Markus Niemelainen vs. Vincent Desharnais

Sep 28, 2022; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Calgary Flames center Mikael Backlund (11) and Edmonton Oilers defenseman Markus Niemelainen (80) battle for the puck during the third period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 28, 2022; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Calgary Flames center Mikael Backlund (11) and Edmonton Oilers defenseman Markus Niemelainen (80) battle for the puck during the third period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports /
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Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports /

The 2016 draft has produced mixed results for the Oilers. The Bison King was taken in the first round and has had limited success in the NHL. In the second round we took Tyler Benson, who at this point is an AHL bubble player at best. In the third round we had two picks, one was Markus Niemelainen and the other was Filip Berglund, who has since gone back to Sweden to play in the pro leagues there after his game didn’t translate to North America. No picks in the fourth round but two as well in the fifth, one of which was spent on goalie Dylan Wells who didn’t work out and is currently playing for Chicago’s farm team – although he did get one period of work in for the Blackhawks earlier this season. The other pick was blueliner Graham McPhee, son of Vegas Golden Knight’s president George McPhee and currently cutting his teeth in the minors for Bakersfield as a stay at home type. No picks in the sixth round either and in the seventh we rounded out our picks on Vincent Desharnais. For those of you who follow the Oilers closely, you may have noticed in the last month or so that there is a battle royale going on for the seventh d-man on the roster with two of these picks in Niemelainen and Desharnais.

Normally this would be a bit of a snoozefest as a topic but this time around it’s between two players who are both draft picks of the Oilers that both provide an element of truculence that’s been missing for awhile from the lineup. Both players are capable of winning the spot in the long term, and it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out. Internal competition always brings out the best in NHL players and that usually turns out to only be a good thing for both the team and the fans.

Let’s start with the first player on the list.

Markus Niemelainen

Niemelainen is currently back in Bakersfield but between last season and this season – he started off with a roster spot after training camp – he has played 43 games. Niemelainen has yet to score an NHL goal and has only mustered a single assist in those games, and no offence at all this year, however he seems to have found his puck moving game a bit as of late in Bakersfield, as he’s gone 2-3-5 in 15 games this season with Bakersfield. If he can maintain that pace for the Condors for the rest of the AHL season he’ll have produced 23 points which will include 9 goals, both of which would be career highs for Niemelainen as he has yet to score more than two goals in a season in the AHL or produce more than 10 points.

No doubt Ken Holland and the player development folks with the Oilers are paying attention to Niemelainen as offence was the only element missing from his game as Desharnais has proven superior in that regard so far – albeit in short sample size of course.

His scouting report doesn’t lend much credence to his potential as a player, either.  Take a look:

"Towering defender whose development hasn’t gone as planned and is struggling to make an impact offensively."

I guess that explains why he was a third round pick and not a first or second round pick.

However, Elite Prospects has a different take on the player, and this may explain what the Oilers organization saw in the player:

"A complete all-around defenceman that makes the game look easy. Natural size and strength compliment his smooth stride. Very mobile skater who moves up and down the ice quickly, with acute recognition of puck and body position. His maturity and poise is actualized in his high-percentage decision-making, with and without the puck, as well as his proactive stick and body play. Very stable defensively and always takes his lane, but is quick to rush the puck up the ice as he recognizes and accounts for how much time his team is spending in their own end. All-in-all, a quick-thinking defenceman that, honestly lacking nothing, has the potential to develop into a reliable two-way defenceman. (Curtis Joe, EP 2016)"

Niemelainen’s calling card, though, is not offence so this is not necessarily a bad thing for him. His calling card is his size, 6’6″ and 190 lbs, and the fact that he’s not afraid to use it. Niemelainen at one point was leading the Oilers in hits, and even though he’s back in the minors he’s still eighth on the list with 61 and still third in Hits/60 with 15.84. He currently sits at 13th in blocked shots with 16 – tied with fellow Condor Devin Shore – but still sits sixth on the team in Blocked Shots/60 with 4.15.

