Have Fourth Line Minutes Been the Right Call for Nino Niederreiter?

Unable to be sent to Bridgeport because of the CHL/NHL agreement barring him from doing so, Islanders 2010 first round pick Nino Niederreiter has spent the majority of his first NHL season buried on the team’s fourth line. The team did have the option to return him to his junior team of Portland in the WHL but chose not to do so. So, for better or worse Niederreiter has been tasked with playing with the big club.

There’s no doubt that next year he could benefit from some time in the AHL. Niederreiter has been relegated to the team’s fourth line playing with Jay Pandolfo and Tim Wallace for much of the season. The big difference between Niederreiter and his line mates is that Niederreiter has tremendous upside at the NHL level, and since that hasn’t been on display there have naturally been questions and complaints from the viewers at large.

What the coach is trying to do is shield his 19-year old player from those questions and complaints. At the NHL level, the microscope can be very critical of how players perform. Just ask Josh Bailey who spent his first year in the NHL as a 19-year old and has shown both flashes of confidence and self-doubt that can make for a bumpy ride. If the NHL environment is a tornado that can chew up and spit out a player, the AHL is a sunny walk in the park. By playing Niederreiter on the team’s fourth line, Capuano is trying to shield Niederreiter from as much of that tornado as possible. With an average time on ice of 9:12 per game, judging Niederreiter on his stats is a lost cause, so you’ve got to judge on what you see on the ice.

What we’ve seen on the ice is a mixed bag. His lone goal of the year was a nifty wrister in Chicago coming from his excellent hands that have appeared in the few times that he’s had time and space in the slot area. We’ve also seen him struggle quite a bit with defensive responsibilities. Niederreiter is going to make mistakes and struggle, that’s the reality of a 19-year old in the NHL — especially the ones who aren’t hockey prodigies like John Tavares. Even a stellar player like Tavares has shown a very noticable improvement in his three years in the NHL from “good” to “whoa he just did what!?”. Over time, we’ll likely see a jump in Niederreiter’s game where he begins to turn into the player fans would like him to be. But to expect him to be a world beater now is completely misunderstanding what even just a few years of age, extra strength and experience can do for a player’s game.

Maybe the Islanders have misused Niederreiter by not exposing him to better linemates or extra playing time. We’ve seen that in the last few games where he’s made excellent set up passes that were botched by his not exactly offensively gifted linemates. In a year or two, we may see him bury those opportunities himself or better linemates may net them.

For now, he’s being brought along slowly like any other prospect, although this time it’s in front of our eyes at the NHL level. To shield him from heavier responsibilities, especially on a team that is in the middle of a “playoff race” is a prudent move. This is a time of year where every game can be important and blame heaped on one individual for a loss (see: Al Montoya last night) where both player and teammates are forced to answer post-game questions about who and what went wrong. Niederreiter faces none of that. Sure, he’s made bad plays but none are remembered as the ones that cost a team two critical points. For a young player’s psyche, that’s not a bad thing.

Next year, the team will have the option of starting him in Bridgeport where he can play heavy minutes on the team’s first line. It’s not a bad option to have and isn’t a step back in terms of the talent level he’ll have skating on his line. We’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it but for now, the Islanders seem content to keep Niederreiter out of the spotlight and buried on the fourth line. With a fan base that loves to jump on every under performing player, I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing.