Nino Niederreiter takes over as top prospect for New York Islanders

By Omair Taher

The Islanders top pick in the 2010 draft, Nino Niederreiter has the tools to one day be a future linemate of Islanders star John Tavares. (Photo Courtesy of Holly Gunning/Hockey’s Future)

Nino Niederreiter debuts as the Islanders top prospect in the fall edition of the top 20. A skilled two winger, he along with fellow 2010 draft picks Brock Nelson and possibly Kirill Kabanov bring an infusion of offensive potential to an organization that has struggled to score goals for the past couple seasons. Matt Donovan and Blake Kessel saw their stock go up over the summer while goaltender Mikko Koskinen fell seven spots after an injury plagued season in the minors.

1. (NR) Nino Niederreiter, RW, 7.5C
2. (3) Travis Hamonic, D, 7.5C
3. (1) Calvin de Haan, D, 7.5D
4. (4) Kirill Petrov, RW, 7D
5. (5) Andrew MacDonald, D, 7C
6. (NR) Brock Nelson, C, 7.0 C
7. (2) Jesse Joensuu, LW, 6.5C
8. (NR) Kirill Kabanov, RW, 8D
9. (9) Rhett Rakhshani, RW, 7D
10. (8) Jason Gregoire, LW, 7C
11. (6) Rob Schremp, C, 6.5B
12. (13) Casey Cizikas, C, 7C
13. (12) Anders Nilsson, G, 7D
14. (17) Matt Donovan, D, 7D
15. (20) Blake Kessel, D, 7D
16. (14) Brian Day, RW, 6.5C
17. (17) Kevin Poulin, G, 7D
18. (19) Dustin Kohn, D, 6.5C
19. (12) Mikko Koskinen, G, 7D
20. (NR) Anders Lee, C, 7C

1. (NR) Nino Niederreiter, RW, 17
Acquired: 1st round, 5th overall, 2010 NHL Draft

Niederreiter takes the top spot in the Islanders updated prospect rankings. The 6’2, 203 pound power forward from Chur, Switzerland is coming off an excellent 2009-2010 campaign. In his first WHL season, he led the Portland Winterhawks in goals with 36, and added 24 assists for 60 points in 65 games. He also came up big in the playoffs, posting eight goals and eight assists in 13 games.

However, what really got him noticed was his performance on the international stage. The soon-to-be 18-year-old singlehandedly carried the Swiss to the bronze medal game at the 2010 World Juniors, leading his team with six goals and four assists in seven games.

Niederreiter projects as a top-six forward with a strong combination of grit and offensive prowess. He will have the opportunity to make the team this season, but whether he does or not largely depends on his performance in training camp. Although the Islanders haven’t made any significant free agent forward signings this offseason, they already have 13 forwards on the books for next year and several other prospects vying for a roster spot. Returning to juniors may ultimately prove to be the best route for Niederreiter. With his limited experience in North America, another year in the WHL certainly wouldn’t harm his development.

2. (3) Travis Hamonic, D, 20
Drafted 2nd round, 53rd overall, 2008 NHL Draft

Hamonic has blossomed into a strong two-way defenseman since being drafted by the Islanders in 2008. The 20-year-old is very responsible in his own end, doesn’t hesitate to play physical, and has all the tools to contribute in the offensive zone. He split the 2009-10 season between the Moose Jaw Warriors and the Brandon Wheat Kings, and recorded 11 goals and 33 assists for a career-high 44 points despite being limited to just 41 games due to a separated shoulder. Though the injury prevented him from making a big impact in the regular season for the Wheat Kings, he played very well in the playoffs, posting four goals and seven assists for 11 points in 15 games. He also led all Wheat Kings’ defenseman in points with a goal and two assists in five Memorial Cup games.

With the additions of Mark Eaton, Milan Jurcina, and James Wisniewski this offseason, the Islanders are fairly well stocked on the back end. However, the 6’2, 215 pound blueliner is one of the most NHL-ready defensive prospects in the system, and thus may still get a good look during training camp. Having signed a three-year entry-level contract in May, he will likely report to Bridgeport if he does not make the big club this fall, but may be called-up at various points throughout the season.

