Nino Niederreiter was being tailed Saturday at PNC Arena.
The Carolina Hurricanes’ morning skate having ended, Niederreiter headed into the Canes’ locker room with someone just a few steps behind him. It was Matt Benz, assistant equipment manager for the Minnesota Wild, who exchanged a warm handshake, quick hug and some friendly small talk with the forward.
Having the other team’s equipment man in the middle of the locker room, skate in hand, was a bit unusual. But it was a different kind of day for Niederreiter as he prepared to face his former team, the Wild, on Saturday for the first time since the Jan. 17 trade that helped change the course of the Canes’ season.
“It’s always emotional when you play your former team and especially when you had some great years over there,” Niederreiter said Saturday. “I obviously made a lot of great friends on and off the ice, so it definitely will be very emotional. It definitely will be special.”
Niederreiter, 26, spent parts of six seasons with the Wild. The Swiss-born player was in a Wild uniform for 434 games, becoming a popular fixture in Minnesota.
But in a trade that still puzzles many around the NHL, the Wild agreed to trade Niederreiter to the Canes for center Victor Rask in a one-for-one deal. Niederreiter quickly was placed on the Canes’ top line with center Sebastian Aho and right wing Justin Williams while Rask had an early injury that kept him out of the Wild lineup.
Rask, 26, had shoulder surgery in the offseason, then cut two fingers in a kitchen accident and needed more surgery just a few days before preseason training camp began. Returning in late-November, the Swede then was traded after 26 games.
“It wasn’t too tough, I would say,” Rask said Saturday at PNC Arena. “I had been here for a long time and I really, really like this organization and this city. But it was good for a fresh start for me. Unfortunately I got injured right away but I’m liking this team and liking this organization, so I’m just happy to have a new start here.”
Niederreiter had an immediate impact with the Canes, scoring five goals in his first five games. In his 27 games, he has 12 goals and 24 points as the Canes, under first-year coach Rod Brind’Amour, have gone 18-7-2 with No. 21 in the lineup to pull themselves into playoff position in the Eastern Conference.
“I think Rod’s put a lot of trust in him and put him in a good situation to be successful,” said Wild center Eric Staal, once the Canes captain and a Stanley Cup winner in 2006.
Not long after the trade, Niederreiter mentioned that Wild general manager Paul Fenton was looking to reshape his team and that he apparently no longer fit into Fenton’s plans. He also indicated that Wild coach Bruce Boudreau had lost trust in him and that maybe he was a little too pricey -- Niederreiter has a $5.25 million cap hit -- to be playing on the fourth line.
But Niederreiter said all that would provide no additional incentive in Saturday’s game.
“At the end of the day it’s all part of the business and it happens,” he said. “Trades happen. Sometimes, things go well and sometimes they don’t. For me, fortunately enough, they went well. It’s just part of the game, so for me it’s just trying to play the best game you can play and go from there.”
The Wild (35-31-9) are battling for playoff position in the Western Conference, coming into Raleigh off a 2-1 road win Friday over the Washington Capitals. The Canes (40-26-7) had won four of five before the 6-3 beating Thursday by the Tampa Bay Lightning at PNC Arena.
Goalie Petr Mrazek, who has won seven of his last eight games, was expected to be the Canes’ starter in net against the Wild.
“We’re in the playoff push, so are they, and it will be a tough battle,” Niederreiter said “We have to bounce back from the game against Tampa Bay and I think we all know exactly what we have to do.”