Shaquille O’Neal. Alfredo Pacino. Esperanza Spalding. Some names are destined for greatness. And Nino Niederreiter is proving that he’s got the game to match the name.
El Niño, selected fifth overall by the New York Islanders in last year’s NHL Entry Draft, is a force to be reckoned with in the WHL, scoring at more than a point per game pace for the Portland Winterhawks (http://www.whl.ca/roster/show/id/1040). And that should come to no surprise when you consider just weeks after his 18th birthday, Niederreiter suited up for the Islanders in nine games to open the 2010-11 season. (It should also be noted that during that stint, he became the fourth youngest player of the expansion era to score a goal in the NHL, trailing only Grant Mulvey, Jordan Staal and Patrick Marleau.)
Born in Chur, Switzerland, El Niño stands an impressive six-foot-two and weighs 203 pounds. And when you combine that size with a rocket shot and a great hockey mind, it’s no wonder he was snapped up so early by Garth Snow and the hockey braintrust running Team Wang.
Winterhawks Assistant Coach and General Manager Travis Green, who scored 455 points in 970 NHL games playing for a number of teams including the Islanders and the Toronto Maple Leafs, told PROSPECT PRESCRIPTION that Niederreiter has the potential to be a 30-goal scorer in the NHL, but when that will happen is hard to say.
“He’s very skilled. He’s big. He’s strong. He skates pretty well for a big guy. He shoots the puck a ton. And most importantly, he’s got a knack for scoring big goals,” says Green. “It seems the bigger the game, the better he is. And I think when he really learns what it’s all about playing the North American game, he’s going to be a real good power forward that can score and do a little bit of everything.
“I honestly don’t think we’ve quite seen the full potential of what Nino can be or will be. Like a lot of young players, it takes time to figure out what kind of player they’re going to be.”
Green says Niederreiter has grown into a leadership role with the Winterhawks this season and has shown the coaching staff that he really cares about improving his game and making the sacrifices necessary to excel in the NHL.
“He wants to learn. That’s the great thing about Nino. A lot of kids at this age tend to get ahead of themselves, but Nino’s got fantastic character. There’s never a lack of effort with him. He’s like a sponge. He wants to take it all in. He listens when you talk to him. And he doesn’t just listen, he actually thinks about what you’re saying and will try to apply it, which isn’t always the case with players at this age. He’s a real joy to have and a joy to coach. And I think Nino will have a long career in the NHL,” says Green.
In saying that, Green says Niederreiter has to find out what it is exactly that’s going to make him successful at the next level.
“It’s going to be harder for him to find scoring chances than it will be at junior and I think that’s what he found out this year. That’s what he said when he came back from the Islanders was that it’s tough to find scoring chances. And I think as he gets more comfortable and works on his skating a little bit this summer, I think that’s going to define whether or not he can be a goal scorer at the NHL level. He needs to get a little bit quicker, maybe making a little more room physically for himself, but I think down the road, the Islanders are going to have a great player.”
Often listed as a left wing, Green says Niederreiter actually prefers playing on the right side and the Winterhawks have been using him there.
“He likes to cut across the middle from the backhand to his forehand but whether or not he’ll be able to do that at the next level is another thing,” says Green. “I think if he could ever find a centre that has a lot of speed through the middle and can really move the puck around, that’s the picture perfect world for Nino. When he gets a centre that can attract people to the middle and open up lanes for him, he’s pretty deadly because has a really hard shot.”
Are you reading this Mr. Tavares?
Asked point blank if Niederreiter could make the jump to the NHL next season, Green says, “I have no doubt that he could.”
“That will be totally up to the Islanders whether or not they feel another year back in junior would help him but he might go into camp next year and blow them away because Nino is the kind of guy that if he works hard in the summer and picks up half-a-step, that’s exactly what he’ll do. Blow them away.”
E.P.T.A. (ESTIMATED PROSPECT TIME OF ARRIVAL): 2012-13