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Super Nino 64: Secret of the Golden Prospect

"Hey, Nino! How's the development coming?"
"Hey, Nino! How's the development coming?"

Author's Note: Anyone looking for stats and in-depth player analysis should go elsewhere. This is a feelings dump/rant.

Player development is an almost incendiary topic, especially when analyzing a team that's trying to rebuild through the draft. It's also frustrating, frightening and fascinating.

I wish I knew if the Islanders were doing right by Nino Niederreiter. I worry about his future with the team, mainly because if Garth Snow and Ken Morrow are going to get the franchise back on its feet, a fifth overall pick is a terrible thing to waste. Based on his history, I imagine Snow will give Niederreiter all the time in the world to get his game together. Nino is clearly a very confident, perhaps cocky, kid which adds another layer of intrigue.

But to be perfectly blunt, I have no idea how an NHL prospect is properly developed. And I don't think anyone does either.

What I think we mean when we say a player was or is being "developed properly" is that the player is getting what he needs when he needs it along the way to and in the early part of his career in the NHL. We see a player's stats or his game, compare them against where we think they should be and make a judgment that either he or his team is or isn't doing what it needs to do to make him into whatever prototype he was expected to be when he was drafted. The problem with this paradigm is that it operates in a vacuum.

There are literally a million reasons why a player does or doesn't become a successful NHL player, not to mention all the ways in which a guy could be considered a "successful NHL player." But this doesn't stop us from saying things like, "Bah! Send this kid down!" or "Geezus, they are RUINING this kid!" It's easy to say that good teams develop their prospects properly and that bad teams don't. But that can't be the full story. Every team has busts and diamonds, stars that seem to come out of nowhere and perennial prospects who have had more incubation and observation time than Dolly the Sheep.

In just one full NHL season, Niederreiter went from hope for the future to injury casualty to on-ice liability to odd-man-out to charity case. He finished the season as a cautionary tale for NHL teams hitching their wagons to the backs of teenagers. And I was reminded of another fable that I saw play out with the Islanders.

I hate myself for doing this because the circumstances are worlds apart. But the guy I always think of when I reflect on Niederreiter's first NHL season is Todd Bertuzzi. Or, more specifically, Trevor Linden.

When I heard the news that Bertuzzi and newly-minted captain Bryan McCabe had been traded to the Canucks for their recently-deposed captain Linden, I was ecstatic. I thought a classy, hard-nosed veteran leader like Linden was just what the Islanders needed for their playoff push that year. Yeah, losing a young defenseman you just named captain sucks, but McCabe was (and would continue to be) a high-risk-medium-reward player. And Bertuzzi...was a bust.

Or so I thought that time.

When he finally came up to Long Island from the Guelph Storm of the OHL (Bertuzzi was the first Islanders prospect who was so highly touted it made me remember what junior team he played on), he came with super lofty expectations of being "The Next Clark Gillies." Mention this today to any Islanders fan who was around at this time and this phrase will make them quake with nausea.

Bertuzzi had a promising rookie season (18 goals), but slid backwards for the next two years. Relations with the team, which were never good to begin with, got worse and worse until Mike Milbury, zen master of patience, sent the the third-year forward to the minors before shipping him off to Vancouver. And no one was happier than me.

Of course, 13 years later, it's very clear that I was very wrong. As an Islander, the older Linden wasn't the same player as the younger version who had led the Canucks to within a game of the Stanley Cup a few years prior. And Bertuzzi wasn't the same player with Vancouver that he was with the Islanders in the sense that he would eventually shake off his injuries and morph into a goddamn brutish, unstoppable goal-scoring machine (for a couple of years, anyway). After leaving the Canucks, he bounced around the league but has found a third home in Detroit as a depth scorer/surprisingly responsible checker.

So now we have Nino Niederreiter: Islanders prospect, Swiss national and owner of a sinister-to-spell surname. Niederreiter made the jump from junior to the NHL this year and his stats were dismal (1 goal, a -29 in 55 games). I wish I could say they didn't belay his overall play, but they're not too far off. He suffered two significant injuries, one a groin issue that derailed his training camp, as well as a concussion in November. His usual linemates, veteran Marty Reasoner and veteran's-veteran-veteran Jay Pandolfo, didn't exactly do him any favors.

He could, on rare occasion, make a pretty offensive play or pass that, more often than not, would not result in a goal for the Islanders. And at the end of the season, with the playoffs out of reach and the opportunity to get a raw kid more ice time in a relatively relaxed atmosphere, he inexplicably found himself a healthy scratch. In plain English, Nino had a very bad rookie year.

The most important word in that last sentence: "rookie." Niederreiter's NHL career is 64 games old. They have not been productive. But they're also not a concrete indicator of what his career will be 10-12-15 years from now, nor are they an indefensible indictment of the Islanders' player development methods. (Funny thing is, for all the observers saying NINO WUZ RUSHEDDD!, there were just as many calling for the Islanders to immediately recall several developing defenseman from the AHL when the big club needed help on the blueline.) Those 64 games are not a giant neon sign reading "BUST!" What they mean is that his 19-year-old kid with the sweet ride and long-ass name has had a shitty start to his career.

What happens next year with Nino? He could head to Bridgeport of the AHL, which he was ineligible to do this season, and get some seasoning there. He could stay on Long Island, play like a bull in a china shop and lead the Islanders to the playoffs with a mix of brute force and dazzling stick skills.

Or he could average another eight minutes a game and score two goals, doubling his career totals. And the Islanders, through a mountain of incompetence, neglect and instability, could pulverize Niederreiter’s will to play hockey and send him crying back to Lucerne to become a watchmaker or one of Lindt’s master chocolatiers.

Whatever happens will be just the next episode in the story of Nino Niederreiter's career. I guess the good news is that It can't possibly be worse than the premiere. I hope.