This isn't intended to call anyone out, but rather to question our own assumptions. In discussing the likely 2011-12 Islanders lines, as we fans are wont to do during August's hockey isolation, often we'll say something like, "There's no way Nino will be on the 4th line."
The thinking is based on solid theory: Nino Niederreiter was drafted to be a power forward, a top-six guy, so with junior eligibility remaining (sadly, he can't be baptized in the AHL), you'd hesitate to put him in limited minutes on a grinder line when he could be attempting to "dominate" in important roles against kids around his age in the WHL.
But it's been a year (in hockey calendar terms) since Nino Niederreiter's raw nine-game trial with the Islanders as a just-turned-18-year-old. Could we be forgetting how he was used last October, a period in which it became clear a return to juniors would do him good?
Let's look at the data.
First, line combos from Dobber Hockey. Here are his most frequent even-strength partners, and the rough percentage of his total ice time for each combo:
30.72% EV 40 GRABNER,MICHAEL - 25 NIEDERREITER,NINO - 93 WEIGHT,DOUG 13.45% EV 26 MOULSON,MATT - 25 NIEDERREITER,NINO - 91 TAVARES,JOHN 8.84% EV 17 MARTIN,MATT - 25 NIEDERREITER,NINO - 93 WEIGHT,DOUG 4.42% EV 57 COMEAU,BLAKE - 25 NIEDERREITER,NINO - 93 WEIGHT,DOUG 3.61% EV 12 BAILEY,JOSH - 25 NIEDERREITER,NINO - 93 WEIGHT,DOUG 3.61% EV 26 MOULSON,MATT - 25 NIEDERREITER,NINO - 93 WEIGHT,DOUG 3.21% EV 12 BAILEY,JOSH - 25 NIEDERREITER,NINO - 16 SIM,JONATHAN 3.21% EV 25 NIEDERREITER,NINO - 15 PARENTEAU,PIERRE - 93 WEIGHT,DOUG 3.01% EV 28 KONOPKA,ZENON - 25 NIEDERREITER,NINO - 16 SIM,JONATHAN 2.41% EV 40 GRABNER,MICHAEL - 28 KONOPKA,ZENON - 25 NIEDERREITER,NINO 2.21% EV 26 MOULSON,MATT - 25 NIEDERREITER,NINO - 51 NIELSEN,FRANS 2.21% EV 25 NIEDERREITER,NINO - 16 SIM,JONATHAN - 93 WEIGHT,DOUG
In fact, only six players appeared in an Islanders uniform last year and played fewer total minutes than Nino did -- and three of those were the one-day "ATO #55s" who divvied up the final three games of the season.
Nino's 13:35 per game average was more than that seen by Zenon Konopka (who also spent a league-high amount of time in the box), Matt Martin, Jesse Joensuu (who got in a surprising 42 games) or Jon Sim (34 games), but less than any other Islanders regular. Checking his game log, he never got the Gillies treatment, so that 13:35 average is a fair product of nine 11-minute to 14-minute nights. His 12 shots on goal were also fairly evenly spread out along his 9-game trial. So the data isn't hiding any big outliers.
Looking at the combos above, a hobbled Doug Weight was clearly Nino's babysitter, and he got a trial run with what became the Islanders top scoring pair in John Tavares and Matt Moulson. But beyond that, it was a mix of partners from middle-six scorers to fourth-line grinders as Scott Gordon tried to both win games and integrate or evaluate that summer's top Islanders draft pick.
Remember also that the Islanders actually topped the Eastern Conference through the first seven of those games (4-1-2), though that was a product of some luck and small samples while being outplayed. In a harbinger of what was to come, they then lost Andrew MacDonald after that seventh game and yada yada yada, season's done and Scott Gordon's fired.
Redefining Your Bottom Six
So Nino wasn't exactly a fourth-liner, but he wasn't exactly in a defined non-fourth-line role. But what's the point here then? The point, as several have discussed in comments here, is that the Islanders will have a lot of options for bottom six roles in camp.
And with the de facto replacement of Zenon Konopka with Marty Reasoner (unless Micheal Haley inherits the Konopka banging 4th-center role), the Islanders might just be able to deploy both a 3rd and 4th line that do more than just bang the opposition and then get off once the zone is cleared or a goal is scored. How sweet would it be to have four lines that can outplay their opposition with some regularity?
If Niederreiter makes the team out of camp, the Islanders will again have the 9-game option of testing him before his full ELC kicks in. (Little-known CBA trivia: When an ELC "slides" in this way, an annual portion of the signing bonus is still applied to that first year, actually lowering the cap hit for the three years when the ECL fully kicks in. That's why whenever Nino makes the team and stays, his cap hit will be lower than it was last year.)
That 9-game option could mean some "4th" line duty as Jack Capuano sees what he can make of his bottom six while also evaluating Nino's case to stay in the NHL this year, versus sending him back after another taste of NHL standards. It would mean trying and testing a few different roles. It could mean a slow tutelage in which he's protected in limited minutes, which is hardly unprecedented (even stars like Joe Thornton have been protected in their rookie year -- oh, and while we're mentioning Bruins, Tyler Seguin had his share of sub-10-minute nights).
There may be some healthy scratches. There may be some powerplay nights or flashes of the player they think they drafted. If he sees the 4th line, it won't be to bury him or punish him. It will be to straddle that line of seeing what he can do while also trying to win the first nine hockey games.