Nino Niederreiter's learning season hasn't been rosy
BOSTON -- The education of Nino Niederreiter continued Saturday, with the 19-year-old rookie getting back into the Islanders lineup after sitting out two straight as a healthy scratch.
Niederreiter played 11:47 and finished plus-1, just the second time in the 40 games he's played this season that he finished a game in the plus column. He went pointless for the 35th consecutive game and 39th time in 40 overall.
This is not what anyone expected from the 2010 fifth overall pick: Not the Islanders, who nearly kept him up as an 18-year-old last season before sending Niederreiter back to Portland of the Western League, and certainly not the young Swiss winger himself, who was mad as heck about being a healthy scratch after playing only sparing minutes most of this season on the fourth line, with veteran grinders Marty Reasoner and Jay Pandolfo.
"Everybody says you gotta look at the big picture, but that's not me," Niederreiter said on Thursday, after finding out he was scratched against the Flyers. "I'm in the moment, I'm trying to do my best right now to play and help the team win, so when I find out I'm not playing, I can't be happy. I'm -- -- off that I can't play."
Garth Snow had no qualms about the team's plan to keep Niederreiter with the Islanders all season long, a decision that was made very early in training camp. After Niederreiter went back to the WHL following a nine-game stint with the Isles to start last season, he did what he had been doing in juniors to earn that No. 5 draft slot, scoring 41 goals in 55 games for Portland.
But there was no safety net this season for Niederreiter, who is too young to be sent to the AHL. And when he suffered a serious groin injury in Newark in the Isles' second-to-last preseason game, on Sept. 30, his rookie season was already not going according to plan.
His first three games, in the middle of November, showed not only rust, but the natural inexperience that comes with being a rookie in the NHL. Islanders coach Jack Capuano sat Niederreiter down for the next four games; he returned and scored his only goal of the season on Dec. 2 in Chicago, then suffered a concussion that cost him two more weeks.
With the injuries, it would have been nearly impossible for Niederreiter to learn enough to drop right into major minutes. So the last two months have been his first extended NHL time.
"He's a very coachable kid and he understands," Capuano said. "He knows this is the educational part for him. I've watched a number of high draft picks have to go through this, whether here or in the minors. It's a big challenge for a teenager to be ready and learn everything he has to learn."
Niederreiter is one of 12 players from the 2010 draft who have spent time in the NHL. His 2-1-3 totals are the lowest of any of them; the No. 2 overall pick, Tyler Seguin, scored his 22nd goal yesterday against the Isles.
But other than Seguin, who fell into a perfect situation as an 18-year-old with a championship-ready squad, all the other teenagers have had their struggles. Ryan Johansen, Niederreiter's Portland teammate taken fourth overall by Columbus, has been a healthy scratch a dozen times this season for the last-place Blue Jackets; the No. 6 pick, Brett Connolly, has also sat and watched for the Lightning this year.
"It's a cliche, but you go from playing against kids to playing against men. It can be tough to handle," said Mark Streit, the Islanders captain and Niederreiter's mentor of sorts through this season. "He's played 40 games and he's 19 years old -- he's got to see that as a positive. And when he's out, he doesn't like it. That's how it should be."
With only 17 games to go, Niederreiter likely won't change his ugly scoring numbers much, which may be tough to take. Tougher still may be spending time in Bridgeport next season if he's struggling with his defensive-zone coverage and decision-making with the puck.
But even with his lousy numbers and occasional benchings, Niederreiter wouldn't trade it for another year of piling up points in juniors.
"I'm proud to be an Islander and I'm proud of myself that I stayed here the whole season," he said. "I just have to do my best to stay in the lineup, work hard and do what the coaches ask. That's all I can do."