It only took one day for Nino Niederreiter to see his brief NHL stint for what it was: an accomplishment.
Despite putting on a brave face, the 18-year-old Swiss forward was understandably disappointed when the New York Islanders sent him back to junior on Thursday. But he was all smiles by the time he rejoined the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks a day later.
The winger met with GM and coach Mike Johnston and made a good enough impression to be inserted straight into the lineup for Friday night’s game against Kelowna.
“I talked to him (Thursday) when he was at the airport in New York and I thought he sounded a little bit down, a little bit discouraged,” Johnston said Friday from Portland. “When I met with him this morning, he had already been with his teammates for a half hour and he had a big smile on his face. We talked about what he learned, what were the best parts of being in the NHL.
“He’s excited about being back here, he knows he’s got some things to work on and he’s also pretty excited he had nine games in the NHL as an 18-year-old.”
Each season, only a handful of 18-year-olds manage to stay in the NHL—even in an era where teams seem to be going younger. There are five members of the 2010 draft class still playing in the league: Taylor Hall in Edmonton, Tyler Seguin in Boston, Jeff Skinner in Carolina, Alexander Burmistrov in Atlanta and Cam Fowler in Anaheim. They are all expected to remain in the NHL for the season.
Six players made the leap on a full-time basis a year ago, with three others appearing in one game each.
NHL teams essentially have nine games to evaluate a recent draft pick before making a decision about his future. Once a player appears in his 10th game, it burns the first year of his entry-level contract. While he can still be sent back to junior after that, it rarely happens.
The decision is often a difficult one for organizations. The Islanders waited nine games before determining what they thought was best for Niederreiter’s development.
“It is not an exact science,” said Johnston, a former assistant coach with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks. “We’ve all witnessed both sides of it. It’s a matter of the organization making the right decision for the right reasons. … Obviously, guys like (Kings defenceman) Drew Doughty, they’re ready to play.
“There’s certain players that can step in and they’re going to play good minutes, they’re going to handle the puck, they’re going to maintain their confidence.”
Niederreiter averaged 13:35 in ice time with the Islanders, almost all of it at even strength. In Portland, he’ll be counted on to play in a variety of situations while logging more minutes.
It will be interesting to measure his growth against the forwards from his draft class who will end up spending the entire season in the NHL. Niederreiter had one goal for the Islanders—becoming the fourth- youngest player to score in the NHL since 1967—to match the early season output of Skinner and Hall. Seguin has two goals and Burmistrov has yet to score.
While Niederreiter will now have the chance to be a major force in the WHL, he’ll likely miss NHL perks like receiving a paycheque. According to capgeek.com, he earned US$101,613 during his 21 days with the Islanders.
His coach thinks it will take some time for him to refocus.
“He’s going from playing (at the Bell Centre) in Montreal to coming back to playing in Portland,” said Johnston. “There is a bit of an adjustment period and there’s a mental letdown. He’s a very driven kid, very focused player and he wanted to play on the Island. He has a lot of confidence and since Aug. 20 when he went there, he was focused on making that team.
“Now he hasn’t made it, he’s got to switch gears and jump back into junior.”
The Winterhawks are thrilled to have him back. They sat first overall in the WHL’s Western Conference heading into play Friday and should be considered Memorial Cup contenders with Niederreiter.
“To be honest, we weren’t really sure what was going to happen until early yesterday morning,” said Johnston. “It was pretty exciting for us. It’s great for our team, our organization.
“But in the end, from my perspective, we still wanted what was best for Nino.”