THE NINO NIEDERREITER QUESTION: Contract Bonuses and Why the Cap May Prevent a Return to Juniors

For the second time this season, the Islanders are stuck in-between the CHL-NHL agreement that prevents U-20 players from playing anywhere but the CHL or NHL. Earlier in the year it was Kirill Kabanov, a 19-year old prospect who was stuck not playing for the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada of the QMJHL, who didn’t want him and didn’t have room on their roster. If it was up to the Islanders and Kabanov, he would probably be playing in the AHL for Bridgeport right now. Kabanov was rumored to be moving every which way thanks to Blainville holding out for a trade that would help them. They put team in front of player and made sure they got something for their asset. Luckily for the player and his parent club, a trade was made fairly quickly and Kabanov ended up with the Shawinigan Cataractes of the QMJHL. Things have worked out wonderfully in Shawiningan, with Kabanov posting a 10-10-20 line in 13 games.

Nino Niederreiter, another 19-year old, may be in a similar predicament. He cannot play in the AHL as a 19-year old due to the same CHL-NHL agreement, a league which both team and player might agree would be much better for Niederreiter at this age. After missing the first month of the season with a groin injury, Niederreiter was loaned to Bridgeport for a two-week rehab assignment — a loophole in the rules. Now that he’s healthy, the Islanders can either keep him on Long Island or send him back to juniors, that being the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL. They cannot option him to Bridgeport, even though a short stint to get going after the injury would be worthwhile.

It’s safe to assume that Niederreiter won’t be heading to Portland any time soon. With 41 goals and 70 points in 55 games last year for Portland, he’s outgrown the WHL. All of the team’s marketing and Nino’s placement on the first line during pre-season confirm the team’s thinking on the subject. Now, after a groin injury slowed down the start to his season, the Islanders are caught in-between yet again.

Niederreiter was quiet offensively but not uninspired in four games after being brought up from Bridgeport and is on a roster chock full of right wings. He shares a wing full-time with Kyle Okposo and PA Parenteau. Additionally, Michael Grabner, Jay Pandolfo, Matt Martin and David Ullstrom can play on the right side and have been flipped on and off that wing this season. Blake Comeau played right wing most of the season up until he was waived Thursday. It’s been a crowded spot. That’s probably the main reason he’s been sitting out. He hasn’t shined at a position where the team is deep. That, and the always patient Islanders will be patient with their newest prospect. As such, he’s been sitting in the press box, letting loose this tweet during yesterday’s game:



The tweet has been deleted — don’t crucify the Islanders for removing it, every other team would have done the same. There’s just not much to go on here. It’s likely to do with when he will be back or why he is sitting out but without being in his mind, it’s impossible to tell exactly what he was referring to. However, it does show that he’s anxious to get back in the lineup. Eventually, he’ll work his way back in.

One of the reasons thrown around as to why Niederrieter has been has been in the press box is his remaining cap hit of approximately $2 million and the Islanders attempting to keep him from attaining all of the bonuses written into his contract like hockey’s version of Scrooge McDuck. While the cap hit is certainly keeping him from returning to juniors, the bonuses are irrelevant. Let’s be clear — this is not about the Islanders being cheap. At least it shouldn’t be. Since Niederreiter is on an entry-level contract (ELC), it’s a contract laden with bonuses. The exact details of Nino’s contract are unknown but as CapGeek.com points out, the ELC carries $1,925,000 worth of bonuses. As LHH points out, most of those bonuses are unattainable and are even now more so given that Niederrieter has sat out the first month of the season due to injury (All Star appearance, anyone?). The actual amount of money Niederreiter puts in his bank account this year will likely not even total $1 million.

So, why is a 19-year old’s cap hit a factor all of a sudden? Well, an interesting thing happened when the Islanders waived Blake Comeau and his remaining $1.8 million cap hit right off the team this week; they put themselves in a precarious cap position. Moving Niederreiter’s remaining cap hit to send him back juniors for example, is one such tricky circumstance (see also the contracts of: Brian Rolston, Jay Pandolfo, Steve Staios, Milan Jurcina).

The Islanders cap projection is now at $49.45 million according to CapGeek.com. That’s a number that is now very close to the allowed salary floor of $48.3 million. These figures aren’t exact — the league doesn’t release exact numbers — but CapGeek does an excellent job compiling numbers and the team is now at a point where things are going to get tricky if they take a player off the roster. The cap floor is no joke either. While it has not been triggered yet by any team, it presumably carries a penalty similar to the one the Devils received for their monkeying with Ilya Kovalchuk over the summer.

What is certain is that the Islanders cannot easily send Niederreiter away and cover his cap hit in the wake of releasing Comeau. The Islanders would have a tough time sending Niederreiter back to juniors financially. With a remaining cap hit of around $1 million, Calvin De Haan is the only player in Bridgeport who could come close to filling in the salary cap space if Niederrieter — or any of the seven figure vets for that matter — were taken off the roster. The less expensive the remaining cap hit, the easier it gets. For example, if the Islanders wanted to demote Mike Mottau, it wouldn’t be terribly difficult. Mottau’s $570,000 remaining hit is easily replaceable by any of five defensemen (De Haan, Donovan, Ness, Klymentev and Wishart) in Bridgeport and he would likely clear waivers. All of those mentioned make as much or more than Mottau and Dylan Reese’s number is also close. Not to get off track but when Mottau is sent down and one of those players is recalled is really more a matter or ‘when’ and not ‘if.’

When it comes to Niederreiter and his nearly $2 million cap hit remaining, it’s hard to find a replacement in full. Of course, if Niederreiter were taken off the roster today, the Islanders would not need to replace the full $2 million remaining. They could shave off most of it and call up a player making a fraction of that to get to the cap floor. But, if you want to replace the full salary to leave flexibility, De Haan is the only likely replacement. As this point in the year, you can’t pull that much money out of thin air. It’s got to come either from a trade or the minors. If we assume the only option is minors, then it becomes a question of who do the Islanders want on the team: Niederreiter or De Haan?

This all can change as the season wears on and remaining cap hits are whittled down but for the moment, this is the reality. The Islanders are stuck between a rock and a hard place. That is partially due to their cap situation and partially due to the CHL/NHL agreement. There’s no use in sitting a young player in the press box, especially if he’s healthy. He’s ready to go, ready to earn his spot and should be playing somewhere. Niederreiter will get his chance and get back in the lineup. For now, as with just about every other decision over the past four years, the Islanders are going to take their time.

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