MONTREAL – These are hot times for the New York Islanders rookie known as El Nino.
Gifted but sometimes controversial prospect Nino Niederreiter is due to find out on Thursday, or perhaps late Wednesday night, whether he will stay with the NHL club or be sent back to the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League.
The 18-year-old from Switzerland was to play his ninth game for the Islanders on Wednesday night against the Montreal Canadiens. If he plays a 10th game, which could also be against Montreal back in New York on Friday night, he will be considered to have played one NHL season that will count toward his future eligibility for free agency.
Most teams don’t want to waste a year of eligibility unless they are certain the player is ready. And even if the Islanders have elected to keep their last two top draft picks in the NHL as 18-year-olds—Josh Bailey in 2008-09 and John Tavares last season—Niederreiter is clearly on the bubble.
”I think I played solid, but in the end, it’s out of my control,” the six-foot-two centre said. ”I’m not nervous at all.”
Niederreiter is not the only junior-aged player in that predicament. While Carolina has told Jeff Skinner he is staying, Edmonton is sure to keep No. 1 overall pick Taylor Hall and Boston will likely stick with Tyler Seguin, decisions loom for Kyle Clifford and Brayden Schenn of the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim’s Cam Fowler.
Niederreiter, drafted fifth overall in June, had a goal and an assist in his first eight games. The NHL’s youngest player at 18 years one month, he has spent some time on a line with 39-year-old centre Doug Weight.
”It’s going to be based on the best interests of his career and where we are as far as the players we have here now and in Bridgeport (of the AHL),” said Islanders coach Scott Gordon. ”I can say that if we decide to keep him here for the rest of the year I’d be comfortable with that.”
Gordon cautioned that circumstances are different than they were with Bailey, picked ninth overall in 2008, or Tavares, the top pick in the 2009 draft.
The lowly Islander clubs those years had few solid prospects to work with, but now they have restocked their farm club and can afford to take time with young talent.
One of the prospects that Gordon feels is ready, left-winger Matt Martin, was called up to play against Montreal in place of injured forward Michael Grabner.
”When we kept Josh here, we looked at our depth chart and what we had at centre and asked if it would be best in two years if he stayed with us instead of going back to junior?” said Gordon. ”Going back, he probably would have won a Memorial Cup and a world junior, but we felt there were some habits he’d be better to stay with us and deal with on a day-to-day basis.
”He’s been able to emerge this year quicker than had he gone back to junior. Nino’s situation is different in that we have prospects in Bridgeport now who are in a position where they could be called up. It’s a different set of circumstances.”
It was not the same with Tavares.
”Last year I got my letter to find a place right away and that made me feel more comfortable knowing they were expecting me to be there the whole year,” said Tavares, who is rooming with Niederreiter on the trip to Montreal. ”Nino’s been on the bubble for a while and it can’t be easy.”
A return to Portland would be a big boost for an already strong team. The Winterhawks share first place overall in the WHL with their U.S. Division rival Tri-City.
Portland has another budding Swiss star in winger Sven Bartschi, who is in the top-10 in league scoring, while the Winterhawks’ Swiss defenceman Luca Sbisa has moved into pro hockey and is currently in the Anahem Ducks’ system.
Switzerland has emerged as one of the world’s top eight hockey powers in recent years, an arrival heralded by their shutout victory over Canada at the 2006 Winter Olympics.
But while they have produced goaltenders like Martin Gerber, Jonas Hiller and David Aebischer, anda first-rate defenceman in the Islanders’ currently injured Mark Streit, Niederreiter appears to be their first top-flight scoring forward.
Tavares said he reminds him of Carolina Hurricanes centre Eric Staal.
”He’s a big guy, tough around the net,” said Tavares. ”We feel he’ll be a great player for the future.”
He has certainly made himself noticed.
At the world junior championship in Saskatoon last winter, Canada’s Nazem Kadri refused to shake Niederreiter’s hand after a game for reasons that have never been made public.
In the Canadiens’ final pre-season game in Quebec City this month, Niedereitter got Michael Cammalleri very upset after what looked like a legal body check. An irate Cammalleri shook his stick in Niederreiter’s face, high-sticked him and gave him a two-handed chop to a skate, drawing a slashing major and a game misconduct.
Cammalleri was suspended for the first game of the regular season. Niederreiter limped off the ice and out of the game with a bruised calf.
He later called it a ”cheap shot,” although Cammalleri’s linemate Tomas Plakenec said the rookie had been ”running around” delivering cross-checks through the first two periods.
He drew a crowd of media at the team’s game-day skate at the Bell Centre on Wednesday not for his precarious position, but because it was his first meeting with the Canadiens since that incident.
”It was a clean hit,” Niederreiter said. ”What he did was wrong, but at the end, it’s OK. I don’t care about it.”