Late-blooming Markus Niemelainen signs two-year extension with Edmonton Oilers

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For a few years there the odds against Markus Niemelainen having any kind of NHL career seemed even longer than he is. But how that worm has turned.

Now in his Draft +6 year, the towering Finn has gone from off-the-radar to very much on it. Proof positive? The two-year contract extension he signed with the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday.

That AAV will in fact be $762,500, which represents the average of NHL minimum salary the next two seasons, $750,000 in 2022-23 and $775,000 the following campaign. Following the organizational model established with his fellow late bloomer William Lagesson two years ago, the first year of Niemelainen’s extension is a two-way pact (AHL portion $300,000), the second year a one-way.

A third-round pick in 2016, by his Draft +3 summer Niemelainen’s stock had  had fallen to the extent that he was a lowly #37 on our Cult of Hockey summer prospects rankings. Which goes to show that a) we’re not exactly experts on all 20,000 leagues under the NHL and b) there’s truth in the axiom that “defencemen don’t develop in straight lines”.

Let’s go back to that summer, the seeming nadir of his development curve. Here’s what I wrote then:

  • #37 Markus Niemelainen, age 21, 6’6, 190 lbs., #63 overall pick in 2016 NHL DraftThe Oilers had three third-round picks in 2016 and spent them all on defencemen: Niemelainen at #63, then Cairns at #84, and finally Filip Berglund (who we’ll review individually a bit later in the summer) at #91. Collectively they make for an underwhelming trio three years out.None is more mystifying than Niemelainen, a gangly defender who showed real promise with Saginaw Spirit in his draft year  (27 points in 65 games). The next year he dropped off to just 9 points in Saginaw, then returned to Finland. Playing for Liiga’s HPK, he has posted consecutive underwhelming seasons that have seen him score just 2 goals and 10 points in 110 regular season and playoff games while generating zero buzz whatsoever.

    Dobber Prospects echoes this observation with this 2019 March, which says in part:Offence has never been his calling card but at some point you have to produce to get to the NHL. His combination of size and solid mobility makes him an intriguing prospect and he is only 20 years old but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of improvement at this point. 

    Expectations for 2019-20: Niemelainen’s Liiga rights have been transferred to Assat, where the 6’6 stringbean needs to make massive strides in order to tempt Edmonton into signing him before the 2020 Jun 01 deadline.

Well, guess what happened next. Despite no apparent change in production he made massive enough strides for the Oilers to sign him to a two-year ELC just before that deadline, reportedly on the strong recommendation of Edmonton’s outgoing vice president of player personnel Scott Howson.

After an extra half-season with Assat Pori in Finland during North America’s Time Of No Hockey, Niemo joined Bakersfield when the AHL resumed in early 2021. Before the calendar turned again, he’d already made his NHL debut, and at this writing has accumulated 20 big-league games.

Which is to say, way ahead of schedule. In elevating him to #14 in our prospects rankings last summer, we foresaw a possible role in the NHL this year, but a minor one. Colleague David Staples wrote:

  • Expectations for 2021-22: Play a full season in Bakersfield, establishing himself as the top left side shut-down d-man, playing against tough comp and on PK, maybe getting a few games in Edmonton.

Part of that, of course, is the circumstances of a many-headed injury monster that has taken a piece out of pretty much every regular Oilers defender in 2021-22, more than once in some cases. But it’s also fair to say that at this moment in time Niemo has exceeded those expectations.

Never one to post eye-popping boxcar stats, the Finn nonetheless made his way up the depth chart in Bakersfield over parts of the last two seasons. By the current campaign, with the Oilers suffering an injury bug at left defence and Cody Ceci becoming the first Oiler to hit the COVID list, he earned his first recall to the NHL club for a win against Sidney Crosby and the Penguins on Dec 01. He immediately impressed with a heavy-hitting game, even as the Oilers fell into a 6-game losing slide that ended only after Niemo had returned to the AHL.

His second recall (and of teammate Philip Broberg) was concurrent with that of coach Jay Woodcroft and defence assistant Dave Manson, a serendipitous stroke of good fortune in terms of continuity. He played 13 more games, part of a 7-man unit that enabled the coaches to play each to his strengths.

