Last Sunday my friend and I decided to catch the first period of the Minnesota Wild’s open scrimmage at the Xcel Energy Center before heading to the nearby Patrick McGovern’s to watch the Vikings play the Chicago Bears with a couple of our friends.
Going to the scrimmage would allow us to see a lot of the new faces while also viewing the Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville top line in action. We liked what we saw. Charlie Coyle, wearing a new No. 3, nearly scored on a power play, Jason Zucker knocked in a goal of his own and Pominville scored one for the top line.
There was one play in particular that stood out, however. It wasn’t a scoring play, but that made it no less appealing. A player we both did not immediately recognize zipped down the middle, took two defensemen head-on and fired off a nasty wrist shot between them that goaltender Niklas Backstrom had to fend off.
“Who was that?” my friend asked with laughter of joy.
I took a second to look at the player’s jersey number as he looped back toward the bench.
Nino Niederreiter, of course.
He was wearing the No. 22, which was stitched or pressed on the back of many fan’s jerseys that afternoon, only the letters on top were a little different. Not only had the Wild traded away one of the most popular players in team history, Cal Clutterbuck, and a third-round pick in order to obtain Niederreiter, but the Swiss forward had chosen to wear Clutterbuck’s old number as if he wanted to highlight that fact (or pretend that a lot of people already bought his sweater).
Niederreiter, known colloquially as El Nino, will enter the 2013-14 season with the most pressure of all the young players. Mikael Granlund’s play will be under the microscope, but he was acquired through the draft, and other young players like Jonas Brodin, Coyle and Zucker are already in good favor with the fans.
I expect Niederreiter to be an impact player this season. He is supremely talented, is surrounded by plenty of other young players and will be placed in a situation where the team can take its time with him. Don’t be surprised if people start replacing the nameplate on their No. 22s by the end of the year after this guy takes off.
Niederreiter was expected to help the New York Islanders turn things around. When he ws drafted No. 5 overall in 2010, four spots ahead of Granlund, he passed Michel Riesen (No. 17 overall, 1997) as the highest-drafted Swiss player in NHL history.
Scouts raved about him.
“Niederreiter is one of those players that every time that he steps on the ice you come out of your seat a little bit because you sense that this guy is ready to do something special,” said TSN’s Bob McKenzie after seeing him at the World Juniors.
“He has good hands, and is a proven goal scorer at every level,” wrote a scout on HockeyProspect.com “All his skills, coupled with his character makeup will make Nino an attractive winger for any NHL GM come draft day.”
The biggest praise, however, came from Christopher Ralph at TheHockeyWriters.com.
“Size. Skill. Strength. Skating. Shot. Creativity. Passion. Desire. Maturity. Great hands. Defensive accountability,” he wrote.
“These characteristics all add up to a complete forward destined for greatness.”
Destined for greatness.
Niederreiter joined the Islanders immediately after the draft as an 18-year-old. On October 13, 2010, he became the fourth-youngest player in the expansion era to score a goal when he ripped one past Michal Neuvirth of the Washington Capitals. Only Grant Mulvey, Jordan Staal and Patrick Marleau were younger when they found the twine the first time.
Nino was sent back to Portland of the WHL after nine games, where he notched 41 goals and 29 assists in 55 games for the Winterhawks.
He returned for what basically was a full season at age 19 but did not have the same production. He only managed one goal in 55 games and was a staggering minus-29 while being placed on the fourth line with veterans Marty Reasoner and Jay Pandolfo.
The Islanders appeared to give up on him after that. He began the year in Bridgeport of the AHL due to the NHL lockout and was not invited to training camp, at which point he requested a trade.
Everyone could see it: The Islanders had given up on him.
Surrounded By Players His Age
Islanders fans had hoped that Niederreiter would team up with John Tavares, 22, and Kyle Okposo, 25, to help turn the franchise around. Outside of those two players and two savvy pickups, Michael Grabner and Matt Moulson, there was not much else around Niederreiter. Anders Lee, a sixth-rounder out of Notre Dame, and Travis Hamonic, 23, showed promise, and his fellow countryman Mark Streit served as team captain—but Lee and Hamonic are young and unproven, and Streit is aging.
In Minnesota, he will not have to play on the top line, which is anchored by two players who were captains at their last stop, Parise and Pominville, and the team’s current captain, Koivu.
At the same time, he will not have to vie for minutes with established veterans.
Dany Heatley has slowed down a bit, Kyle Brodziak is more of a third-line center and the rest of the crew are in the same boat as Niederreiter: young and talented, but also finding their role on the team.
Zucker, Coyle and Granlund are all around Niederreiter’s age. Instead of getting stuck with two aging players on a fourth line, he should be on either the second or third line with players who are developing with him.
Furthermore, the Wild are expected to make the playoffs, but nobody is under the assumption they are the front-runner to win their division or take home the Stanley Cup. Unlike on Long Island where he was expected to turn the franchise around, that’s on Parise, Suter and Koivu. All he is expected to do is provide scoring depth on a line with players his age.
Placed in a Situation to Succeed
Not only will there be less pressure on Niederreiter, but he also can also take things at his own speed. While he will always be associated with Clutterbuck, as a first-rounder and a proven scorer, he should have more upside than the mustachioed masher.
Unless he has a really strong training camp, Niederreiter will likely begin on the third line and be given the time necessary to become a second-line player. Make no mistake, he is supposed to eventually be on one of the scoring lines, especially because his arrival made Devin Setoguchi, a former 30-goal scorer in his prime, expendable, but fans are not going to be upset if he has to start as a third-liner and work his way up.
Niederreiter is supposed to be a contributor, not a savior. He’s supposed to provide depth, not sell jerseys. He is supposed to replace Setoguchi, not Clark Gillies, Denis Potvin or Mike Bossy.
He is expected to be one of the guys, not the best player.
Many players improve with a change of scenery, especially when they leave a moribund franchise like the Islanders, but Niederreiter is particularly ripe for a breakout season. He has incredible talent but can develop along with many other players his age and become part of a core that should remain intact for years to come.
If you bought a Clutterbuck uniform, don’t fret, that No. 22 will be worn for years to come.
You might want to get it restitched, though.
Tom Schreier covers Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and is a contributor to Yahoo! Sports.