It took until after Game 4, but the #FreeNino movement has officially been renewed by Hockey Wilderness for a second season.
The critically-acclaimed movement enjoyed a groundbreaking first season, where it chronicled the struggle of a man who had to fight against all odds to get the recognition that his skills merited. Mike Yeo clearly enjoyed watching the human drama of watching Nino Niederreiter fight for a Top-6 role. So much, in fact, that when he decided the Top-6 needed to be shaken up, Charlie Coyle got the call to slot in next to Thomas Vanek and Mikko Koivu.
Making this especially frustrating for those in the #FreeNino movement was that we've heard since Thomas Vanek signed that the addition of Vanek wouldn't necessarily block Nino from a Top-6 role. "Keep working," the Wild brass said, "Don't accept that you're a third-liner. If you have a great camp, play well, that's going to be rewarded."
So far, that hasn't yet happened, despite Nino seemingly doing everything his coaches have wanted to do. He uses his big body to play a physical game,and is always mucking it up around the net. He's not only physical, he's solid defensively, too. Last season, only Koivu, Zach Parise, and Jason Pominville were better at limiting scoring chances for their opponent.
And that's all without discussing his offense. The regular season last year saw Nino take a respectable 7.23 shots per 60 minutes, which was actually less than what Coyle did last season. In the playoffs, though, he raised his game slightly against the Avs and Blackhawks, shooting 7.37 times per 60. These four games are a small sample size, but it looks like Nino's really focused on getting the puck on net more often, shooting the puck a whopping 16.10 shots/60 (All these numbers are at 5v5).
Obviously, this won't maintain- Alex Ovechkin has never maintained those numbers over a full season- but it speaks to just how well Nino is playing to start the season. And yet, when it came time for someone to step into a bigger offensive role, it was Coyle that got the call.
And yet, that's not what bothers me when I think of the #FreeNino situation.
To me, the issue isn't what Nino's linemates are, or even that Coyle got the call over Nino for a second-line role.
Lost in this is that Coyle, while overshadowed by Nino's early season numbers, has been playing very well, too. He's improved his shot totals from last season, and has been part of a very effective third-line with Nino and Erik Haula. He's big, he's strong, he's skilled, he's got speed. Nino may be a better choice for that specific spot, but I can see the logic in putting Coyle on the second line to spread out the scoring, as well as other reasons (I guess).
On the third line with a skilled center in Haula, and either Justin Fontaine or (eventually) Jason Zucker joining him, Nino will be in a role where he can succeed as a scorer, and pair with Haula to form an underrated defensive tandem. No, the issue for me is ice time.
Through four games this season, Nino has yet to crack 14 minutes of Time on Ice. And while the Wild's lineup is very deep with Top-6 caliber forwards, the Wild really need to find a way to give Nino the kind of minutes to maximize his contribution to the team. Through the first four games, here is a list of Wild forwards, and their ice time:
Zach Parise 19:25
Mikko Koivu 19:00
Mikael Granlund 18:53
Jason Pominville 18:10
Thomas Vanek 16:14
Justin Fontaine 14:59
Charlie Coyle 14:11
Erik Haula 13:25
Nino Niederreiter 13:10
Kyle Brodziak 10:51
Matt Cooke 10:36
Jason Zucker 9:45
Ryan Carter 8:22
13:10 just isn't enough minutes for a player of Nino Niederreiter's skill-set. Again, I know the Wild are deep, and that all of these guys, even Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu, are going to play fewer minutes than they would play on a team that was much thinner at forward. Even with that in mind, Nino Niederreiter sticks out as someone who should at least be playing the 15 minutes per game that Fontaine currently gets to enjoy.
After Friday's game against the Ducks, Mike Yeo praised both Niederreiter and Coyle, noting their great play. From Michael Russo the Star Tribune: "Yeo said he wants the Wild to become a team where the players know that when they're playing well, they should get rewarded, and Niederreiter and Coyle warrant more ice time."
Great, that's good news. And true to his word, they both played a season-high amount of minutes against the Kings on Sunday, and now Coyle's in a prime scoring role with Vanek and Koivu.
But if he truly wants to reward Nino for his excellent work this season, while giving the Wild as good of a chance to win as possible, Yeo should deploy Nino the 15-16 minutes per game that his stellar play is demanding. It's time to #FreeNino.