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Waiting for Nino Niederreiter, on both coasts

Some wish Portland could quit you. [<em>photo selection changed to make 100% sure Getty's caption wasn't leading us astray</em>]
Some wish Portland could quit you. [photo selection changed to make 100% sure Getty's caption wasn't leading us astray]

You are not the only ones eagerly awaiting Nino Niederreiter's arrival.

Last week Nino's WHL Portland Winterhawks had a fan and media event as players reconvened for the new season, and the rising star Nino was not among them. This was hardly a surprise, but reaction to Nino's absence -- the Islanders requested that he skip it and prepare for big boys' camp on Long Island -- initiated much kvetching among Hawks followers, understandably so.

First, last week from 30-year journalist and WHL reporter Gregg Drinnan:

The New York Islanders have kept first-round pick Nino Niederreiter in the big city [sic]; in fact, he isn’t expected in Portland at all before the start of another season. I am hearing that he will open the season with the Islanders, who are hoping his presence will help them sell tickets. That, of course, is purely speculation, especially considering that he hasn’t signed, but you can bet that Portland GM/head coach Mike Johnston is operating as though Niederreiter won‘t be back. . .

Keeping him around "to sell tickets" is a bit of a stretch, "speculation" qualifier or not. Keeping him around because they have high hopes for him, he has a near-NHL body, and he has 9 games to burn before it costs them is another matter. (Remember that despite lots of fawning praise for Calvin de Haan last preseason, the Isles still rightly returned him to juniors at the end of camp. Counterpoint: He was also smaller and tackling a tougher position. And then there was Josh Bailey....)

From Dylan Bumbarger, one "community blogger" at local portal OregonLive (Note: Caution that this is speculation, not insider info.):

it's apparent that the Islanders have plans for him. When Ryan Johansen goes to camp with the Blue Jackets, he's going to have to play well to make the team. I get the impression, however, that it's the opposite with Niederreiter--he's going to have to play his way out of an Opening Night spot.

Bumbarger goes on to outline the different NHL CBA-related milestones in Nino's career should he stick around (10 games, 40 games, etc.). If Nino breaks camp with the Isles and plays the first nine, he'd miss 13 WHL games -- no small matter for those fans.

As Islanders fans, we all have high hopes (albeit on many different timelines) for Nino's future. Could he really be a fixture past Game 9 this year?

Another community blogger at OregonLive, Samantha Meese, puts his recent history in perspective:

...since coming to Portland from Switzerland one year ago, Nino has traveled across two continents and four countries several times over to the World Juniors, the World Championship, the NHL Combine, the NHL Draft and then back to New York. And somewhere in there he learned to drive and finished high school.

The same reason you'd count on Nino to play the majority of this year in the WHL -- he's so young, missed being a 2011 draftee by a week, has already advanced so much, so fast -- is the same reason you wouldn't be entirely surprised if the Islanders did try to make an NHLer of him this year: He's a special kid.

How special? Time will tell. Prudence and my own kvetching has me thinking he belongs in the WHL for what will be his age 18 season (he turns 18 Sept. 8) -- and certainly the record of 18- and 19-year-olds in the NHL is not pretty. (Here's a follow-up to that Copper & Blue post.) But you and Garth Snow might see it differently.

What I'd venture we'd all agree on is, if Nino's impressive in camp it doesn't hurt the Isles to run the 6'2", 200-pounder out there for nine games of NHL orientation.

That may stink for Portland Winterhawks fans, but it will be fun for us. And bully for tomorrow's free agents if it sells some tickets, too.