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Freeze Frame: Niederreiter's Defensive Game A Plus

by Evan Sporer / Minnesota Wild

When Nino Niederreiter was selected fifth in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, he was in some respects like many other aspiring NHL forwards.

The 17-year-old Swiss import, playing for the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League at the time, was a teenager with loads of potential on his stick in the eyes of NHL scouts.

One thing Niederreiter for sure could do was score goals. But that alone is rarely enough to get one by in the National Hockey League.

"I want to score goals, and if you want to score goals, you have to be in the offensive zone," he said. "In Juniors that's where your main focus is: 'How can you create scoring chances?' That's what you have to think of. I still think that way."

In 120 games in Portland, Niederreiter scored 77 goals, 36 in his draft year, and 41 the following season after he was selected by the New York Islanders.

When Niederreiter turned pro, his first 64 games were spent in the NHL. He scored two goals, and was a minus-30 overall.

"The number one thing for prospects is the quicker they learn the defensive game, the faster they move up to the NHL and play," former Wild interim Head Coach John Torchetti said all the way back in training camp, when he was still the bench boss in Iowa, charged with grooming Minnesota's forward prospects for the next level.

"Most coaches want responsible players. Nobody is ever going to hold you back from getting points, but if you play a real structured defensive game, you're going to get plenty of points," Torchetti said.

One of the most difficult things for any young NHL skater, but particularly forwards, to incorporate into their game is the defensive elements. Scoring goals may be what comes naturally to them, but it's difficult to find the back of the net when you can't find a way out of your own defensive zone.

"That's definitely something you have to learn coming into this league," Niederreiter said. "I've been getting better and better at it, and right now I feel like it's one of my strengths, to be honest."

It showed more than ever this season, when Niederreiter's underlying numbers purported a player who was giving his team a chance to score more than it was being scored on.

That in and of itself is a quality that embodies a good defensive player, even though, contrary to popular definitions, may be unconventional.

When Niederreiter talks about how his defensive game has improved, some of the areas he addresses, things that he thinks he has gotten better at, do not take place in the defensive zone.

"The best offense is the best defense, right?" he said. "That's what you have to focus on, and make sure you have a good breakout, and you get pucks out, and pucks in deep when you have to, and can make plays when the time is right."

By solidifying those areas of his game, and making the Wild defend less during his shifts, he and his linemates limit the danger Minnesota is faced with.

It calls to attention a quote from Los Angeles Kings Head Coach Darryl Sutter back in March of 2014.

"The game’s changed," Sutter said. "It’s how much you have the puck. Teams that play around in their own zone they think they’re defending but they’re generally getting scored on or taking face-offs and they need a goalie to stand on his head if that’s the way they play.”

When Niederreiter was on the ice this season, the Wild had the greater share of puck possession. It had the greater share of scoring chances, even-strength goals, and the list goes on.

And by doing those things effectively, it has turned Niederreiter into a stellar two-way forward, one who the Wild had no problem deploying against top competition.

"The biggest thing is just focus on taking pride in it, and what you do," Niederreiter said in early March. "Right now that's my role, playing with [Erik Haula] and [Jason Pominville] that we shut down different lines, but at the same time, finding a way to get offensive scoring time. We've been doing a pretty good job of that, so it's definitely a learning process."

Niederreiter proved a well-learned student this season, leading all Wild skaters in shot-attempts percentage (54.46), and scoring chances-for percentage (57.65).

Those weren’t just high by Minnesota standards; Niederreiter was 41st among all forwards in shot-attempts percentage this season, and 11th among all forwards, and ninth among all wingers in scoring chances-for percentage.

On this sequence against the Edmonton Oilers, Niederreiter makes a number of sound defensive plays down low before helping facilitate a clean zone exit.

It starts with Niederreiter winning a footrace to a loose puck. With the Wild condensed below the faceoff circle, instead of sending the puck up the boards, Niederreiter keeps the play down in an area he can get support.

Though Edmonton is in possession, Niederreiter is in good body position to stall the play along the end boards, while using his stick to make sure Edmonton can't send the puck back to the point.

While Edmonton maintains possession below the icing line, there is no real threat. As Connor McDavid reverses the play, moving along the base of the goal, the Wild maintains position, and Niederreiter doesn't overcommit to the far side, identifying a player in the low slot to seal off.

Now the Oilers are at a bit of a standstill. McDavid tries to force a pass through, but Niederreiter is directly in the lane, not allowing the puck to get to a dangerous area.

Finally, after helping break the puck out, Niederreiter identifies that defenseman Marco Scandella has jumped into the rush, and sags back, spacing the play so that if Edmonton does get a counter opportunity, the Wild won't be completely hung out to dry.

Like Niederreiter said, the best defense can be a good offense, and there are shifts where he does many small things correctly that forces a team to defend.

"The biggest thing is, you have to make sure you're really strong defensively, and those guys, they don't want to play in the defensive zone," Niederreiter said after his line had a strong game against the Colorado Avalanche's top line in a 6-3 Wild victory. "That's exactly where I personally have to be strong down low, and create one-on-one battles, and win those."

On this shift against the Carolina Hurricanes, while the Wild didn't score, Niederreiter's line spent a good minute controlling the puck in the offensive zone, mitigating defensive responsibilities and scoring chances against.

Niederreiter hops over the boards and immediately getting involved in the play, applying pressure in the neutral zone and not giving the Hurricanes an easy path to the offensive zone.

With the Wild back in possession, Haula rims the puck around the glass. Though he's not the closest to the play, Niederreiter anticipated the dump-in, and is able to be the first on the puck.

As the Wild continues on the cycle down low, Niederreiter again manages to win a footrace by getting inside of Trevor Carrick. Had he not changed his course, Carrick could have boxed him out with two Hurricane skaters nearby to come in to gain possession.

The play continues, and Niederreiter circles the zone, getting a shot attempt, and then screening the goal on one by Jonas Brodin. Fifty seconds into a shift, David Jones elects to go off for a change, but Niederreiter stays down low, sitting in a soft spot where Haula can throw the puck, allowing the Wild to kill off more time.

With Jordan Staal bearing down on him, Niederreiter braces for contact by playing his body through the man, and holds the puck along the wall, letting Haula change, and eventually forcing Carolina to dump the puck out to center ice. The Wild spent a minute in the Hurricanes' end, and then gets a fresh line change, and possession near the center line with a good chance at back-to-back sustained shifts below Carolina's blue line.

Making the right reads on these plays, recognizing when to pinch down in the offensive zone, how to space the defensive zone, and using his body effectively along the walls, are areas Niederreiter has begun to excel in.

Combined with his proven ability to score at even-strength, Niederreiter is affording the Wild a much better opportunity to get a goal than have on go against it when he is on the ice.

That is the profile of a good defensive forward.

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