Nino Niederreiter was forecast as a top line player for the Minnesota Wild throughout the offseason, but has failed to produce since the year began. Is it still possible he can emerge as the player fans expected him to be?
As recently as 14 months ago, Minnesota Wild fans were excited at the prospective usefulness of a then 24-year old Nino Niederreiter. He was coming off of a career best season at 25 goals and 57 points, and was one of the most exciting players on the team.
Nino signed a brand new 5 year deal that summer, averaging over $5 Million per year, and was set to be a top player for a long time. 3 Games into the 2017-18 season he was out of action with a high ankle sprain, and the downfall began.
Nino missed 3 weeks of action, came back and looked to be showing signs of his old self. Less than 2 months later he was out again with more leg issues, and again came back and looked like he was recovered. He even went as far as recording a hat trick in his first game back.
It was only a week after returning that he was sidelined again, this time for a full month. When he returned the last time, he was not the same player Wild fans had come to expect. He recorded only 13 points through the final 31 games of the season, and zero through 5 playoff games.
We found out from Bruce Boudreau after the playoff elimination that Nino had played at less than 100% for parts of the year after suffering a broken fibula and returning before it was fully recovered.
I’ll admit, I have been one of the most persistent supporters of Niederreiter to this point. There has been excuse after excuse, but the wait for the 2016-17 Nino to return is getting impatient.
He was recovering from leg and ankle injuries, okay, that was the excuse for last season. His preseason was less than stellar, and the excuse was “it’s only preseason.” Even early in the season, the excuse could be made that none of the Minnesota Wild offense was going well so he couldn’t be singled out.
We are now 8 games into the season and while the rest of the offense have all gotten going (even Charlie Coyle has a couple goals), Nino is running out of excuses. He finds himself alongside rookie Jordan Greenway and 4th line center Eric Fehr as the only two forwards who have played in all 8 games without recording a goal.
This is unusual company for Niederreiter, and an extremely concerning statistic for Minnesota Wild fans. Nino spent the first few games on the line with Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise, and was mostly invisible on the ice. He spent a short stint on the top line with Eric Staal and Jason Zucker, but visibly slowed that line down.
Since being moved to the third line, alongside Greenway and Coyle, Nino is at least noticeable on the ice. He recorded an assist on Saturday against Tampa Bay, but more through puck luck than any work of his own. He needs to find the edge to his game, and fast.
As a former 3rd overall pick, a player of Nino’s caliber should not be playing on the third line hoping for a lucky bounce or a bad goalie clearing attempt to give him opportunities. When Nino was having his career season, he was making chances rather than waiting for them to come to him.
This season, Niederreiter appears to be playing much smaller than his frame would suggest. He shies away from contact, he’s reaching for pucks and getting caught flat-footed. His positioning is off, and he is playing like a player afraid of being injured.
At $5.25M per year it is hard to consider placing a player like that in the press box when healthy, but I could argue that he does not seem to be entirely mentally healthy. If Boudreau and Fenton want to get full value out of their key forward, perhaps some tough love is necessary.
Matt Read has come up from the AHL and immediately surpassed Niederreiter on the depth chart. That top line wing spot should be Nino’s for the taking, but instead he has resigned to being a 3rd line winger with no offensive obligations.
Should he continue to play like this, I think Nino will be the first name on the trading block if and when GM Fenton decides to make some moves. Surely there is another team out there who could be interested in giving the former 50 point player a chance to reinvigorate. And if someone is willing to give him a chance, that same someone may be willing to overpay to have him.