Next to the signings of Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Thomas Vanek, there is potentially no greater heist managed by Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher than the acquisition of former fifth overall pick Nino Niederreiter from the New York Islanders.
Drafted by the Isles in the solid draft class of 2010, as we all know, the Swiss scoring sensation struggled in limited ice-time on Long Island. Over the course of two seasons with New York, Niederreiter collected just two goals, an assist and a negative-30 rating in 64 regular season games. There's no question he wasn't ready for the NHL game, but still managed to score 41 goals, 70 points and a plus-28 rating in 55 games with the Western Hockey League's Portland Winterhawks in 2010-11 before adding nine goals and 27 points in 21 postseason games. Niederreiter made the jump to the pros fulltime in 2011-12, notching just one goal in 55 games with the Islanders before being sent down to Bridgeport (AHL) where he collected three goals and four points in six regular season games.
Niederreiter turned a new leaf in 2012-13, scoring 28 goals, 50 points and a negative-5 rating in 74 AHL games. Not only was he recognized as an AHL All-Star, he quickly reestablished himself as one of the NHL's top young prospects. However, the Islanders had moved on, not even inviting the talented young sniper to training camp upon conclusion of the lockout. That was the sign it was time for Niederreiter to move on, as well.
Looking for a fresh start, Fletcher was more than willing to give it to him, swapping fan-favorite grinder Cal Clutterbuck and a 2013 third round pick for Niederreiter at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. It's safe to say the move has already more than paid off. Essentially still an unproven NHL rookie in almost every sense, Niederreiter came into camp competing with Minnesota's other top youngsters in Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker, Justin Fontaine and Erik Haula. Head coach Mike Yeo liked what he saw in Niederreiter -- size, skill, grit and a goal scorer's touch -- and the youngster quickly became a lineup mainstay.
In 81 games with the Wild, Niederreiter had 14 goals, 36 points and a plus-12 rating. What's more, unlike Zucker and, at times, Coyle, he also showed he could play responsibly on either side of the puck, which made his skillset much more desirable, though his sniping abilities already had boosted his stock considerably. Speaking of sniping abilities, who could forget his two goal, one assist effort in Game Seven of the 2014 Western Conference Quarterfinals against Patrick Roy and the Central Division-winning Colorado Avalanche? That "clink" of puck hitting pipe is still ringing in the Pepsi Center to this day.
Now, Niederreiter is set for his best season yet. Five of six spots on Minnesota's first two lines are locked up. Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville, Parise, Vanek and Granlund are all but guaranteed to play in the top-6. The other spot is likely between Coyle and Niederreiter. The deciding factor may actually be what third line combination fits best. Maybe it's a third scoring line with Niederreiter, Haula and Zucker. Maybe it's more of a grinding line with Coyle, Haula and one of Zucker, Fontaine or Matt Cooke. Regardless, it's not outside the realm of possibility for Niederreiter to score 20 or more goals and at least 50 points this season.
All of this is pure speculation until the pen hits paper. It's September 8th. Training camp starts in 10 days. There is still plenty of time to sign a contract, and odds are good negotiations between the Swiss forward and the Minnesota brass have been much friendlier than those between Kuemper's agent and the club. So, today, we sincerely wish Niederreiter a happy 22nd birthday. Now, go sign that contract; today is as good as any.