Last June, Nino Niederreiter was watching the NHL draft because he had a pretty good idea that fellow Switzerland native Mirco Mueller would be taken in the first round, no later than the No. 18 pick held by the San Jose Sharks. He was right about that.
What he didn’t expect was to hear his own name again at a draft, for the second time in four years. In 2010, he was the No. 5 overall pick, selected by the New York Islanders right after the Columbus Blue Jackets grabbed Ryan Johansen.
This time around, it was news that his Islanders career, as it were, was over.
“I was sitting at home on the couch,” Niederreiter said. “All of a sudden I heard my name getting traded. I was like, ‘Wow.’ I saw it on TV and then one phone call after another came.”
After his camp publicly feuded with Islanders general manager Garth Snow about his lack of NHL playing time, things soured and he became available. He didn’t know much about the Minnesota Wild, other than that they had been interested in him for a while.
“The day I got drafted, I knew I wouldn’t get later than Minnesota,” he said. “I knew they really wanted me."
Instead he went No. 5, and the Wild grabbed Mikael Granlund at No. 9 to boost the skill level of their organization.
Now, they’ve got them both.
What started off as an effort to cut salary -- which the Wild had to do a lot of last summer -- ended up with Minnesota injecting another young player into its interesting mix of veterans and youth. Most importantly, in acquiring Niederreiter at a discount for Cal Clutterbuck and a third-round pick, they did it during a time in which the salary cap dropped, adding Niederreiter to the list of guys playing on their entry-level contracts this season, which also included Charlie Coyle and Granlund.
When he arrived, his new teammates immediately saw the skill set that made him such a high draft pick.
“The first thing you obviously notice is the shot. If he ever misses the net, you hear the way it hits the glass. There aren't many slapshots that make that type of noise, and that’s his wrist shot,” teammate Kyle Brodziak said when we chatted in Chicago. “He’s a big kid. He moves well, he uses his body, and he has a lot of attributes to him."
And now, after dealing with the disappointment of not being a part of the Islanders' return to the playoffs, he had a clean slate. That’s how coach Mike Yeo presented the new situation to him. He had an opportunity to make the team, but no guarantees. It also came without the the high expectations that often burden young players drafted as high as he was.
“It didn't take long for me to get a chance to start working with him and see he was hungry to learn,” Yeo said. “Once we saw that, we knew we could definitely work with this kid.”
In 81 games this season, bouncing around from line to line and among forward positions because of his versatility, he scored 14 goals after having just two in 64 games with the Islanders. The biggest payoff came in the first round of the playoffs, when Niederreiter scored two goals, including the overtime game winner, to lift the Wild past the Colorado Avalanche.
With the Chicago Blackhawks' stars doing a good job wiping out contributions from the Wild’s top players, it may take another big performance by Niederreiter or some of Minnesota’s youth to get back in the series.