For the last two seasons, my expectations for the Swiss born winger was to establish career highs, surpassing the 25 goals and 57 points set in 2016-17. Yet, 17 games into the season (heading into the game versus Washington), and the 26-year old has scored once – a power play marker – with five assists at 5v5. He’s recorded points in four of the last eight games after a six game pointless funk. Much improved lately, will it come back altogether and consistently?
The former New York Islanders first round pick (5th overall) in 2010 has seemed like a bargain ever since being acquired for Cal Clutterbuck, hitting career highs two seasons into his Minnesota career.
Lingering issues due to an ankle injury (that ended up as a broken fibula he played through) was a setback in 2017-18. His output was limited to 18 goals and 32 points, underwhelming results at best.
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Still, there were positive signs – like the career high rate of individual high danger scoring chances at 5v5 (the data here is referencing even strength 5v5 play). A natural shooter – with a shoot first mentality), consistency in shot rates is a key indicator he was playing a familiar style, and exploiting shooting tendencies.
*** Data courtesy of Corsica.Hockey
The direct contrast is the career low rate so far in 2018-19. This same trend is repeated in shots, shot attempts (iCF/60) and individual expected goals for (ixGF/60).
We have to look at Niederreiter’s season in parts to get a good handle on the lack of production. NHL forward units work like pairings with a third compatible player. In 2018-19 he’s split time with Zach Parise (often including Mikko Koivu), Jason Zucker, and Charlie Coyle in 17 games so far in 2018-19 and each has some distinct characteristics.
Lining up for six games with Charlie Coyle, he put up nine hits, blocking one shot (his first of the season in the eighth game of the season), while producing four individual high danger chances. He was hit a total of four times. The line seemed to extoll some physical pressure, resulting in the decent output of scoring chance success. Applying physicality should have the effect of getting the puck back for your team – a component of effective defense (defense is the ability to get pucks back in your team’s possession). If that effort is not translating to scoring chances, there’s a likelihood the strategy is not fully optimized or players aren’t using physicality correctly.
The pairing was actually fairly productive, tilting the ice towards the Wild’s way 56.98% of the time with both on the ice – despite only getting two assists.
The partnership with Jason Zucker, (47.73%) and Parise (43.44%) drew an opposing contrast. Across the three pairings, Niederreiter fared like in the table below.
*** Data courtesy of Natural Stat Trick
He split time with Parise, two games to open the season before moving on to a line with Coyle, and has recently been reunited with Parise and center Mikko Koivu. There’s a reduction in the individual high danger scoring chances, and scoring chances, while absorbing more physicality than when paired with other players.
Summarizing doesn’t fully expose the effects due to timeline so far this season. This is better illustrated below, with the season divided into the three most frequent partners.
He’s only laid two hits in the last six games, after being fairly physical prior to that, a distinct change to the game. He’s been hit seven times in the last three games – while the ice has been tilting to the opposition – with the Wild firing off only 43% of the shot attempts. The shot differential is fairly skewed here, and lining up with Parise isn’t as lucrative as it may seem.
A reduction in individual high danger scoring chances (iHDCF) is a lead indicator of not getting to scoring areas, or the line itself not getting pucks to scoring areas.
Another minor item of note is the lack of overall scoring coming from his lines if he isn’t directly involved. According to the game by game IPP (individual point percentage – the metric is expanded here), he’s earned a point of every goal scored at 5v5, except for one game – an Oct 30th affair against the Oilers where he played only 11.55 at even strength.
The Power Play
OK, so that was at 5v5, even strength. How has the power play fared? In this situation, there’s still a divide beginning with ice time. Using the data from Natural Stat Trick, the table below is produced.
Let’s break it down.
Over the first eight games, Niederreiter averaged 1.24 minutes of time on ice with the man advantage. That’s secondary with expected results. It took him 10 games to record his first shot on goal at 5v4, without creating any individual shot attempts. It took eight games just to record an individual shot attempt and that occurred in one spot (a high danger spot) that loaded the solitary chance into three categories.
Since that dreadful start, coaching staff have changed some tactics. He’s been bumped to a more productive unit, with an increase in ice time. In the last nine games he’s averaged 3.32 minutes, scoring his first of the season only four games ago but clearly being more productive from shots and attempts. He’s gone without a shot on goal in only two games since and his attempts have been more plentiful. This has to be the result of both an increase in playing time – and a vital slot on the power play to compliment his skill set.
During injury-plagued 2017-18 he scored seven goals at 5v4, one shy of the career high, eight. He finally scored his first of the season in game #14, with three quarters of a season to play. There’s plenty of time to get roaring again at 5v4, and at least approach career highs – as long as coaching staff deploys him appropriate minutes and successful strategies.
Aging curves place Niederreiter at his career production peak. Can 60 points be in the cards? Other players have been able to eschew contemporary aging curves and post fantastic numbers. Of course, some of that is heavily reliant on upgraded teammates, or situations, while for others the skills they maintain are able to consistently produce in spite of any expected downturn in production.
Niederreiter is one of those players.