Not bad numbers for a guy who isn’t even playing in the big leagues right now.

Although Neimelainen has also done fairly well defensively for a 24 year old early into his career – he improved from -5 to +3 season over season from last year to this year – I’m willing to bet the reason he’s in Bakersfield right now is because he has the same 16 in puck giveaways and a goose egg in takeaways.

I’d want to send that guy back down to the minors to clean that up if I was Holland too.

Vincent Desharnais

Now let’s look at the current incumbent, Desharnais. Desharnais’s draft story is quite an interesting one. Despite the fact he was drafted in 2016, he was eligible in 2014 and 2015 as well but was never drafted. That was literally his last kick at the can as he would’ve been ineligible for the NHL draft after that, and it was the Oilers who came calling at the 11th hour.

Isn’t it great when the scouting staff finds a diamond in the rough that every other team passed on, then the player development folks and coaching staff in Bakersfield develop him properly? The decade of darkness Oiler teams would be so jealous.

Fun fact – Desharnais is not the first Oilers seventh round pick to play NHL games but he is the first one since 2003 when the Oilers struck twice in the seventh round – blueliner Mathieu Roy played a whopping 66 NHL games and bottom six forward Kyle Brodziak played 917 NHL games, mostly with Minnesota but did have two stints with the Oilers, his first three seasons from 2005-06 to 2008-09 and then his last season in 2018-19 when he came back for a second tour of duty.

Brodziak’s last contract was for two years but injuries forced him to retire after only one year in his second time with the Oilers. That last year of his contract, which of course at this point was on LTIR, was traded to Detroit with a pick for Mike Green.

Anyway, fast forward back to now and Desharnais got called up earlier in the year for the first time – and he made a statement that was bold at the time for a prospect in his first callup – he said he wanted to stay up and wasn’t going back down to Bakersfield. Most prospects in their initial callup can count on it being temporary before they go back down to the minors for more seasoning – just so the big club can see what they can do at the NHL level.

Although it’s still very early in Desharnais’s NHL career – he’s only played eight games so far – his butt is cashing the check his mouth has written for him. He’s since become a fixture in the seventh D spot, although of course that’s far from a permanent certainty.

But, one thing Desharnais already has a talent for that Niemelainen – at least in NHL time – doesn’t seem to yet is puck moving. In his eight games Desharnais already has three assists, which is triple the offence Niemelainen has produced in less than a fifth of the games.

Desharnais has also shown his defensive chops against soft competition, as he sports a +5 in those eight games – unusual for a farm team callup to not at least struggle a little with playing defence in the NHL.

Desharnais is just as tall as Niemelainen – 6’6″ – but at 215 lbs is significantly heavier. However, Desharnais hasn’t been much of a hitter in the early going – he has a mere nine hits in those eight games – although he is still top 10 at the 10th spot in Hits/60 with 5.44. This of course still pales to Niemelainen’s 15.84, I’m guessing the coaching staff is trying to persuade Desharnais to use his body as much as Niemelainen does. Blocked shots are a similar story, as Desharnais only has eight blocked shots on the season but is actually second on the team in Blocked shots/60 with 4.84 (only Brett Kulak is better with 5.03). With numbers like that I’m assuming his total tally will rocket up before too long.

Desharnais also gives the puck away more than he takes it away just like Niemelainen but the ratio isn’t quite as lopsided, three giveaways to one takeaway on the season.

Hey, at least Desharnais has one on the books, something Niemelainen can’t say. Ditto for his hits counter, which will likely increase more as the season goes along.

Although he’s not listed as a regular on the first or second unit, I was surprised to see Desharnais is actually fifth on the team in PK TOI per game with 1:56. Ditto for Niemelainen, but with less frequency at 47 seconds per game, 17th on the team.

As you would expect, neither player spends any significant time on the PP – no sense in messing with the league’s top PP, right?