Nino Niederreiter has a history of putting up points. Whether it’s on Swiss national teams or on his junior club, the Portland Winterhawks, Niederreiter has been counted on to produce. During two seasons in Portland he totaled 130 points (77 goals, 53 assists) in 120 games, playing in all different situations while earning first line minutes.
Last season’s self-admitted disappointment of one goal in 55 NHL games is behind him now, and he is at Bridgeport Sound Tigers Training Camp, where he’s preparing to log heavy, important minutes once again.
“Obviously it’s going to help me a lot,” Niederreiter said of an increased role with the Sound Tigers. “It’s a great opportunity to prove myself. I know what kind of player I am. I know what kind of player I want to be, so I’m excited for that opportunity and to learn from the great coaching staff here.”
And while he’s learning from the Sound Tigers coaches, he’s also giving his two rookie linemates – Brock Nelson and Kirill Kabanov – some tips from experiences he had in his first pro season.
“He knows how the game works at the highest level,” Nelson said. “It helps our chemistry when he speaks up and lets us know where to be with and without the puck. You probably don’t realize it watching as a fan, but exactly where you put the puck makes a ton of difference. It’s little things like that that help all three of us.”
“You can really learn from that guy,” Kabanov said of Niederreiter. “He has good experience as a pro from a full year in the NHL. I like playing with him and Brock a lot.”
As a highly-touted prospect coming out of Switzerland, Niederreiter led Portland with 36 goals and ranked fourth with 60 points in 2009-10. The next season, he scored 41 goals and 29 assists, helping the Winterhawks to the WHL Finals. Niederreiter tallied 23 power-play goals in his junior career, and also stepped up when the stage was the biggest, scoring 43 points (17 goals, 26 assists) in 34 postseason games.
The Nelson-Niederreiter-Kabanov line may see top minutes and be relied upon in all situations as well if they continue to build on their early chemistry. All three players are 20 years old, and the Islanders selected each in the 2010 NHL Draft (Niederreiter and Nelson in the first round, Kabanov in the third round). Niederreiter, who just celebrated his birthday in September, is actually the youngest of the bunch, but with 64 games of NHL experience under his belt, the fifth overall pick in 2010 is guiding Nelson and Kabanov as they make the transition from amateur to professional hockey.
“It’s been great to have a chance to help all the guys learn how to be professionals,” Niederreiter said. “I still have a lot to learn, but I picked up a lot of things last year from the veteran players on the team. So it’s good to give something back to guys like Kabanov and Nelson.”
First-year Sound Tigers Head Coach Scott Pellerin sees Niederreiter as someone whose experience can help a roster full of young, talented players while being able to relate to them at the same time.
“Nino is a young guy in his short professional career who has gone through quite a bit,” Pellerin said. “He’s gotten NHL experience which is so valuable. He’s not a veteran guy of 400 NHL games coming down, so he will be able to relate to his peers. It’s a unique situation.”
Pellerin added that he likes the 6’2, 208-pound forward’s skills, work ethic and the way he approaches his job.
“I was really impressed with Niederreiter’s size and strength,” Pellerin said. “He’s a real strong power forward. He let a couple shots go today, and quickly, I found out that shooting is one of his real strengths. I’ve been really impressed with his hard work and his attention to detail. He’s asking the right questions. His attitude has been great. I’ve been very happy with his progress so far.”
One of the highlights from Tuesday’s practice came during a breakaway drill when Niederreiter was tripped from behind and awarded a penalty shot on goaltender Anders Nilsson. Niederreiter skated in and deked Nilsson to his backhand side before switching back to the forehand, beating the sprawled out netminder.
“I almost had him – I thought I had him,” Nilsson said. “But he just missed my skate I think. He was in Bridgeport for a few games last year and I think he scored one or two goals on penalty shots. He’s great at those.”
Pellerin also took notice of the skill that made Niederreiter a fifth-overall pick.
“He made a great move on Anders,” Pellerin said. “He definitely has some good hands and you can see why he’s been playing in the NHL as a young man.”
And in an elevated role, Niederreiter will have a chance to utilize the hands and size that turned heads in juniors and be a go-to guy for the Sound Tigers.