Minnesota Wild forward Nino Niederreiter was in desperate need of a fresh start.
Things had grown complicated with the New York Islanders, the franchise that selected him with the fifth pick of the 2010 NHL Draft. After bringing him to the NHL perhaps a bit too early, the team stashed Niederreiter in the American Hockey League for the entire 2012-13 season.
Still just 20 years old at the time, Niederreiter was traded to the Wild in June for Cal Clutterbuck and a third-round draft pick.
Now 21, Niederreiter has blossomed in Minnesota, already having totaled five times as many points in 31 games with the Wild as he did in 64 with the Islanders. It all started with a new beginning.
"It's confidence and an opportunity," Niederreiter said. "I came here and got an opportunity. When I was traded I knew it was going to be a new challenge."
Thrust into the lineup as an 18-year old in New York, Niederreiter felt the pressure immediately. He had one goal and one assist in nine games with the Islanders in 2010-11 and then was returned to his junior team, the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League.
The 2011-12 season was nothing short of an abject failure.
Niederreiter missed the first month of the season with an injury. He came back and seemed out of place. He often played on the team's fourth line. If he wasn't there he sat in the press box as a healthy scratch. Another injury in December 2011 cost him more time and a chance to play for Switzerland in the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship.
With injuries mounting and his playing time inconsistent, Niederreiter's confidence sunk. In all he played in 55 games for the Islanders in 2011-12, scoring one goal while compiling a minus-29 rating.
Last season, despite being the top scorer for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the Islanders' American Hockey League affiliate, Niederreiter wasn't invited to training camp after the lockout and spent the entire season in the AHL.
"When I was in the minors I was trying to look up there [to the Islanders roster] to see who's at my position," Niederreiter said. "You look at those players and see what they do. I started thinking about what they were doing to get there and I stopped thinking about myself."
It wasn't a selfish thing for Niederreiter. In fact, he probably was being too unselfish. He said he worried too much about what others were doing, losing focus on what he needed to do and what made him such a high draft pick in the first place.
"You could see that all the tools were there," said Wild forward Zenon Konopka, who played with Niederreiter during his nine-game stint with the Islanders in 2010. "In New York they were starving for anything so they tried to fast-track his development. Sometimes it does work, but for most players it takes a little time, a little tender love and care before they'll get where you want them to be."
In January Niederreiter's representation asked for a trade. That came June 30 and he hasn't looked back.
Niederreiter came to Minnesota with nothing more than a promise he would be allowed to compete for an NHL roster spot.
That's all he needed.
In a competition from Day 1, Niederreiter was perhaps the team's best player in camp. That play has carried into to the regular season, where he's consistently played in Minnesota's top-six and received time on the power play.
Wild coach Mike Yeo said Niederreiter has continued to get better as the season has gone along. In addition to displaying his skill, Yeo said he's started to use his 6-foot-2, 205-pound frame more to his advantage.
"He's using his size," Yeo said. "He's having a physical presence in every game and I mean that not in the sense that he's going out and running over guys. Puck-strength, puck-possession, the ability to hold off defenders and open up ice for other players, the ability to get to the net and have a presence around the net, these are some of the things we sorely needed.
"The last couple of weeks we've seen some of the best hockey that he's played."
The Wild have seen that success translate at both ends of the rink. His five goals are three more than he had with the Islanders, his 10 assists are nine better and he's also a plus-5.
"That’s the mental side of it, the confidence," Yeo said. "The understanding of playing the game with and without the puck. With that comes more opportunity."
Konopka said he sees a different player in Minnesota than the one he played with in New York, a more composed player and more mature person.
"It's the cool thing about hockey, seeing these young kids grow," Konopka said. "He's done a good job of seeing what consistencies he needed to improve in his game and he's done it."
Niederreiter said he's satisfied with the start of his season but knows the time is now to take the next step in his game. It's a mature attitude from one of Minnesota's youngest players, one that's learned the hard way about how difficult the NHL can be.
"At the end of the day I want to be a player who leaves everything out there day in and day out," Niederreiter said. "It's important for a team if they see a guy out there who works hard and leaves his heart out on the ice every day."
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