3. (1) Calvin de Haan, D, 19
Drafted 1st round, 12th overall, 2009

The 2009-10 season was one that de Haan is likely eager to put behind him. The 6’0, 170 pound blueliner is still recovering from a torn shoulder labrum suffered in January that cut his OHL season short and forced him to sit out the Islanders’ prospect camp in July. He was limited him to just 34 games last season, and recorded five goals and 19 assists.

The injury, coupled with various others throughout the year, has raised some questions regarding de Haan’s durability. However, the Islanders seemingly aren’t concerned as they offered the 19-year-old an entry-level-contract this spring. It’s unlikely he will turn pro this fall though, and he is expected to return to Oshawa for next season. As a smooth skating, puck-moving defenseman, de Haan’s game relies largely on his offensive ability. Therefore, having missed a significant amount of time last season, anothe
r year in juniors appears to be best for his development.

4. (4) Kirill Petrov, RW, 20
Drafted 3rd round, 73rd overall, 2008

Petrov has yet to sign a contract with the Islanders, but after receiving very limited ice time with his KHL club, Ak Bars Kazan, last season, he isn’t expected to return to Russia. Though the 6’3, 198 pound right-winger had an unproductive year professionally, he shined at the 2010 World Juniors, leading the Russians with four goals and six assists in six games.

With his size, speed, and skill, Petrov could give the Islanders’ top-six an offensive boost. However, because he wasn’t given the opportunity to fully develop in Russia, having him spend some time in the minors may be the safest option as his limited experience makes him something of a defensive liability. He could also stand to add some more muscle and get acclimated with a more physical North American game before he’s ready for the NHL.

5. (5) Andrew MacDonald, D, 23
Drafted 6th round, 160th overall, 2006

One of the pleasant surprises for the Islanders last season, MacDonald has quickly established himself as a reliable top-four defenseman. First called up to replace the injured Radek Martinek in November, the 23-year-old Nova Scotia native rose up the Islanders depth chart as Brendan Witt was placed on waivers and Andy Sutton was dealt to Ottawa. By the end of the season, he was playing upwards of 20 minutes per game and saw some time on first defensive pairing with Mark Streit.

The 6’1, 188 pound blueliner doesn’t get his name on the score sheet often, posting only one goal and seven assists in 46 games last season, but is reliable at both ends of the ice. Having just signed a four-year contract extension, he will have a permanent spot on the team, but with the additions the Islanders have made this offseason, he may not be expected to take on such a large role.

6. (NR) Brock Nelson, C, 19
Acquired: 1st round, 30th overall, 2010

Although the Islanders are well stocked on centers, Nelson adds a different dynamic to their prospect pool. The 6’3, 205 pound pivot drafted out of Warroad High School in Minnesota provides a solid combination of size, strength, and skill. He has shown the ability to both score goals and distribute the puck, recording 39 goals and 34 assists for 73 points in 25 games last season.

Nelson has all the makings of a two-way second line center. He’s defensively responsible, strong in the faceoff circle, and is very mobile for a player his size. He should develop well at the University of North Dakota, but it may be a few years before he makes it to the NHL.

7. (2) Jesse Joensuu, LW, 23
Drafted 2nd round, 60th overall, 2006 NHL Draft

Joensuu is coming off his best season in North America, scoring 14 goals and adding a team-high 34 assists in 70 regular season games with Bridgeport last year. He also had two assists in five playoff contests. Going into the final year of his entry-level contract, this may be his last chance to find a permanent spot on the Islanders roster. He got called up for 11 games last year, but was only able to muster up one goal.

The 6’4, 207 pound Finn possesses all the tools to be a second or third line power forward. He’s a good passer, has a heavy shot, and is willing to play physical. However, he does need to add some muscle to be effective in the NHL.

8. (NR) Kirill Kabanov, RW, 18
Drafted 3rd round, 65th overall, 2010

Kabanov is perhaps the most intriguing player in the Islanders prospect pool. Talent-wise, he may have been one of the top-five players in this year’s draft, but his stock fell considerably over the past year due to concerns about his character and maturity. He left his junior team, the Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL, right in the midst of their playoff run, and his agent cut ties with him shortly thereafter. However, the 18-year-old appears genuinely excited about being on Long Island, and seems to be committed to making the team in the future.

