Nino Niederreiter tweeted during the summer that he was “proud to be on the Swiss cover of the NHL 15.” That pride was well deserved. What a season he had with the Minnesota Wild; 14 goals, and 36 points in 81 games. This provides a stark contrast to his time with the New York Islanders, where he posted 1 goal and 2 points in 64 games.
This begs the question, what made the difference in this player? Obviously coach Mike Yeo and GM Chuck Fletcher had a lot of confidence in the 22 year old, trading Cal Clutterbuck and a 3rd round pick in the 2013 NHL draft for him. Coming into an organization that believed that he could make a difference may have been the catalyst to propel this 6’2” 209 pound player to his career high season performance.
It could be argued that the Wild organization recognized that he was coming into his prime years. After all Nino Niederreiter was drafted by the Islanders when he was merely 17, the youngest player in history for that franchise. He began the 2010–2011 season at the NHL level with a three-year entry level contract. He only played nine games in the NHL. He scored his first goal of his NHL career on October 13,2010, against Michal Neuvirth of the Washington Capitals at the age of 18, becoming the youngest Islander and fifth youngest of the expansion era to score a NHL goal. On October 28, 2010, the Islanders announced that they would return Niederreiter to the junior club, the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League for further development. Niederreiter did not use up a year on his NHL contract; had he played ten games, it would have counted as a full year.
Unlike other professional team sports NHL teams draft players and then have to trust the development of the players to junior/college/European coaches. The trek from majors to the juniors is not uncommon, it is a part of the before mentioned development. How this effects the mindset of the player depends on how coaches approach it.
In 2012, the NHL lockout resulted in Niederreiter being assigned to the Islanders American Hockey League affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Following the conclusion of the lockout, Niederreiter was not invited to the Islanders’ training camp and reportedly asked for a trade as a result. Is this a case of a player who has underachieved while facing lofty expectations, or is this another example of poor development by the Islanders club?
Coming to Minnesota offered a fresh start for Niederreiter. He seemed to flourish under the coaching staff of the Wild Organization. Yeo told NHL.com “He’s a big body, but when we brought him into our lineup, we wanted to make sure that the foundation of his game was going to be about strong defense. We had him playing against top lines. I think that gave him the opportunity to get a little more ice time and some more opportunities, and he found himself playing on the first line.”
In regular season Niederreiter ranked second on the team in hits (175). The Chur, Switzerland native also led with 40 hits in the 13 playoff games. He seemed to instinctually place himself in the right spot. He garnered 14 goals in regular season and 3 in the post season. It was Niederreiter who scored the winning overtime goal against the Colorado Avalanche, giving the Wild their first victory in a Stanley Cup series in 11 years.
Yeo was very pleased with Niederreiter’s performance stating “He bounced around a bit at points during the season, but he started to learn what kind of game he has to play, night in and night out. He brings his game every night, regardless of who he’s playing with, and he’s become a very effective player.”
Niederreiter isn’t resting on his laurels. He acknowledges that he had a good season but his mindset is on moving up from the third line. “I want to get a spot on the first 2 lines. It’s gonna be tough, very challenging but I’m ready to take that challenge.” The first two lines forwards include Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville, Zach Parise, Thomas Vanek and Mikael Granlund. The 6th spot is likely between Coyle and Niederreiter.
On September 12, the Wild announced that Niederreiter agreed to terms for a three-year, $8 million contract. This took place a week before players were scheduled to report for the first day of training camp.
“It’s definitely a big relief,” Niederreiter said. “The whole summer I was working out and thinking about what my future would be like,” That future may have involved the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia, where it is reported he turned down a huge offer from the KHL. Once again Nino went to twitter “I am happy and excited to stay apart of the WILD family.” A good mindset moving into the 2014-2015 season.