The first reaction most Islanders fans had to the Nino Niederreiter trade was shock, because there could be nothing but shock.
Not shock because Niederreiter was traded -- such a divorce appeared to be in the works for a while, through Niederreiter complaints, anxiety and the trade request that came after the Isles had the nerve not to invite him to NHL training camp after the lockout.
Rather, the shock comes because when you select someone fifth overall as the Isles did with Nino in 2010, you expect him to be a star. When he's not going to be a star but it's still just three years later, you hope you get back something essential.
Cal Clutterbuck, useful and established as he is, isn't essential. He should help, but he does not fill in the blank for the statement, "The only thing this team is missing is ____."
Though he's coming off a bad season and is seeking a new contract of unknown value as a restricted free agent, Clutterbuck is a known quantity. Unless he's dealing with an injury or early decline, he should upgrade the Islanders' bottom six. He should be able to move around lines when needed -- he's not out of place in spot duty next to skill players -- and he should annoy the hell out of the Islanders' obnoxious division rivals.
So the ultimate verdict on this trade will depend on what comes of Niederreiter. There are reasons for hope, and there are reasons for concern.
On the concerned side (for Nino fans), you can throw out his awful NHL rookie season and just mull whether his attitude and his high view of his own game is warranted. He still appears challenged in the defensive aspects of the game, a concern that is quite common in young players. But if that aspect isn't fixed, then he's going to have to score a lot of goals to justify the role he thinks he deserves.
On the hopeful side, Niederreiter has been a scorer in juniors, in the AHL and now in the World Championship too. His 28 goals led the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, his 230 shots showed his recognition of what he does best.
NHL pundits, as quoted by Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, called the trade a no-brainer for the Wild: They gave up a grinder they needed to shed anyway (plus a third-round pick) for a guy who still has the chance to be a star:
Ray Ferraro: "Niederreiter’s upside is a lot bigger. I mean, to me, this is a no-brainer. They traded Cal Clutterbuck for a first-round pick. They got the fifth overall pick, a potential goal scorer, for a bowling ball. I don’t mean that as disrespect to Cal. But they traded a goal scorer for a guy that hits."Pierre McGuire: "I have no problem with Cal Clutterbuck. He’s a useful player. He played junior with Tavares, so there’s chemistry there. But Nino Niederreiter, his upside is gigantic. You’re not talking about an eight-to-12 goal scorer. You’re talking about a guy who can score 20 to 30. Tremendous talent.
To be fair, Ferraro has been a frequent critic of his old franchise and McGuire has been a big cheerleader of Nino's since his performance at the 2010 World Junior Championship. But both of their takes are the intuitive ones: Nino, a late birthday, still has great potential three years after his draft and he could realize that potential with the Wild.
He could also find himself disheartened again:
With Niederreiter, Granlund, Coyle and Jason Zucker, the Wild will have four young forwards on two-way contracts vying for spots next season.
"Nothing will be promised to any of them, and hopefully it provides a healthy competition in our training camp," Fletcher said.
Oh, oh now that sounds familiar.
From a handsomely compensated but premature NHL promotion to injuries and fourth-line roles that didn't fit the player, to a rash trade request after one good half in the AHL didn't earn another look, the balance between promises and earned reward was never quite right between the Isles and Nino.
But Snow, as is his custom, did not air dirty laundry, whether about current or former players:
Asked if there was a rift between the two camps, Snow said: "I'm not gonna speak from their perspective, but for us, no."
As noted, the Wild have several young wing prospects, so the one nagging concern they might have is how Nino will react if he again fails to make an NHL roster. His steady flow of public comments about his own role sounded like a player who is both confident and entitled, one who needed reassurance to understand how he could possibly not be in the team:
I didn’t have a strong year [in 2011-12], I didn’t get the chance I was hoping for, and then I didn’t get invited to camp, but I knew I had to work as hard as I can," Niederreiter said. "I never really heard anything from the team, so I was just a little bit of disappointed about that. I wanted to see if they still wanted me."
And yet, defensive warts and all, the nagging feeling for Isles fans will be that they still never really got a chance to see Nino try out in his intended role, next to skilled NHLers. Essentially, even if divorce had become inevitable, the Isles admitted defeat in their Nino relationship on Sunday.
It's defeat by having to give him up for a less important role -- they apparently offered him to the Kings for Jonathan Bernier but were rebuffed. But it's also defeat because this is not the outcome you need from a 5th overall pick, a pick that should have been essential to the now-maturing rebuild.
Time to Move On
Despite his optimism or self-belief, Niederreiter almost certainly wasn't going to get the role next to John Tavares this season; he wasn't ready for top line responsibilities in the NHL yet. It's easy to wonder how he would've responded if he didn't get a prime power play role.
So in the short-term, the Isles got a player who will help next year for a player whose ready date was still a question.
How that all works out depends on several other dominoes, however, including what kind of contract they get the 25-year-old Clutterbuck to sign. As noted, he's coming off a weak year so his leverage shouldn't be high. But the cap-squeezed Wild (remember Suter and Parise?) deemed him too expensive.
Meanwhile, since Nino didn't help fetch Bernier or another goalie, the Isles still have holes to fill there, and the pressure is on, as implied at the end of Newsday's Nino story:
"We're obviously going to have to make an addition at that position," Snow said. "We'll see how the next few weeks play out."
It's funny: If this trade had happened down the stretch next season, in conditions where Nino was still in the AHL or relegated to a bottom-six role, you could picture Islanders fans embracing it much more quickly for a "playoff-style team." But if the Isles don't find a goalie and adequately fill that wing spot next to Tavares, the question may be moot.