At 6’3, 175 pounds, Kabanov has the potential to be a strong, highly skilled sniper, but still has a ways to go before he’s ready for the NHL. He still needs to add some muscle and fill out his lanky frame. He also needs to grow mentally and become more mature. If he can stay focused on his hockey career over the new couple of years, he may end up being one of the biggest steals in recent draft history.

9. (9) Rhett Rakhshani, RW, 22
Drafted 4th round, 100th overall, 2006

At 5’10, 180 pounds, Rakhshani may get overlooked because of his size, but the 22-year-old has found success on every level he’s played at thus far. Most recently as a senior at the University of Denver, he captained the Pioneers last season and set career highs with 21 goals and 50 pounds in 41 games. After, signing him to an entry-level-contract this past May, the Islanders certainly hope he can keep up that level of play in the pros.

It’s likely that Rakhshani will start the season in Bridgeport unless he has a very strong training camp, however, the right-winger certainly appears to have a future in the NHL. He is a very quick and shifty player whose style fits well in the new NHL. He also brings a lot of intangibles to the rink and dressing room. Rakhshani has exhibited excellent leadership qualities in the past, and that may prove to be a very valuable asset on an Islanders team that seemingly gets younger every year.

10. (8) Jason Gregoire, LW, 21
Drafted 3rd round, 76th overall, 2007

Gregoire had another solid season at the University of North Dakota last year. The 5’10, 175 pound left-winger led the Fighting Sioux with 20 goals and was second on the team in points with 37 in 43 games. Like Rakhshani, he is a bit on the small side, but hasn’t had any trouble establishing himself as a steady goal scorer. He has good hands, plays smart in both ends of the ice, and has shown consistent improvement throughout his career. He will return to North Dakota for his junior year this fall, but may be ready to move up to the pros as early as next season.

11. (6) Rob Schremp, C, 24
Claimed off waivers, 2009

The Islanders took a gamble when they picked Schremp up off waivers last fall. However, just when it appeared to be paying off, he suffered a knee injury in March that sidelined him for the rest of the year. Although Schremp’s season didn’t get off to the best start, he eventually began to turn things around. The 5’11, 200 pound center posted the bulk of his 25 total points after Christmas, scoring six goals and adding 14 assists in 25 games. The Islanders obviously liked what they saw in that span as they signed him to a one-year contract in July. Schremp is talented enough to play in a top-six role, and if he can continue playing as well as he did before getting injured last year, he may finally live
up to his potential.

12. (13) Casey Cizikas, C, 19
Drafted 4th round, 92nd overall, 2009

Cizikas has quietly emerged as one of the more promising players in the Islanders prospect pool. In the 2009-10 season, the 5’11, 194 pound center posted 25 goals, 37 assists, and a team-high plus-37 rating in 68 games. He also added seven goals and seven assists in 16 playoff games. At 19-years-old, he will likely return to juniors following training camp this fall, but if he continues to improve the way he did last season, he could turn pro as early as next summer. He certainly has the skill and intelligence necessary to be a capable second or third line center in the NHL.

13. (12) Anders Nilsson, G, 20
Drafted 3rd round, 62nd overall, 2008

The 20-year-old Swedish netminder had a solid season with Luleå HF of the SEL last year, recording a 2.65 goals against average and .897 save percentage in 27 games. At 6’5, 220 pounds, his size is clearly what makes him stand out from other goaltenders, but there’s much more to his game than simply providing a large net presence. Nilsson sees the game well, has the athleticism to make some tricky saves, and does well under pressure. He has one year remaining on his contract so he will likely spend the upcoming season in Sweden. However, there’s a strong possibility he’ll be in North America for the 2011-12 season.

14. (17) Matt Donovan, D, 20
Drafted 4th round, 96th overall, 2008

Donovan had a standout freshman season at the University of Denver, leading all rookie WCHA defensemen with seven goals and adding 14 assists for 21 points in 36 games. He also played a key role for the US at the 2010 World Juniors, posting three goals and two assists in five games. The 6’0, 195 lb Oklahoma native is a good all-round defenseman with good mobility, strong offensive instincts, and a hard shot from the point. Despite his size, he isn’t afraid to get physical is often willing to get dirty in the corners and along the boards. The upcoming season is important for Donovan as many young players are prone to the dreaded sophomore slump. If he can continue playing at a high-level, he should erase any lingering doubts about his NHL potential.