But once Duncan Keith returned from the injury that had sparked his recall in the first place, Niemo found himself in a numbers game. This past week he was again returned to Bakersfield, where his wife is expecting in the very near future. A nice humanitarian gesture on one level, but on another a sound move on the hockey front.

While his profile above and elsewhere still lists him at 6’6, 190 pounds, that may come from as far back as the draft combine in 2016 but it surely isn’t current. As a youngster at his first Oilers development camp I commented that he appeared to be constructed out of pipecleaners, but that’s no longer the case. I’d be surprised if he hasn’t put on at least 20-30 lbs in the intervening 5+ years. He’s definitely man-sized now, in fact, he’s a load. At 23 his physicality is his calling card.  His 82 hits rank second among Oilers defenders behind only Darnell Nurse who has <2x the number of hits (156) in >5x the minutes.

When measured as Hits per 60 Niemelainen currently ranks at the very top of the list of NHL defencemen. He’s landed at least 1 hit in every game he played and topping out at 10, collected in 15 bruising minutes against the Hurricanes on Dec 11. He had 9 hits in another game, 7 in two more, 4 or more in half of his games.

He doesn’t pick his spots, either, along the way catching old foes like Dustin Brown and Corey Perry with the heaviest hits I’ve ever seen them take from any Oiler. That’s a very good way to win a fan in the McCurdy household, perhaps yours as well.

Welcome as that physical element has been, however, Niemelainen has started to show some cracks on the defensive side of the game which needs to be his strength. He was a minus player in 6 of his last 8 games; indeed we at the Cult of Hockey had tagged him as a primary culprit on a goal against in each of his last 3 contests. Without going into the gory details, I’ll simply interpret our codes: “bad pinch”, “turnover”, “missed assignment”, in each case the puck quickly going south and proceeding directly into Oilers’ net. That’s one thing if it’s Evan Bouchard and his 31 points at the good end; something else if it’s a guy with 1 point who is there for his staunch defence.

The numbers tell us Niemo has played 20 games at 13 minutes a night. They also reveal that he’s been relatively sheltered by his various coaches. In the estimation of the fine people at PuckIQ.com he’s faced Elite competition just 16% of his ice time, least among the 10 (!) d-men who have played (semi-)regularly in Edmonton this season. He’s also #10 with a bullet in fewest faceoffs per 60, meaning he more often changes on the fly with the puck likely in a favourable place or headed that way; another crafty way NHL coaches have of sheltering vulnerable players.

Other numbers tell us that his on-ice shot and goal shares are among the weakest of Edmonton’s blue-liners: 9th of 10 in 5v5 shot attempts (47.7%); 10th in actual shots (42.7%), 9th in goals (35.3%). It’s my own observation that a decline in percentages as the categories become more important is not a good arrow. Call him the anti-Kris Russell, who year after year seems to do the reverse and post better goal results than his underlying numbers suggest he “should”.

It’s not a failure, of course, it’s just a step along the way. Did I mention defencemen don’t develop in straight lines? Niemelainen has enjoyed some success during his NHL stay, and at other times had some “learning moments” as Jay Woodcroft might say. Now, barring yet more injuries in Edmonton, perhaps a little more time to collate all those experiences and apply them in increased ice time at the AHL level.

For inspiration he needs to look no further than at his sometimes teammate Lagesson, who as mentioned signed this identical style of bridge contract before his own Draft +7 season. He had just 8 games of experience at that time; he’s now up to 57 and counting. Moreover Lagesson posted his own cringeworthy advanced stats as recently as last year, but this season has shown massive improvement, at least by those measures. (The eye test is more of a mixed bag.) History tells us this type of player can often continue to improve for many years before truly establishing themselves (or not) as NHL players.

As with Lagesson, so with Niemelainen. From the organization’s perspective it’s an investment worth making. With his career at a(nother) crossroads and his family life about to change, the Oilers picked a good time to offer the security of two more years. NHL minimum, sure, but that’s not exactly pocket change. Especially the second year which is guaranteed at the big-league rate.

He will remain waiver-exempt through this season and some distance into the next one, which will be just his third in North America. Not unreasonable to expect that he will continue to be a tweener, growing his game in the AHL when the Oilers are fully staffed, but high on the recall list when they are not.

A decent bet at a very good price point.

Source: EdmontonJournal

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