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Nino Niederreiter Isn't Alone: 2010 NHL Draft's Tough Rookie Years

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Growing up: It isn't easy to do.
Growing up: It isn't easy to do.

This is Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher, as quoted by Damian Cristodero in the March 5 issue of The Hockey News:

"We said as a staff that if we're going to take him back after Team Canada, that he'd fit wherever he deserved to fit at that moment. He's not a young kid anymore.

"We've taken a lot of time with him, probably more than any other guy. It's a question, now, of his willingness to focus on the small details to become a complete professional."

Aside from the overtly tough talk in the media ... sound familiar?

New York Islanders fans witnessed a much similar tough-love (in terms of ice time, if not public flogging) development with their own 2010 pick, Nino Niederreiter. In fact, the four 2010 picks who went directly before Jeff Skinner all spent time as healthy scratches during their rookie 2011-12 seasons, and their narratives are ones that accompany many a 19-year-old NHLer.

#3 Overall: Erik Gudbranson, Panthers

The most forgivable rookie struggles of this trio may be by Gudbranson, who as a defenseman is traditionally afforded a longer learning curve. His worst stint was a string of scratches in early November, when Panthers coach Kevin Dineen sounded a familiar theme for rookies:

"The pace of the game is a little different from the blue line. The learning curve is a little larger. He’s doing a great job. He’s working hard in practice, studying videos, he’s seeping in as much information as he can get. The conversation we had today was to prepare him."

Dineen's tune was familiar when he scratched Gudbranson again in March:

"That's a hard decision for me because I have a tremendous amount of respect for Goody," Dineen said. "He is going to be a cornerstone player in this franchise." The Florida bench boss thought that Gudbranson would benefit from a breather..."

In the end, Gudbranson finished a Niederreiter-esque minus-19 on the season, but he generally made progress and played 72 games on a playoff team. The Panthers also raved about his playoff performance.

#4 Overall: Ryan Johansen, Blue Jackets

Johansen is the Niederreiter teammate from the WHL Portland Winterhawks who, depending on which report you believe, either was an original scouting target of the Isles or was simply a player who wowed multiple teams that arrived to get a closer look at rising Swiss prospect Niederreiter.

Regardless, while Niederreiter's junior teammate did not have a year from hell like Nino, it was predictably rocky for a player his age: His 67 games and 21 points were tempered by multiple, multi-game stints as a healthy scratch as late as February and March of what was a lost season for his last-place Blue Jackets. In particular interim coach Todd Richards -- who, after all, was coaching for a permanent job -- found reason to keep Johansen in the press box.

#5 Overall: Nino Niederreiter, Islanders

Niederreiters travails have been documented over and over here and at other Islanders-centric sites. The common themes are tried and true: "He was rushed" vs. "He had nothing more to learn." "He needs real linemates" vs. "He needs to learn defense first."

To be sure, Niederreiter's season was made worse by a freak groin contusion that delayed its start and by a concussion the game after he scored his first and only goal of the season. Niederreiter needs work, but the dilemma of how the Islanders handled him -- GM Garth Snow has said he'd have been in the AHL if only the rules allowed -- might be summed up by this dilemma, recently said of Ryan Strome:

However, he might need a little bit more development time, and its not clear if he’s NHL ready. It will be difficult for Strome to work on his defensive game in a league where he will be a dominant offensive player, as he just won’t be challenged in his end of the ice at even strength very often.

Watching Niederreiter's defensive coverage was at times painful last season. It's sort of a chicken or egg question whether his linemates and role or defensive immaturity were worse, but the end result is he had as rough of a rookie season as can be had, and the Islanders better hope he at least picked up defensive insights along the way.

Speaking of that dilemma, one is reminded of Ottawa Senators assistant GM Tim Murray, who just days ago described 2011 pick Mika Zibanejad's season spent back with Djurgarden in Sweden:

"Nothing is ever a waste of time so it wasn’t a waste of time, but it was close to that I guess," said Murray. "They weren’t very good."

Oh, the many paths to learning.

#6 Overall: Brett Connolly, Lightning

Finally there is the case of Connolly, who actually wasn't scratched until the season's stretch drive in February -- though as the opening quote to this post indicated, he spent time away at the World Junior Championship with Team Canada.

The tale of Connolly's scratches are all too familiar for young players in the NHL. Here's coach Guy Boucher:

"Every player that is 19 years old goes through what he is going through right now," head coach Guy Boucher said. "We know he is going to be a terrific player. He has tremendous skills, he's got great speed ... but this is the NHL and there are a lot of things guys have to learn and 99 percent of the time that's being reliable defensively."

Separately, Connolly and GM Steve Yzerman:

"I have to get better (defensively)," he said.

It was his first NHL scratch.

"You never want that to happen, but … that's out of my control," said Connolly, who has four goals and eight points in 38 games but zero points in his past 16. "I have to focus on what I need to do and improve."

Said Yzerman: "It's part of the process of being an NHL player."

During the course of Connolly's up-and-down rookie season -- which even included the chance to play the proverbial "meaningful games" at the WJC with Team Canada -- he ended up scratched, buried on the fourth line, and challenged by his coach for deficiencies in his defensive game.

Connoly finished with 4 goals and 11 assists in 68 games.

As with Connolly, some observers are still quite high on Niederreiter, while others focus on an objectively horrid rookie season. But for many of Nino's struggles, what Boucher and Yzerman both said rings true:

"It's part of the process of being an NHL player."