Editor's Note: This FanPost covers a hot topic here at LHH as we watch Niederreiter learn at the NHL level. The much-debated decision to keep him in the NHL is in the past; the next question is how the little parts of his game are progressing given that decision. So consider this a look back at the 19-year-old's season thus far, with the most important chapter yet to come. Also consider it a chance for diesel metaphors.
Nino Niederreiter has now played 22 of 45 games this season and seems to have built some confidence, which he has shown in the past six games or so. Let us now look at some of the progression Nino has made since leaving the WHL in lieu of the NHL.
Disclaimer: Not here to talk about his Cap hit ... though this is long.
Checklist: Summer Skating, Conditioning, Physical Play
Nino came into training camp after attending a power skating camp, which he attended to develop those elusive first couple of steps that give players the extra edge when breaking away and creating space. We have seen this first hand with John Tavares this season. John's first few steps have given him the ability to blow by players instead of in the past, having them catch up. Much like torque coming from a turbo diesel, it's all about getting to your speed as quickly as possible. It's not very likely that a player will develop more top speed, but the ability to get there can be improved.
So check mark number one on Nino's list was gaining some extra down low speed and as seen from the past couple of games, it seems to be finally coming around. Nino has been making plays off the boards with some quick steps that allow him to get shots to the net.
Nino's conditioning was also a question mark coming out of rookie camp and into training camp. Nino being 19 years old has not even fully developed and like breakout speed this can be improved. Nino went to work and improved this area of his game and we are seeing that now, with his hustle to return to his own zone and make plays that would not have been possible before hand. It seems this aspect of his game is moving right along and should no longer be a question moving forward.
Moving on to physical play, Nino has finally been noticeable after that preseason groin injury, which seemed to not only take a step out of him, but also make him hesitate when going for a check along the boards. We like Nino, because of his 6-2 205 lbs frame that is built for bruising players and creating not only space for his teammates but also for himself. Much like the KO we have seen in the past month or two. This is integral to Nino's game and part of his power forward dynamic that allows him to ring someone along the boards, get the puck on the forecheck and open up the play. Again this is something we have seen in the past 6 games or so from Nino. There was a bit of scare with his concussion that he might go into hesitation mode again, but that has not been the case.
So we have here, speed, conditioning and physical play, all physical characteristics of a player, in which it is clear that Nino has improved upon. What we have next is how the Islander's have been using him and his confidence progression. To be clear, I think we all know what his skills are: great shot, quick release, puck handling, and physical play. The Islander staff has to be able to develop these skills to be used in the NHL so he can supplement two other forwards on the ice. He also has to learn to play the game at the NHL level and develop some two way skills, because there is always the threat of being scored upon and breakouts develop from the defensive and neutral zones.
Usage of a Kid for Whom the AHL is Not an Option
So how has Nino been used thus far:
In training camp we were seeing what we thought would be the top line for the Islanders in Matt Moulson, John Tavares and Nino Niederreiter. It looked like he was going to be the space creator and another go-to guy for John's perfect passes. In the preseason, he played in 6 games and had 2 goals and 2 assists, not amazing, but certainly inviting and a good sign he would stick with his teammates. Then came an injury and Nino was out and after a Bridgeport stint of the maximum 2 weeks he was back on the Islanders.
At this point we will never know if he was to start on the first line and given some top line minutes before it was deemed he would move down lines, but either way I think we can say going to Bridgeport for the two weeks was beneficial. I am a proponent that if he could legally be in the AHL he should be there. Regardless of how bad our team is, I would rather see young players stay down in the AHL to hone their skills at a slightly slower and less intense speed.
Back on the Islanders, Nino is now tossed on the 4th line with an ever-changing roster that consists of Trevor Gillies, Michael Haley, Jay Pandolfo, Marty Reasoner, David Ullstrom, Tim Wallace and Matt Martin. He played with all of them at some point. None of them are JT when it comes to play making, so we can forget about Nino getting great opportunities to score goals.
In juniors Ryan Johansen was his center and netted a ton of assists playing with Nino; there was even a post about Nino riding Johansen's coattails. So what is Nino gaining in experience from playing on the Islander's 4th line instead of playing in the WHL another season, and is it the right decision?
Yes, this is the right decision and ties directly into his development as an NHLer along with his newfound confidence that has people talking about line promotion.
We can look at Nino's first 4 games between his two injuries and generally we felt that 6-8 minutes a game on the 4th line was a waste as Nino was not hitting assignments, moving on the bad side of plus/minus, and looked a bit lost. He was not using his strengths regularly when in the offensive zone, and being on the 4th line with limited zonetime looked horrible on the back end of things. Not too many shots, lack in confidence, little physical play and very little cohesiveness with his linemates, which were churning around with injuries and scratches. Though he scored his first goal of the season off that great shot of his. That is what we like.But his next 8 to 10 games looked similar to what I just described.
Nino, however, was gaining experience; he was learning the speed of the game, receiving NHL coaching, practicing with an NHL team, and everything else that comes at the highest level in the world. So though his on ice production was dismal, there were still strides to be made.
Then came Wallace as a standard on the 4th line, followed by Reasoner's injuries and Pandolfo coming back to play thus the 4th line has seen a bit more stability. Though the line is still seeing minimal shifts and time, it is clear that Cappy has no problem rolling the 4 lines and relying on these guys to provide a spark and some offensive jump. Nino has been at the forefront finally showing us why he was drafted, albeit no production yet.
He has been physical, he has been getting shots off, and we have seen his improved few steps that let him get away from players to make plays. Nino has also been making it back to his own zone for defensive zone coverage's and has shown no problems with conditioning. This is good because he is learning the value of a 2 way game that he will be expected to play if wants to jump from the 4th to 3rd line. Josh Bailey, Matt Martin and Rolston see much tougher competition than the 4th line.
I am honestly fine with the amount of minutes he is getting up to this point. It puts very little pressure on Nino and is allowing him to play his game freely, while still playing smart hockey. I think expectations were a bit too high coming into the season, but I think the Islanders have done well by keeping him up and playing him in his current role. I would keep him in this role for a bit longer and watch his learning curve jump, along with confidence and comfort level.
I think towards the end of the season depending on how the Islanders are doing, how the management feels about Rolston, and injuries, we will see Nino jump to the third line naturally. This will be big for Nino, it will show the confidence the coaching staff has in his abilities and I believe he will take it to the next level.
Another big body on the Bailey line will turn it into a very nice checking line with a center that can put the puck on a stick. Nino has the hands that Martin doesn't quite have to finish attempts. By the end of the year Nino will have a full NHL season under his belt, not looking out of place, and know even further what to work on in the off season. I doubt we will see him in the AHL next season.
Moving forward in the offseason, Nino will most likely attend a skating camp again, get even stronger, and jump into training camp with an attitude of breaking the top six.