It’s a truism that evaluating an NHL draft takes time. The number generally put forward is something in the five-year range, long enough for the prospects selected to have completed their junior/college/European careers and played a professional season or three. There isn’t a management group in the NHL that doesn’t pay lip service to that idea.
That’s why the NHL emergence of Nino Niederreiter, four years after he was drafted, isn’t a major surprise.
Yet Niederreiter, the fifth overall pick at the 2010 draft, isn’t still playing for the team that selected him so high. That’s because the New York Islanders dealt the 6’2”, 209-pound winger to Minnesota over the summer.
Everybody knows that sometimes top prospects take time. So why would the Islanders move Niederreiter so early in the process? In answering that question, it is important to remember that four years is a long time to wait for a fifth overall draft pick.
The Islanders hoped that Niederreiter would be able to help the team immediately. He got nine NHL games in his first post-draft season, and general manager Garth Snow’s comments to Newsday’s Katie Strang late in that process made it clear the team was sweating the decision:
We haven’t made a final decision yet. There are a lot of ingredients that go into making the decision—what’s in the best interest for the player, what’s in the best interest of the organization, how we feel about the organization we’d be sending him back to, and also the mental makeup of the player.
Niederreiter was ultimately returned to the junior ranks and improved on his last season’s numbers in the WHL. The next year, the Islanders kept Niederreiter in the professional ranks all season, playing him in 55 NHL games for the 2011-12 NHL season. Niederreiter scored a single goal and went minus-29. That kind of run with no offensive production and goal after goal going in against is an awfully hard thing for a major league team to watch.
The Islanders decided to keep Niederreiter for another year but stashed him in the minors, where he was a 50-point player for the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers. He didn’t play in even one NHL game that lockout-shortened season.
New York has been a poor team for a long time. At its best moments in recent history, the team has risen to just barely making the playoffs. One of the problems with top picks is that they almost invariably end up with lousy teams, teams that need them to be difference-makers right away. The Islanders were counting on Niederreiter, and for three seasons he failed to deliver. So they traded him.
The inevitable reaction among fans of a team acquiring a player like Niederreiter is to point to his age and his draft number and say something along the lines of "He’s obviously a talented guy and he’s young enough to put it all together." It’s easy for them, or for the manager of the acquiring team, to look at the upside and keep the maxims about patience with young players in mind. They haven’t suffered or lost games while that young player struggled to meet expectations.
It’s more than that, though. Sometimes, top draft picks just don’t work out. With the player floundering, the temptation to run to safety can be incredible. That’s what the Islanders did when they took Cal Clutterbuck, a useful NHL player, along with a third-round draft pick in exchange for Niederreiter. They couldn’t be sure Niederreiter would ever put it together and were doubtless tired of waiting. So they got a sure thing.
The Minnesota Wild, however, hadn’t lived with Niederreiter’s difficulties for three seasons. They saw a chance to add a difference-maker, and they jumped at it. The truth is that top-flight talent is the most difficult thing to find in the NHL, and with Niederreiter, the potential existed to land a big, goal-scoring winger who could play major minutes. The cost—Cal Clutterbuck—was easy enough to replace; a week after trading him, the Wild signed Matt Cooke, who filled precisely the same role and had a better track record of scoring. That made it a low-risk gamble with potentially high rewards.
So far, so good. Niederreiter has 25 points in 48 NHL games, a 43-point pace. He’s been a point-per-game player over his last eight contests. H’s playing a very specific role (lots of offensive-zone starts, not a lot of time against top opponents), but he’s scoring in that role and even leads the team in plus/minus. At 21 years of age, this is a great first step, and there’s lots of time to improve from here.
The reasons the Islanders gave up on Niederreiter are easy to understand, and the fear of getting exactly nothing out of a fifth overall pick must have been great. But ultimately, it ended up in Snow moving an NHL-ready player with great upside for an easily replaceable piece, and it led to the Wild getting something extremely hard to find for almost nothing.