What was Paul Fenton thinking?
That’s the question that keeps popping up -- and could get louder, possibly with a few added words -- since forward Nino Niederreiter was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes.
Fenton is the Minnesota Wild’s general manager. On Jan. 17, he agreed to send Niederreiter to the Canes for center Victor Rask. Straight up, one for one, a hockey trade.
The scratching of heads began immediately. Niederreiter, once a first-round pick by the New York Islanders, had 112 goals and 119 assists in 498 career games with the Isles and the Wild. Rask, a second-round pick by Carolina in 2011, had 63 goals and 100 assists in 339 games for the Canes and had missed a big chunk of this season after cutting two fingers in September.
Despite all the usual talk of how a “change in scenery” could be good for both players, of how the Wild had freed up salary-cap space, it was a hard trade to figure and has quickly gotten even more lopsided.
When Niederreiter ripped a shot from the slot Friday past Vegas goalie Maxime Lagace, in the Canes’ 5-2 win, it was his fifth goal in five games since the change in his scenery. Rask scored his first goal in five games with the Wild -- and his first since Nov. 27 -- on Saturday against the Chicago Blackhawks.
“He’s fit in great and he’s got a great attitude,” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “You knew he was a good player. That was never the issue. Whenever you bring someone into the group you always worry about how that’s going to fit. No. 1, from all the reports we knew he was a great person and he’s fit in extremely well. And obviously contributing the way he is, that makes it a lot better.”
Niederreiter, 26, jumped on to the top line at left wing with center Sebastian Aho and right wing Justin Williams and has had an immediate impact. In the Canes’ three-game road trip before the All-Star break and bye week, he had two goals in a 7-4 win over Edmonton -- in his 500th career game -- and another two as the Canes topped Vancouver 5-2, with a team-high eight shots.
Coaches always talk about players who are willing to go to the “dirty areas” to score. That’s in the low slot and around the crease, where bodies bang, cross-checks are common and players pay a price. That’s where Niederreiter roams.
Against Vegas, Niederreiter took a “footsie” pass from Williams, who used a skate to legally kick the puck back into the slot, and scored. Add in his totals with the Wild and the Swiss-born forward , listed at 6-2 and 218 pounds, now has 14 goals and 28 points in 51 games this season.
Asked what Niederreiter has added to the team, Aho said, “Well, a lot of things. He brings size. He can score. He can make some plays. He’s just a good player overall.
“He’s bringing to this team a lot. I like to play with him. He’s a great player and a good guy off the ice and it’s good to have him here.”
Which, again, brings up that question: what was Paul Fenton thinking? Why make the trade?
“He’s a new GM there and he wanted to make Minnesota his team,” Niederreiter said Saturday. “At the end of the day you have to choose what horses you want to ride with. I wasn’t one of them, which is fine. “
Niederreiter also said he fell out of favor with Wild coach Bruce Boudreau, saying, “If the coach doesn’t believe in you or trust you, then things are not going to go your way.”
“At the end of the day, I guess I was a little too expensive to play on the fourth line, so Paul Fenton had to make a move and I wasn’t one of his horses.”
Fenton’s explanation was that Rask was a year younger, could play center or wing, was a good two-way forward and had shown he was capable of scoring 20 or more goals in a season. There’s also the matter of Rask making $1.25 million less per season than Niederreiter, which could lend some flexibility in other potential moves by the Wild.
But if the Canes do make the playoffs for the first time since 2009, Jan. 17 and the deal for Niederreiter should be a date to keep in mind. Some horse trade, eh?