Isles Face Decision on “El Niño”

Should he stay or should he go? With all apologies to The Clash, this is the big question facing GM Garth Snow and the Islanders with regard to this year’s first round pick, Nino Niederreiter.

According to NHL rules, “El Nino” can play a maximum of nine NHL games and still be sent back to Juniors for the rest of the campaign without having the 2010-11 season count as a year of service for his contract and for purposes of free agency. If he plays 10 games or more, he has to spend the entire season with the Islanders and the 2010-11 season counts as year one of his professional service.

Tonight’s game in Montreal will be Niederreiter’s ninth game of the season, so it’s decision time Snow and the Isles as to where Niederreiter will spend the rest of the season.

In his first eight NHL games, Niederreiter has shown that he can play at the NHL level. Size is not really an issue. At 6’2”, 201 pounds, the native of Switzerland is physically strong enough to win some battles in the corners and hold his own against most opponents.

Statistically, Niederreiter has one goal and one assist. He is averaging 13:29 of ice time per game and has a minus-one plus/minus rating. He has taken 12 shots on goal or an average of 1.5 per game and has been credited with 14 hits. He has seen some time on the Isles second power play unit, averaging a little more than one minute of power play time per game.

In post game press conferences, Isles’ Coach Scott Gordon has stressed that his top draft choice has done some things well, but like any 18-year-old, he still has a lot to learn and is prone to the occasional rookie mistake.

There are two factors the Isles have to consider with Niederreiter’s immediate future: What is best for the player’s development and what is best for the team.

Niederreiter himself seems to just want to get the decision over with. “’I think I played solid, but in the end, it’s out of my control,” he said. ”I’m not nervous at all.”

It’s clear what would happen to Niederreiter if the Isles send him back to Portland of the WHL. He will be a first line player with the Winter Hawks playing at least 20 minutes per game and assume a position of leadership. He would also see extensive time on special teams and in all key situations in close games. He will also compete for his country at the World Juniors this winter against the best 18-year-olds in the world. While that is a high level of competition, it does not come close to the NHL.

If Nino stays with the Islanders, he is likely to see third or fourth line minutes based on the team’s current roster. When injured players like Trent Hunter, Rob Schremp and eventually Kyle Okposo return, it will be more difficult for Niederreiter to find quality ice time. He will be limited to a checking role and would probably see a little bit less playing time than he is averaging now. Of course, he would be playing against men, not boys.

Coach Gordon gave a hint as to he feels about the matter when he spoke recently about how keeping Josh Bailey in the NHL as an 18-year-old helped him in the long term. “We knew if he [Bailey] stayed here we could get a lot of the bad things out of his game and make the process quicker. If we would have sent him back to Junior, he would have gotten a bunch of points, he probably would have won the Memorial Cup with the team that won it and played in the World Juniors but at the end of the day, right now, he would have been the player he was last year instead of the player he is now…Had he played another year against kids, it’s not going to help him as far as the process of being NHL ready.”

There is another factor at stake: money. The Isles would keep Niederreiter under contract for another season under his entry level deal if they return him to Portland. It would delay potential free agency for Niederreiter by one more year. While it will not be the most important consideration, it certainly will be part of it.

The last two Islanders first round picks (Bailey and John Tavares) have both stayed with the team the year they were drafted. But these are different circumstances. The Islanders have better quality players at forward and more depth than they in recent seasons. Barring additional injuries, it’s unlikely Niederreiter would get enough ice time to properly develop if he stayed at the NHL level.

The final decision will be Snow’s. He indicated he had not made up his mind as of Tuesday. Regardless of the final decision, Niederreiter’s early season audition has shown that the young forward has a bright future ahead of him with the New York Islanders.

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