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FUTURE WATCH: Niemelainen playing smart, not flashy

The 18-year-old Finnish defenceman uses his puck patience and skating to make good decisions on the ice

by Paul Gazzola /

The importance of a defenceman isn't necessarily rooted in their numbers. Not every defender has to be a top point producer or log 30 minutes a night to prove their worth.

It's the unsung defencemen of the D corps who contribute to a team's ascension. They're the smooth-skating, puck-handling pillars that are capable of slowing the tempo of a game. They signal the beginning of the breakout and make a solid first pass to attacking forwards. They invite themselves to the rush and dash through the neutral zone if the puck tilts the other way.

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They get their sticks in passing lanes, volunteer to block shots, and can steer a puck through heavy traffic and on the net.

Oilers prospect Markus Niemelainen, who hails from Finland but safeguards the Saginaw Spirit's d-zone, fits that uncelebrated, yet highly valuable player mould.

Joining the Oilers organization in the third round (63rd overall) of the 2016 NHL Draft, the towering 18-year-old's game isn't overly captivating but does possess a certain type of sophistication.

"He's never going to be Erik Karlsson," admitted Saginaw Spirit Head Coach Spencer Carbery. The Saginaw bench boss' words hold true for almost all those who play the position.

"Hockey people use the term, 'a puck-moving defenceman that can also help out offensively,'" he continued. "He's not going to 'wow' you. He's not going to run the power play, but he can break pucks out under pressure against teams that have a heavy forward line that get pucks behind you."

Niemelainen's game is twofold. His skating, transition, and patience with the puck allows him to play smart defensively. He flourishes by making good decisions on the ice, rather than abiding by brute force like so many defencemen his size are urged to do.

"That's where he excels: in being able to move pucks and make crisp plays up ice to get into your forwards' hands," Carbery said.

Niemo - the young Finn's moniker - also has the talent to chip in offensively. Last season in Saginaw he recorded nearly a point every second game, finishing the year with a goal and 26 assists for 27 points in 65 games.

"When there are opportunities to get involved, whether it's off the rush or in the offensive zone, I think he does have some ability there to contribute."

The Finnish skater believes he has some work to do before he makes it pro, but the raw ability he possesses is undeniably present.

"There's a lot to work on," Niemelainen said. "I want to be more consistent. Work on getting my shots through, getting stronger. I also want to improve my strengths like be a better skater."

Having developed most of his game on the larger, wider European playing surface, Niemelainen's biggest asset is his skating. On the ice, the Kuopio native possesses that eloquent European genre of hockey that's become customary for so many premier blueliners in the League.

"He's a big defenceman that's a really smooth skater that can rush the puck, that can go back for dump retrievals and break pressure," said Carbery. "He stands out in that respect, so I think he's very, very noticeable for a defenceman that's 6-foot-4 and can move so fluently out on the ice."

It makes complete sense, too. Niemelainen admits to modelling his game around the players that share similar traits to himself.

"Victor Hedman," Niemelainen said when asked for a National Hockey League equivalent.

A Finn imitating a Swede? Lunacy.

"I look up to a lot of Finnish NHL players but I don't really play the same style," he added.

The Swedish theme remains for others who have observed Niemelainen.

"If we're trying to identify an NHL player that people know, maybe like a (Niklas) Hjalmarsson from (the) Chicago (Blackhawks)," said Carbery.

"I think with Niemelainen you're hoping that at some point he develops into a bigger version of an Oscar Klefbom," said Oilers play-by-play announcer Jack Michaels. "A guy who can move the puck a little bit, contribute occasionally offensively but also have the ability to defend in his own zone."

Regardless of his NHL player comparable, the Finnish product has a ripe, untapped skill set.

At the Young Stars Classic in Penticton this past September, Niemelainen quickly impressed media members and the Oilers brass.

"He looked like a mid-second round talent at the bare minimum," said Michaels. "He was further along than a lot of guys I've seen at that tournament, in terms of being able to handle the pace."

Even at an event that's somewhat contrived - by taking all the prospects of an NHL team and throwing them on the ice in the same uniform for the first time - Niemelainen never succumbed to the unavoidable kinks of skating with new teammates.

"I thought Niemelainen was out slowing the pace," said Michaels. "I mean, it's not like he tried to slow the game down but he played at his pace and very much within himself and at no point did I see any panic in his game."

Niemelainen did nothing more than display his brand of hockey at the annual tournament. Even he is aware of the impression he made.

"It was a really fun tournament and it was fun to play with the Oilers for the first time," he said. "I had a lot of good positive stuff from there."

Given all the compliments he's already receiving, it begs to question what exactly is his ceiling.

"When you have a blend of offensive and defensive abilities, that makes you a candidate to be potentially a top-four defenceman in the NHL one day," said Michaels. "I do think he's got a skill set that lends itself to some versatility and the ability to do a number of different things out there."

At only 18, time is on Niemelainen's side. He won't be asked to play out of his element and can continue fine-tuning his game with Saginaw before he makes the leap to the American Hockey League, or even the NHL. That's the reason he came to North America in the first place.

"My goal is to play in the NHL," Niemelainen said. "The OHL, I think, is the best option for me. To come here and develop here and become an NHL player."



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