Mike Johnston didn’t want to waste a pick in the Canadian Hockey League import draft if Nino Niederreiter wasn’t serious. Playing major juniors had not been a traditional move for Swiss hockey players.
“I phoned Nino and said, ‘Are you sure this is what you want to do? You want to come to North America at 17 years old?’ ” Johnston, the coach and general manager of the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks, said. “He said, ‘I want to be a pro hockey player and I know I have to move away to make that step.’
“Nino was focused and knew exactly what he wanted to do.”
Niederreiter led Portland with 36 goals that first season and was taken fifth overall by the New York Islanders in the 2010 NHL draft.
Three years later, Niederreiter is 21 and now a member of the Wild. The highest-drafted Swiss player ever was acquired for Cal Clutterbuck and a draft pick in June after things soured on Long Island and Niederreiter asked to be traded.
“El Niño” is one of a handful of promising Wild youngsters vying for a roster spot. That includes two other 2010 first-round picks, Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle, and 2010 second-round pick Jason Zucker.
The Wild believes Niederreiter has all the makings of a power winger. He’s 6-2, skilled and can skate. And coach Mike Yeo calls his shot “silly hard.”
“He just screams NHL player,” Yeo said of Niederreiter, who scored a goal, had three shots and “was probably our best forward” during a 3-1 loss Tuesday night in Minnesota’s preseason opener against Columbus.
The Islanders kept Niederreiter for nine games in 2010 before returning him to Portland. He led the Winterhawks with 41 goals and scored an additional nine in the playoffs to help Portland to the WHL Final, where it lost to Edmonton.
The next season, the Islanders kept Niederreiter as a 19-year-old. He was signed to an entry-level contract with an inflated $2.795 million salary cap hit, of which $425,000 are the usually achievable ‘A’ bonuses and $1.5 million are the usually unachievable ‘B’ bonuses.
The sense is the Islanders did so because they needed to get to the salary-cap floor. The move actually led to a collective bargaining agreement rule change; teams now must get there with real dollars, not phantom bonuses.
Niederreiter played 55 of 82 games, mostly on the fourth line. He scored one goal.
“You don’t become the fifth overall pick by accident,” said former NHL general manager Craig Button, a TSN and NHL Network analyst. “But Nino is the classic case of being put in a position that wasn’t ideal for his development. If he went back to Portland, he could have been a front-line player on a potential championship team. Scoring one goal in 55 games at age 19 in the NHL doesn’t help your confidence.”
Niederreiter’s agent requested a trade. When the 2012-13 lockout ended, Niederreiter wasn’t even invited to the Islanders’ training camp despite a season in Bridgeport where he finished 10th in the American Hockey League with 28 goals.
“At that point, I was fourth in the league in scoring, I think, and I just never got a call. I got frustrated,” said Niederreiter, who is from the small town of Chur in the Swiss Alps. “Still, I learned a lot the year before. I learned how to be a pro and how the lifestyle is in the NHL.
“Still, it probably was the right step for me to get a new fresh start here.”
Niederreiter, who trains and power-skates in Portland every August, led Switzerland to a historic silver medal at this year’s world championships with eight points in 10 games. He’ll represent the Swiss in February’s Winter Olympics, which he calls “a dream come true.”
“He is top-notch, top-shelf as far as character and attitude,” Johnston said. “His teammates will love him. He always has a smile on his face, he’s always upbeat, he’s got energy, loves to play the game, loves to practice his game.”
Niederreiter’s goal is to make the Wild out of camp, but GM Chuck Fletcher has told him there are no promises and he could end up in Iowa of the AHL to start.
Niederreiter’s training camp stall has been in the minor league locker room. He, Granlund and Zucker — not Coyle — are in the “In the System” section of the media guide.
“The kids have to earn it,” Fletcher said. “Don’t assume an 82-game free ride. We’ve got to assume they’ll all play games, but whether they play 10 or 82 is up to them. We’re just trying to win.”