It has been well chronicled -- after all, there are so many ways to chronicle it -- how Nino Niederreiter's 2011-12 was a terrible, horrible, no good very bad season. Worthy of a children's book, even.
The easiest to point to is the stat line: 55GP 1G 0A -29 1.4 sh%. Really?
Then there is the narrative of how the then-19-year-old got there: A bizarre training camp injury (groin, quite possibly created by a pinch/impact from his own gear) robbed him of camp and kept him on the shelf at the start of the year. After finally getting back into the lineup, it was with fourth-liners.
Despite the delayed start, he managed his first goal of the season on a sweet wrist shot breakaway in Chicago ... only to receive a concussion the next game on a high hit by Mark Fistric.
Finally, there's the underlying numbers: Niederreiter was both not very good last year on the ice -- and also quite unlucky. In the purest of forms, it was the unluckiest of seasons: Poor play, poor linemates, poor injury luck (and timing), and even poor bounces.
He isn't Mitch Fritz or Ben Eager bad, but that's how it looked. It's almost hard to have a sniper's hands -- at every previous level, Niederreiter scored at least a goal every other game -- and converts only once on 74 shots. It's hard to convert shots when everyone you're on the ice with has trouble converting and trouble stopping shots.
That is not to excuse Niederreiter's own part in how everyone he played with had trouble converting and preventing. His adaptation to NHL defensive assignments was noticeably slow (it usually is for young players), and probably justified him not being moved up to weigh down better teammates who faced tougher competition.
But it was a perfect storm: Everything within his control and beyond his control conspired to make it a rookie season to forget.
Nino in the AHL: A Year Older, A Tier More Appropriate
Fast forward to this fall, and Niederreiter has seven goals and 13 points in 11 games with AHL Bridgeport. His shooting percentage has swung completely to the other extreme, at 18.9% on 37 shots. (Yes, he already has half as many shots as he had in 55 games last year.) He has two powerplay goals -- thanks to ample powerplay time, something he practically never sniffed during his NHL rookie year.
The competition is a little weaker (though you wonder how much difference between top-six AHL lines and NHL fourth lines), but the role is more appropriate. He's getting the ice time and assignment he's accustomed to, and so far at least, it's going as well as Islanders fans could hope 11 games into the season. Some of the goals have been on scrambles and tap-ins -- not quite "sniper" goals but certainly goals you expect from a big offensive predator who should be crashing the net.
There are certain timeless, unanswerable (yet hotly contested) debates in player development which are complicated by the NHL-CHL agreement that keeps players like Nino from the AHL at age 19:
- An extra year in juniors vs. "nothing more to learn there."
- Plenty more to learn somewhere vs. it being too easy to fall back on one's size advantage at the junior level.
- Learning the defensive needs of the NHL vs. being lost with defensive fourth liners like Jay Pandolfo or Marty Reasoner.
Whatever the right, untestable answers, last year is now history. For Niederreiter to be an effective NHLer next season, or perhaps as soon as this season, if it ever begins, his next step is to be a key and productive offensive guy for the Sound Tigers in the AHL. (Eventually, to be a true top-six threat he'll also need to be a strong two-way player, but first thing's first.)
It's just 11 games to date, but so far so good.