NEWARK, N.J. – Chuck Fletcher didn’t trade into the first round of Sunday’s NHL draft, but in the mind of the Wild general manager, he did the next best thing.
Fletcher traded hard-hitting fan favorite Cal Clutterbuck and one of its two 2013 third-round picks to the New York Islanders for “El Nino” — former Swiss star Nino Niederreiter, a 20-year-old 6-2, 210-pound projected top-six power forward who was drafted fifth overall in the 2010 draft.
“This is a guy that’s knocking on the door,” Fletcher said. “All the hype around the top picks today, and deservedly so, was on this guy two years ago and we’re just two years further down the road. … He has proven himself as a goal scorer at every level short of the NHL.”
The highest-drafted Swiss player in NHL history, Niederreiter finished 10th in goal scoring in the American Hockey League last season, scoring 28 goals and 50 points in 74 games for Bridgeport. He came to North America as a teenager, playing Canadian juniors for the Portland Winterhawks and scoring 130 points in 120 games.
“I’ll try to bring my size, my physical play as a power forward, and would like to bring the game I played in junior. I’m capable of scoring goals,” Niederreiter said.
Clutterbuck, 25, a third-round pick in 2006, scored 62 goals and 110 points in 346 games for the Wild. He has gained a reputation as one of the NHL’s most physical forwards, leading the league in hits (1,010) his first three full seasons.
But Clutterbuck was a restricted free agent, coming off a poor season and the Wild, strapped for salary-cap space, felt the time was right to parlay him into a player it believes can contribute offensively.
Clutterbuck understood he likely would be traded. He is reunited with John Tavares, the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft. The two were junior linemates in Oshawa, where Tavares was a superstar.
Fletcher said there was a lineup of Eastern Conference teams that sought Clutterbuck. He told teams from the West not to bother.
“It’s tough to leave [Minnesota],” Clutterbuck said. “It would have been a whole lot tougher if it were a midseason thing — the summer is a little different, you have a little more time to let it sink in.”
The Wild sorted through a number of trade offers but believed that Niederreiter, an accomplished player on the international stage who led Switzerland to silver at the most recent world championships with five goals and three assists, was too good to pass up.
The Wild also added to its prospect pool during the draft, starting in the second round when it drafted Swedish 6-3 defenseman Gustav Olofsson 46th overall. The big, mobile blueliner moved to the United States in the first grade, grew up in San Jose, Calif., and Broomfield, Colo., speaks with no accent, made the USHL All-Rookie Team for Green Bay and is headed to Colorado College.
His favorite player? The Wild’s Jonas Brodin.
“His fluidness and how he skates … that’s how I want to play,” Olofsson said.
The Niederreiter pickup gives the Wild three of the 30 first-round picks from the 2010 draft (Mikael Granlund, ninth overall and Charlie Coyle, 28th overall). In fact, Fletcher said the Wild wanted to draft him in 2010, but he was chosen four picks earlier by the Islanders.
But the relationship between Niederreiter, who has two goals and one assist in 64 NHL games, and the Islanders became strained. Two years ago, Niederreiter played a handful of minutes a night on the fourth line. He was in and out of the lineup.
The summation by many was that the Islanders only had Niederreiter on the team so they could stay above the salary cap floor.
Niederreiter asked to be traded. He wasn’t invited to training camp, nor put on the playoff roster despite his strong year in the minors.
“I didn’t have a strong year [in 2011-12], I didn’t get the chance I was hoping for, and then I didn’t get invited to camp, but I knew I had to work as hard as I can,” Niederreiter said. “I never really heard anything from the team, so I was just a little bit of disappointed about that. I wanted to see if they still wanted me.
“Now I got a new opportunity, and I’m very excited about it.”
Fletcher said there are “no red flags” and that he will be given a “clean slate” in Minnesota.
With Niederreiter’s potential bonuses, his cap hit is technically $2.795 million. The Wild, before other trades, re-signing Jared Spurgeon and potentially buying out Tom Gilbert, is only $3.6 million under the cap.
Cap-wise, the Wild clearly has more work to do, and Fletcher continues to say he has “balls in the air” and wants to improve while staying cap compliant.
But teams can exceed the cap by 7.5 percent for performance bonuses. Fletcher says the bulk of Niederreiter’s bonuses are for “winning a major award or being an elite leader, and if that happens, it’ll be one of the best checks we have to write for next season.”
With Niederreiter, Granlund, Coyle and Jason Zucker, the Wild will have four young forwards on two-way contracts vying for spots next season.
“Nothing will be promised to any of them, and hopefully it provides a healthy competition in our training camp,” Fletcher said.