15. (20) Blake Kessel, D, 21
Drafted 6th round, 166th overall, 2007

Kessel has rocketed up the Islanders prospect rankings after having a breakout sophomore season at the University of New Hampshire. The 6’2, 205 pound blueliner was one of the nation’s top scoring defensemen last year with 10 goals and 28 assists in 38 games. Kessel is a solid two-way defenseman who patterns his game after Predators’ defenseman Ryan Suter. He’s very responsible in his own end, uses his size effectively, and doesn’t hesitate to jump in on offense. He will return to UNH for his junior year, but could turn pro next season.

16. (14) Brian Day, RW, 22
Drafted 6th round, 171st overall, 2006

With the departure of several seniors, Day will be looked upon as one of the leaders for Colgate this season. The 6’0, 195 pound right-winger was already one of the key players for the Raiders last year, leading the team with 21 goals and adding 15 assists for 36 points in 34 games. He was also an alternate captain and had a team-high plus-14 rating. Day plays a strong all-around game and is very active in the offensive zone, averaging over three shots per game last year. There’s a strong possibility he could turn pro after completing his senior year this upcoming spring.

17. (17) Kevin Poulin, G, 20
Drafted 5th round, 126th overall, 2008

Poulin is coming off his best junior season. The 20-year-old Montreal native started in 61 regular season games, recording a 35-16-0 record, 2.63 goals-against average, .916 save percentage, and seven shutouts. He was also stellar in the playoffs with 10 wins, 2.84 goals-against average, and .918 save percentage in 16 games. Though the 6’2, 210 lb netminder isn’t as big as the other goalies in the Islanders prospect pool, he’s very quick in his crease and possesses an excellent glove hand. He signed an entry-level-contract with the Islanders in May and should make his professional debut in Bridgeport this fall.

18. (19) Dustin Kohn, D, 23
Acquired: 2nd round, 46th overall, 2005

Kohn got his cup of coffee last season, playing in 22 games for the Islanders and recording four assists. However, a hit to the head in a game against the Rangers in March forced him to miss the remainder of the season. Before being called up, he played in 45 games for the Sound Tigers, scoring two goals and adding 15 assists. The 6’1, 205 pound blueliner signed a one-year extension with the Islanders and will likely split his time between the AHL and NHL this season. Although he’s good in his own end and can contribute in the offensive zone, he likely won’t develop into anything more than a third-pairing defenseman in the NHL.

19. (12) Mikko Koskinen, G, 22
Drafted 2nd round, 31st overall, 2009

What was expected to be a defining season for Koskinen turned out to be a dud. The 6’5, 187 pound goaltender only played in two games before being sidelined for the majority of the season with a torn hip labrum. He did return to the ice near the end of the year, making four regular season appearances with the Utah Grizzlies of the ECHL and posting a 2-1-0 record, 3.49 goals-against-average, and .899 save percentage.

At the age of 22, the coming season will be even more important than last. Before he can even begin to prove himself, he will likely have to beat out Kevin Poulin and Nathan Lawson for the starting role in Brideport.

Koskinen excels at playing the butterfly style and is great at using his large frame to his advantage. He still has the potential to be a starting goaltender in the NHL, but must first show that he can handle the rigors for a full season in North America.

20. Anders Lee, C, 20
Drafted 6th round, 152nd overall, 2009

Lee leaps into the 20th spot after being named the 2010 USHL Rookie of the Year last spring. The 6’2, 216 pound center led the USHL Clark Cup champion Green Bay Gamblers with 35 goals, 66 points, and a plus-38 rating that was second highest in the entire league. He also recorded a team-high 10 goals, 12 assists and plus-10 rating in 12 playoff games, and was named post-season MVP. The 20-year-old will play collegiate hockey at Notre Dame this year. Although he has shown a lot of promise, he may still be several years away from the pros.