With a strong group of free agent forwards including the likes of Johnny Gaudreau, Evgeni Malkin, Filip Forsberg, Claude Giroux, Phil Kessel, Ondrej Palat, Valeri Nichushkin, Andre Burakovsky amongst others, teams that are looking to add some production up front don’t have to look too far for a worthy candidate. One name that seemingly hasn’t been at the forefront thus far is Nino Niederreiter of the Carolina Hurricanes. Once a blue-chip prospect and fifth overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft by the New York Islanders, Niederreiter’s career fell on hard-times rather quickly. The forward was fine in his NHL debut in 2010-11, recording two points in nine games, but struggled to an abysmal one goal and zero assists in 55 games as a rookie in 2011-12. He would spend all of 2012-13 in the AHL before being traded to the Minnesota Wild ahead of the 2013-14 season.
After being traded to the Wild, Niederreiter began to show why the Islanders made him the fifth-overall selection, establishing himself as a power-forward and a reliable goal scorer at that. Since then, Niederreiter has played parts of nine seasons split between the Wild and the Hurricanes, hitting the 20-goal mark six times in that span. In 2021-22, his age-29 season, Niederreiter had one of his best seasons for the Metropolitan Division winning Hurricanes, putting up 24 goals and 20 assists in 75 games. Now almost 30-years-old, Niederreiter finds himself set to be an UFA for the first time in his career at the conclusion of a five-year, $26.25MM contract.
For his next contract, Niederreiter probably won’t hit the max term of seven years (eight if he remains with Carolina or whomever acquires his rights, if applicable), and his AAV would more likely than not sit somewhere between $4MM and $6MM, just as it was the previous five seasons. In terms of comparable players for his next contract, Niederreiter has a few intriguing options, the first of which is St. Louis Blues forward Brandon Saad, who signed a five-year, $22.5MM contract last offseason as an UFA, which carries a $4.5MM cap hit. Looking at points-per-game (to account for COVID-19 schedule differences), in Saad’s three years prior to his free agency, he recorded 0.59, 0.57, and most recently, 0.55 points-per-game. Coming off a six-year, $36MM contract, Saad found his AAV regress, but still secured a long-term contract.
Jordan Eberle, another former Islander, signed a five-year, $27.5MM contract after the 2018-19 season, carrying a $5.5MM AAV. That contract, like Saad’s, came on the heels of a six-year, $36MM deal. Eberle began his career with the Edmonton Oilers as a star forward, recording as many as 76 points in a season, but eventually had that production drop off. Leading up to his current contract, Eberle averaged 0.62, 0.73, and finally 0.47 points-per-game, a sharp drop in production in the final year. One last comparison is Patric Hornqvist, who carries a $5.3MM cap hit on the five-year, $26.5MM contract he signed before the 2018-19 season. Leading up to Hornqvist’s free agency, he recorded 0.62, 0.63, and 0.70 points-per-game, featuring a 29-goal platform season.
Comparing Saad, Eberle, and Hornqvist to Niederreiter’s previous three seasons of 0.43, 0.61, and 0.59 points-per-game leading up to his free agency shows the free-agent-to-be in the middle of these three. One thing that is particularly clear is that Niederreiter will be able to find term if he wants it, all three of these similar players signing five-year contracts. A key difference between the four players is their year-to-year consistency. Eberle had a fantastic 2017-18 season before a tough 2018-19 heading into free agency, while Hornqvist gradually improved. Saad was fairly consistent year to year, with Niederreiter improving and settling in in the two years prior to free agency.
In the flat salary cap era presently affecting all 32 NHL teams, cap usage is a primary concern for clubs, which could serve to limit the cap hits of free agents. In addition to that, there is a relatively deep market of offensive-minded wingers like Niederreiter. The veteran could use these concerns however, to his advantage, perhaps allowing teams to sign their first option, and being available at a cost to those who miss out. Salary aside, Niederreiter has shown through his play, and his comparable players, that he is deserving of a long-term deal, even if it isn’t at the maximum term.
As far as retaining Niederreiter, the Hurricanes have just under $20MM in cap space, but do have several other UFAs including Vincent Trocheck and Max Domi, and have to give new deals to pending RFAs Martin Necas, Ethan Bear, and Anthony DeAngelo. If the destination is not Carolina, the forward could, as mentioned, posit himself as the backup for a team that missed out on their first or even second target in the free agent or trade market. He can also market himself towards teams who seek to add some grit and bite while also adding a point-producing middle-six forward, something the market isn’t necessarily deep in.