This is it, the year the Islanders break through. Heard that one before? More than a few times? Hopeful fans of the local hockey club have longed for a winner ever since the string of Stanley Cups in the ‘80s, even the good-but-not-quite-good-enough ‘93 team.
For three straight years, the Islanders didn’t have to wait long, if at all, to bolster their roster on draft day. In 2008, Josh Bailey went ninth. The next year, John Tavares was taken with the top pick overall. This past June, it was winger Nino Niederreiter going No. 5. By taking those three, the objective is clear—play hard, play tough and score some goals. Between the kids up front, the reinforced D and the cap room available for a potential difference maker, maybe the devout Isle fans won’t have to wait that long either.
Niederreiter is still a tot—he’ll turn 18 this month—but he has the chance to be a difference maker himself, and fast. He’s well ahead of the learning curve and far more balanced than most of those fresh out of junior hockey. Rather than stay close to home, Niederreiter opted to play juniors in North America, a decision he considers vital as far as getting acclimated to the different lifestyle. “I think I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t make that decision to come over,” Niederreiter said.
All the 17-year-old did for the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks was tally 36 goals and 24 assists in 65 games, and then 16 more points in 13 playoff games. Prior to that, he carried the Swiss to the semifinals of 2010 World Junior Hockey Championships in Saskatchewan, scoring six goals, including the overtime game-winner in upsetting Russia. He was still just 17.
What may stand out even more about El Niño, as he’s nicknamed, is that, unlike Swiss cheese, his game has few holes. It draws comparisons to Brendan Shanahan, a 22-year pro who was equally dependable on the defensive end as with the puck on his blade, even down to the physical play—Niederreiter had 68 PIMs at Portland.
How does he see it? “I’m trying to be Vincent Lecavalier,” he said. “I’m just trying to bring something special to the ice.”
Islander fans would surely settle for either from Niederreiter, who not only was the first European taken in this year’s draft—“It was just fantastic”—but also went higher than any Swiss-born player in NHL history. He’ll join countryman Mark Streit on the roster.
“It’s just fantastic to have another Swiss guy in the same team,” Niederreiter said. “Mark is a leader on this team so he can show me a lot.”
It will take some getting used to the bright lights of New York and to the States in general. After all, this setting is nothing like Chur, the Swiss town amid the Alps in which he was born. It won’t take long though. “I already love Long Island,” he said.
The “rebuilding” excuse of why the Islanders fall shy of the postseason won’t hold up much longer, not with where they’ve drafted. That excuse, though, may not be needed.
With Niederreiter being the latest addition, the Isles have one of the brightest sets of forwards in the NHL, one they expect will score plenty of goals, mix it up in the corners and in front of the net and take them from relative anonymity to consistent playoff contention.