The Nashville Predators knew what they were getting in signing Nino Niederreiter to a two-year deal last week: a top offensive forward that could step immediately into a top six role, alongside names like Filip Forsberg, Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen, and Mikael Granlund.
But further analysis shows that the Preds not only got a great scorer in Niederreiter, but a player that specifically fulfills a need that last year’s Preds team was missing.
After going back and watching video film of Niederreiter’s 2020-21 and 2021-22 campaigns with the Carolina Hurricanes, I discovered one of his best traits: his elite skill at playing in front of the opponents’ net.
Nino Niederreiter’s elite net front play
Niederreiter has scored at least twenty goals in six of his eleven NHL seasons, including 20 and 24 goals in his last two seasons with the Hurricanes. The majority of those goals have been in close to the net, playing to his skills as a physical, smart forward with a knack for finding open spaces in tight areas.
In transition, off the forecheck, with the puck, without the puck… whatever the situation, Nino loves going to the net.— Alex Daugherty (@AlexDaugherty1) July 28, 2022
But on top of that, he is very good at finding pockets of space while there. Here he finds room on the front side, then sneaks back side for the finish. pic.twitter.com/lgKcmA0S9h
A good net front player is one that finds room where there isn’t any. Defensemen are going to cover any forwards that come into the crease, but forwards can do little things that make it harder for them to do so. Off puck movement like stick lifts, swivel moves in and out of space, body blocks, and well-timed hip contact can cause problems for defensemen.
Nino Niederreiter is especially good at this. He uses his 6’2″ 210 pound frame well in the crease, knowing where the defensemen are and where they aren’t. He uses his lower body well to seal off space, using his vision to anticipate the passing lanes and angles, and then capitalizing when the puck is in the area with a quick and accurate shot.
He’s also good at finding the empty spaces and getting there before they fill up.
Sometimes the space is high, sometimes it's low. It's about reacting. Reading the play, knowing where the puck is.— Alex Daugherty (@AlexDaugherty1) July 28, 2022
In this play, NN sees Staal, a great passer, in Gretzky's office with room to pass. NN gets behind the D and tucks in an easy score. pic.twitter.com/sxBt6omiXA
One thing about playing well in the net front is that it’s not about getting on top of the goalie or even necessarily about screening him. That’s primarily used on the power play, but even strength play is a bit more fluid.
A good net front player is one that anticipates space as it opens up and gets there in time for a pass to be made. Dipping in and out of areas, drawing defenders out of their zone, only to then move into the space they vacated. The two videos above show how Niederreiter does that well.
Preds lacked real net front presence last year
The Preds, for all their scoring prowess last year, did not have a true net front presence. They broke records, sure, but they mostly did so with hot outside shooting and with a top power play unit.
Take a look at this chart of unblocked, even strength shot attempts from Hockey Viz. Blue areas indicate below average performance:
That’s a rather large cold spot in front of the opponents’ net. It’s a wonder how the Preds broke so many offensive records last year with such a deficit in a crucial area of the offensive zone.
But Nino Niederreiter should fix that.
While he’s not a premier goal scorer in the NHL, Niederreiter should fit into a role that will help solve some of the Preds’ depth scoring issues last year. With him in town, the offense should look even better, which is saying something.
— Featured image via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports —