainen may not provide much of an offensive spark to the lineup, but he is not a total black hole, as that clip shows. Because he is a quick thinker and smooth skater, he is able to play a decent transition game and get the play started. There just might not be a whole lot of finish from him.
On the flip side of that, however, Markus Niemelainen is quietly a reliable defensive presence. And from a defender, quiet is good. His wide reach and arm span make it difficult for attackers to get around him. Even more so since he is smart positionally.
Watching his 20-game debut last season, Markus Niemelainen quickly became one of my favourite defenders in the lineup. And looking ahead to 2022-23, I would fully anticipate that he splits the third pairing left defender spot with fellow prospect Philip Broberg.
Now that we’re ready to see what he can do in training camp after reading this Markus Niemelainen Edmonton Oilers prospect profile, what do you think of this defender’s chances of making the Oilers lineup in October? Drop a comment down below!
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