As the Islanders rookies and prospects took to the ice Wednesday to open mini-camp at the Nassau Coliseum, Isles Coach Jack Capuano did not hesitate to say that some of the players participating in the camp may have a chance to stick with the big club this season.
“I’m not afraid of youth, I never have been,” Capuano told reporters shortly after his team left the ice. “If they want a job then they can earn it, and they’ll get that opportunity come September.”
The two players with the best chances of earning a job this fall with the Islanders are probably forward Nino Niederreiter and defenseman Calvin de Haan.
Niederreiter started the season with the Islanders last year, playing in the maximum nine games without losing his junior eligibility. He scored his first NHL goal on October 13 against the Washington Capitals. After being returned to Portland of the WHL, Niederreiter scored 41 goals and totaled 70 points in 55 games. He added 27 points in 21 playoff games and helped the Winterhawks reach the WHL finals.
Niederreiter feels a lot more comfortable this year at prospects camp. “This year I kind of know what’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s exciting to be here again. Last year I was very nervous. This year I know the coaching staff pretty well.”
The 6’2”, 205-pound Swiss winger won’t even turn 19 until September. But with one mini-camp under his belt, he already feels comfortable giving some of his less experienced camp mates some advice. He has already spoken briefly to this year’s first round pick, Ryan Strome.
“If somebody asks me for a little bit of advice, I’ll give it,” Niederreiter added.
Niederreiter appreciates the fact that he got to play in the NHL last year and is determined to return to the big leagues this year if at all possible. “It was huge, it was an unbelievable feeling to play up there,” he said. “Now I know how hard I have to work to take the next step. I hope it happens this year.”
Capuano is confident that Niederreiter has what it takes. “You can see how he’s grown into his body and the confidence level that he’s played with,” Capuano remarked. “You can see that come September, he’ll be pushing hard and I think he knows his time is now. He has one year of junior (eligibility) left but before he leaves here, he wants to leave an impression.”
One thing Niederreiter’s coach isn’t concerned about is effort. “I don’t worry about his will to compete or his will to be coached. For Nino it’s about adjusting as fast as he possibly can to the speed of the game. To be able to win one-on-one puck battles and physicality battles to be able to play that kind of a role that he needs to play. Those are the areas that when he comes back here in September, if he does those things, he has a great chance.”
Niederreiter has been working hard this off season and realizes that the hard work is just beginning. “I think I got a little bit stronger. In the end, it’s still two months until the season starts so we’ll see if I’m ready or not.”
While Niederreiter is pushing for a job up front, 2009 first round pick Calvin de Haan hopes to crack the Isles crowded blue line in time for the coming season. Despite being limited to just 55 games with the Oshawa Generals last season, the 6’1”, 189-pound native of Carp, Ontario, managed six goals and 48 points. He pitched in an additional goal and 11 assists in 10 playoff contests for the Generals.
This is de Haan’s third time at Isles prospects camp. The injured shoulder that slowed him down last season does not appear to be a problem. “I feel good right now, de Haan said. “No problems with my shoulder. It’s definitely stronger than it was before.”
While Niederreiter made the Islanders out of camp last season, de Haan came very close each of the last two years but has yet to make his NHL debut. “I’m trying to prove I can play at the professional level,” he added. “I was the last cut the past two years for the Islanders and I want to do my best to make the team this year. Obviously whatever management chooses for me is the path I’ve got to take. I’m going to do my best to make the team. I felt way faster than I did last year. I felt great on the ice. There are still a couple of months before the season starts and I’ve got to get quicker and stronger.”
While he is very comfortable at minicamp, de Haan remains determined on the bottom line. “I want to make the team,” he said. “That’s been the goal the past two years at camp. I want to play in the NHL, that’s my dream.”
That’s the dream of all of these players at prospects camp, from first round draft selections to camp invitees. Niederreiter and de Haan probably have the best chance of making it to the NHL this season. Minicamp is just another step towards the realization of that dream.