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Prospects prosper

Successful year in juniors keeps Winterhawks' bounty of NHL hopefuls content
by: Jaime Valdez Nino Niederreiter (right) of the Portland Winterhawks, following his shot in the regular-season finale against Spokane, also has his eyes on a lucrative career in the NHL – but first comes the Hawks’ second-round series with Kelowna, starting tonight at the Rose Garden.

On a Portland Winterhawks team that has 11 players affiliated with NHL organizations and four other players highly ranked for this year's draft, Nino Niederreiter stands out.

For one month, while the New York Islanders kept the talented, 18-year-old winger for the start of the season, Niederreiter enjoyed the comforts of being an NHL player. The NHL contract pay of $3,700 per day was nice, as were the chartered flights and hotels, highlighted by a two-game swing through Florida. His father, Rene, accompanied Niederreiter on the trip.

"Everything was amazing. I was living a dream up there," says the No. 5 pick in the 2010 NHL draft.

After the Islanders elected to send back Niederreiter to junior hockey for more seasoning, he helped the Winterhawks win the Western Hockey League U.S. Division and sweep Everett in the first round of the playoffs.

The second round, against Kelowna, starts with games at 7 p.m. Thursday and 5 p.m. Sunday, both in the Rose Garden.

Niederreiter says he didn't mind rejoining the Hawks, who are loaded with other pro prospects.

"I knew we'd have something special this year, and that always kept me up, kept me in a good mood," he says. 'And I knew I had to work harder down here to reach the next level."

Niederreiter, who had 41 goals and 29 assists in 55 regular-season games, exploded with four goals and six assists against Everett.

With Niederreiter, center Ryan Johansen, forward Oliver Gabriel and defensemen Taylor Aronson and Brett Ponich, the Hawks have five players who already have signed with NHL clubs, meaning the NHL team has made firm commitments to them and their futures.

It's a big deal to be signed, the lofty goal of all junior players who are fortunate to be drafted or brought in as free agents. Gabriel, for example, has signed with Columbus, a relief for him because he was lost for the season after re-injuring a shoulder in mid-January.

Portland General Manager/coach Mike Johnston views Johansen, the No. 4 pick in last year's NHL draft, as NHL-ready. The Columbus Blue Jackets returned Johansen to the Hawks before the 2010-11 WHL season. Like Niederreiter, Johansen handled the move well.

"There are a few guys in my age group who made the NHL this year, and I've watched a few of their games," says Johansen, who led the Hawks with 92 points (40 goals, 52 assists) and a plus-44 rating this season. "There was a little bit of jealousy, wishing I could be there this year. At the same, you want to make sure you're putting in time and effort, so next year you don't have to worry about coming back to the NHL.

The Blue Jackets'really wanted me to come back for a year and have the great coaching, be on a strong team and be able to make a good playoff run. Portland was a good situation for me, and they didn't want to take any chances of me not developing."

Having a lot of NHL prospects can be an issue for some junior teams, with everybody wanting to shine, receive preferred ice time and situation play. Agents can be chirping in the ear of general managers and coaches. But that hasn't been the case with Niederreiter, Johansen or the other top Winterhawks, according to Johnston.

"They're still 18," Johnston says, of Niederreiter and Johansen. "They could play junior next year, as well.

"I don't think they're looking ahead at all. Sometimes a 19-year-old does look ahead, but not an 18-year-old. During the year, our team has stayed very focused. From day one, those guys came back from NHL camps and were focused on wanting to help the Portland Winterhawks. ... Our team got used to (NHL attention) last year."

This season was very important to Portland's unsigned players and draft-eligible prospects. The unsigned players are Brad Ross, Troy Rutkowski, Mac Carruth, Riley Boychuk, Craig Cunningham and William Wrenn. The prospects are Sven Bartschi, Ty Rattie, Joe Morrow and Tyler Wotherspoon - all were named in the top 10 of WHL prospects by the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau.

For the signed guys, it was imperative to keep progressing. Ponich, a second-round pick of St. Louis, blew out his knee, but he could return for the WHL finals and/or Memorial Cup, should the Winterhawks advance. The Blues, Ponich says, even spun the injury to the positive, telling the 6-7, 225-pound defenseman that he could use rehabilitation time to work on his skating.

"I'll be good to go by June for sure,' Ponich says. '(The Blues) will have a summer camp, and I'll be participating.'

While Ponich and Gabriel are missing out on playoff action, Niederreiter, Johansen and Aronson are in the thick of it.

Aronson, 19 and a third-round pick of Nashville last year, signed despite being sidelined in training camp with a shoulder injury. He says the WHL playoff time is "very important, because that's what scouts look at. They want kids who know how to win."

Aronson, who had a plus-36 rating this season, also says playing on such a talented team as Portland has helped motivate him. He adds that 'everyone's pushing you - the younger guys coming up want to get drafted. We have a lot of skill on our team, a lot of great players."

At least Niederreiter and Johansen are in the playoffs. Their NHL clubs won't be. So, they'll get in a lot of games this season.

Obviously, Niederreiter missed out on some things by not being in the NHL, where clubs must keep 18- or 19-year-old players on their rosters or send them back to juniors, per a junior league/NHL agreement. For each day with the Islanders, Niederreiter grossed about $3,700.

"I only got one check, but when I got that check, I was like, 'Wow,' " he says.

Portland players make a monthly stipend of $180.

Niederreiter, Johansen, Aronson and Ponich, received NHL signing bonuses. Lucrative days lie ahead for them, if they are fortunate enough to play in the league.

The big incentive for the NHL signees is advancing in the WHL playoffs and making the Memorial Cup tournament in Mississauga, Ontario, in late May.

"I know it's a huge deal," says Niederreiter, a Swiss import. "We have a good chance this year, but we have to take it step by step."

Adds Johansen: "You not only want to prove yourself (in the playoffs), you want to lead this team as far as we can go. We're off to a good start. It's going to be a tougher series against Kelowna; they've been playing well."