When Will El Nino Strike?
Nino Niederreiter has been playing with the New York Islanders all season long, but the amount of time he has spent on the ice has become somewhat of a concern amongst Isles fans. The 19-year old winger had a very impressive season last year with the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL. His skill, size and vision on the ice allowed the Islanders to feel that he was ready to make the full-time jump to the NHL with the organization envisioning his development to result along the lines of a top-six scoring winger.
So far this year, Niederreiter has become the exact opposite. His season was plagued by injuries from the get-go, forcing him to miss the start of the year with a groin injury he sustained in the pre-season. He came back gradually, but eventually started to show that he was getting his game back by using his size in the corners and scoring his first goal of the season. But another injury, the infamous concussion that was given to him in a game against the Dallas Stars, became another hurdle for the young forward to leap over in his development. As a result, the Islanders have played a total of 39 games on the year; Nino has only appeared in 16 of them.
At one point in the year, head coach Jack Capuano decided to keep the kid in the press-box as a healthy scratch despite being cleared to play after one of his injuries. The move was called into question by seemingly anyone who called themselves a fan. But Capuano's decisions this season have been based on a desire to motivate his players. For example, Kyle Okposo was benched due to his poor play at the start of the year; his anemic offensive contributions made him an easy sit. Since returning from his time served in the press-box, Okposo has become on of the key cogs on the top line with John Tavares and Matt Moulson. His desire, hustle and intensity have only increased and it has resulted with points on the stat sheet.
There's little reason for doubt when speculating as to why Niederreiter was benched for those games earlier in the year; it clearly was done in an effort to get the Swiss sniper hungry for some NHL action. However, El Nino was probably starving for the ice after missing about a month of hockey after his groin injury. Was scratching a healthy, young and developing forward that needs to play the right move in order to get him motivated? I don't know, to be honest. It's not like he wasn't fulfilling a duty that was expected out of him like Okposo. And not every player will respond to being scratched the same way either.
Now, healthy and playing for the past 10 games, Niederreiter has been seen on the fourth line with veteran AHL'er Tim Wallace, a role playing penalty killer in Jay Pandolfo and a struggling defensive center who hasn't scored a goal all season in Marty Reasoner. It is very important to ease someone who has been injured so often in his first NHL season back into the line-up with a minimal amount of minutes and responsibility. Plus I am sure that Capuano wanted to see what the big forward could do with only a limited amount of ice time. But at the same time, is Niederreiter, a key member in the core of this team and someone that is projected to be a stable line-mate of the future, better served as a fourth liner?
I am not criticizing Capuano or questioning his methods. But Niederreiter needs to be playing at least on the top three lines in order to maximize his potential. One can argue that he can't be any less deserving over someone like Brian Rolston, who only has four goals and four assists through 32 games played. Ten games served as a slow, cautionary period of rejuvenation with your teammates and the fast pace of the NHL game are fine and reasonable, but Niederreiter is not a fourth liner. The kid needs minutes in order to grow, and he needs the right company to guide him.
It's about time to see what El Nino can do.