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  • What's wrong (and what's absurdly right) with Nino Niederreiter?


    It's hard not to be impressed with Nino Niederreiter's skills. Blessed with a great frame, the willingness to use it, good speed, and that #SillyHard shot, Niederreiter can take over a game and awe you with his skill and goal-scoring acumen. He scored 24 goals last year despite playing only 14:33 minutes a night, leading fans to wonder just what his upside may be. With the proper ice time, linemates, etc, is 30 goals unreasonable? 35? More? With what "El Nino" can do on the ice, the sky feels like the limit.

    There's a downside to that talent, however. When you look at what he's capable of doing, Niederreiter leaves you wanting much, much more when the results aren't there. And let's face it: the results haven't been there for him this season. He's on pace to score just 37 points this year- not at all a leap from his last two seasons, and his 2 goals in his last 33 games has many fans wondering if the Space Jam aliens stole his scoring touch.

    That scoring slump has not only frustrated fans, it might even play him out of the Wild's future. This is pure speculation, of course, but given his slump and his impending (restricted) free agency after next season, I think that he was the forward that Michael Russo reported was offered alongside Brodin for Ryan Johansen. And while it's of course disappointing that Nino's goal-scoring has dried up, his year's been a lot better than his goal total suggests. In fact, I think he's done a lot to suggest he should definitely be part of the Wild's long-term plans.

    For one, Niederreiter has been one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL this year. The only players who allow shot attempts less frequently than Niederreiter are Los Angeles' line of Trevor Lewis, Nick Shore, and Dustin Brown, and Pavel Datsyuk. He's on the same plane as elite defensive forwards in the league like Ryan Getzlaf, Mikko Koivu, and Anze Kopitar.

    His superb defense allows him to tilt the ice into the Wild's favor consistently. Niederreiter is the best possession player on the Wild, earning 55.8% of the shot attempts when he's on the ice. And while playing with Koivu will do a lot for your possession stats, Niederreiter's not exactly a passenger. Nino has actually fared better without Koivu (53.4 Shot Attempt %) than Koivu has without Niederreiter (48.8 SAT%). His impact on his teammates is undeniable- look at what he's done for each player that he's had 100+ 5v5 minutes with.


    In fact, there's only one player on the Wild who has played more than 15 minutes with Niederreiter and hasn't controlled play better than without him (Mikael Granlund). It's incredible- virtually every player on the team is immediately better merely by being on the ice with Niederreiter. Sure, the lack of scoring is disappointing, but Nino keeps opponents out of his zone and consistently puts his teammates in a better position to score. It's not as flashy as him scoring off the rush, but it's very valuable.

    Does that mean we can't want more from Niederreiter? Of course not! Luck is involved in Niederreiter's slump (he's shot just 3.6% in his last 33 games), but there's more that Niederreiter could be doing to hit the back of the net. He's not shooting nearly as much as he did last year, dropping from 7.38 shots per 60 at 5v5 to 6.08. It's important to note that pretty much every Wild player is shooting less than last season, but Niederreiter's lack of aggression is especially noticeable.

    And then there's his performance on the power play. Niederreiter's actually scoring more at 5v5, but in 78 minutes with the man advantage, Nino has just two assists to show for it. Last year he notched 6 goals on the power play, using his frame to get in prime scoring position and his hands to either beat goalies cleanly, or maneuver the puck in chaos. No doubt being on the second power play unit has hurt him, as they've struggled all season at gaining the offensive zone. But Nino doesn't get off the hook, either- only 11 of his 22 attempts on the man advantage have actually made it on net.

    So is Niederreiter's season a disappointment? I can see it both ways. Minnesota has been depending on their young players to take the next step in their development, and that means more point production. From a bottom line standpoint, Niederreiter's failed to give the Wild top-line production despite being given a prime opportunity skating alongside Koivu. But a very important thing for a hockey player is to be able to provide value even when you're not producing offensively, and to that end, Niederreiter's succeeded wildly this year.

    He's a tantalizing player, and that adds extra frustration to his growing pains, but I think the Wild should be patient with Niederreiter. We've seen 25-goal form from him, and we've seen elite defense and possession skills. At just 23 years old, it's way too early in his career to say that he's not going to put it together. These 33 games have been a rough patch, but it'll pass. With a bit more aggression to his game, we should be seeing the Nino Niederreiter we're accustomed to very shortly.

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