Finnish defenseman Markus Niemelainen is a name not many are likely familiar with heading into the NHL Draft. He's tough to miss when he's out on the ice, standing at 6'6", but playing for a Saginaw team in the OHL that generally doesn't draw much media attention, and not being the type of player to post gaudy offensive numbers, he's just not a player that is talked about very much.
But Niemelainen was extremely impressive at the World U18 championships where his Finnish team took home the gold medal, including an incredible performance shutting down the high-powered US attack in the semifinal. He really showed why some expect him to be selected within the the top few rounds of this year's Draft.
Player: Markus Niemelainen
Team: Saginaw Spirit(OHL)
Height:6'6" Weight: 205 lbs.
Stats: 65 games 1 goal, 26 assists, 27 points, -23
Final NHL Central Scouting Rank: 52nd among North American skaters
What I Like:
At 6'6" Niemelainen covers a lot of ice without having to move much. It is incredibly difficult for the opposition to gain clean zone entry on him because of the area he covers. He's got a strong stick that uses to get into passing lanes as well that takes away a lot of offensive options for the opposing team.
-Keeps the Game Simple
There isn't a lot of flash to Niemelainen's game, but he's incredibly effective as a defender. He positions himself well defending along the face-off dots when facing a one-on-one rush and effectively closes out space. Offensively, he's a steady, reliable puck-mover with a good first pass.
-Lots of Upside
Niemelainen still has plenty of room to add muscle to his 6'6" frame and should become less lanky and awkward as he matures into his body. He's good now, but as he smooths out his game some, he could really become a monster on the blue line.
What I Don't Like:
The fact that Niemelainen has so much filling out and growing to do means he's far from a sure-bet to achieve his potential as an NHL player. He's still a bit of a project and it's going to take some time before he's ready to play in the NHL, if ever. His footwork actually isn't bad for a kid that is 6'6", but he'll definitely need to improve it to handle the speed of NHL forwards.
As evidenced by his single goal in 65 games this season, Niemelainen isn't like to ever provide much of anything in the way of offense from the blue line. His defense will be valuable, but in the new analytics-driven NHL, the value of players that just play defense is decidedly lower.
Central Scouting has Niemelainen ranked somewhere in the late second round for this year's Draft. I have him 47th on my list, which also equates to the late second round, possibly early third round. If anything, he's solidified and raised his stock with a strong World U18s. I could see him pushing towards the upper end of the second round, with a range of picks 45-60 being the most likely landing spot for him.
Niemelainen's ceiling is as a shutdown defensive defenseman. His lack of offensive skill likely keeps him from ever being considered a true top pairing guy, but he could potentially be the guy that is consistently matched up against the other team's top line.