Reading Royals

The ultimate EBUG: Nick Niedert stole the show in surprise ECHL start

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The timing couldn’t have been worse. Nick Niedert’s phone rang on Friday afternoon and on the other end was the ECHL’s Reading Royals in need of an emergency goaltender after Austin Lotz was called up to AHL Lehigh Valley.

Niedert, who lives in Connecticut, quickly mapped out the trek in his head. A typical three-to-four hour drive to Reading, Pennsylvania would have taken him much longer on Black Friday when you factor in all the traffic he would likely experience. It was clearly a no-go.

But the Royals’ goaltending situation was in such flux that Niedert, 36, was still planning to be the team’s emergency backup for their Saturday night game in Glens Falls, New York against the Adirondack Thunder. As he was driving to the game his phone rang once again around 3 p.m. Reading’s assistant coach Mike Marcou was calling from the coaches office at Cool Insuring Arena and was kind of dancing around the reason for dialing. Eventually, Niedert asked what was going on.

“Well, you’re going tonight,” Marcou told him.

“Going where?” Niedert replied before it finally hit him after a beat. “Oh s—-. Alright. Let’s go.”

“You ready to go?” Marcou followed up.

Said Niedert: “Does it really matter?”

Royals goaltender Angus Redmond suffered a concussion, so the organization’s depth chart in net was depleted. In stepped Niedert, who went from EBUG to starter in a matter of a few hours. Backing him up was another EBUG that the team was able to grab before game time.

The pressure of the moment didn’t get to Niedert as he watched from his crease his teammates playing their hearts out, galvanized by their current predicament.

“You know what, it’s so cliche, it really is, but let me tell you when I say the guys played their balls off. Those guys… they threw everything out there,” Niedert told Pro Hockey Talk on Sunday. “They were phenomenal.”

A night after losing 8-3 to Adirondack, the Royals rebounded, thanks to Niedert’s 38 saves, for a 2-1 victory. It certainly wasn’t an easy one as the Thunder had six power plays, but couldn’t capitalize.

“The buy-in was absolutely remarkable,” Niedert said. “Honestly, in 15 years I’ve played over 300-something games, that was the most impressive, complete game I’ve ever seen in my career.”

As the final buzzer sounded and the Royals celebrated a victory, you could see how much Niedert’s performance meant to the team. A night earlier they suffered a big loss and then had to hop on a bus for five hours with that defeat still fresh in their minds. Factor in their goaltending situation and it wasn’t an easy lead up to Saturday’s rematch.

For Niedert, who’s gotten used to watching games from the bench as a legendary minor league EBUG, it was a satisfying experience considering it had been 1,032 days since his last ECHL start.

“When you’re on the team, you’re a part of it,” he said. “But when you’re on the ice contributing, there’s a big difference. It feels a helluva lot better.”

**

That last start in the ECHL with the Royals — Jan. 27, 2016, a 7-5 win over Elmira — left Niedert with a bad taste in his mouth. His wasn’t happy with his performance that night and it stayed with him.

“That was a nightmare. I was so disappointed with the way everything went that day,” he said. “It’s almost like it didn’t count. It was just an unsatisfied feeling.”

That’s why when the buzzer sounded Saturday night and the Royals had sealed a win, it left Niedert in a different place. The reason why he keeps answering the phone whenever teams call is because of what transpired in Glens Falls.

“There’s no better feeling than being on the ice when the horn blows and the win,” he said. “When the rink’s pitch black and you’re leading your team on the ice, there’s nothing like it. There really isn’t.

“To play in a meaningful game in a National Hockey League affiliated league at this age… I’m 5-foot-8 from Iowa. It’s not exactly a hockey hotbed. I’ve been on borrowed time since I was 16 years old when I left home. All the stuff that I went through in my very, very, very extremely long career, it really was worth it [Saturday] night to see what the 17 other guys had to go through to get a win. … When you see guys getting banged up and you see guys getting the ice bags and you see guys fighting through being hurt, guys that are battling through everything, I want to be there for those guys, too.”

Niedert’s never gotten close to the NHL during his long career. Aside from a few AHL tryout contracts and EBUG situations, no invitation has been sent his way for a main training camp in either league. He’s been everywhere, seen everything. He’s been around so long that now former teammates and opponents have become members of opposing coaching staffs.

“It was really worth it. All the things that I went through coming up to [Saturday] night, all that stuff didn’t matter,” he said. “All those week-to-week paychecks, hoping your check doesn’t bounce, playing in front of 150 people some nights, all that was not even relevant. I was happy to do it. I was happy when that damn horn blew, I couldn’t play any longer. It was a helluva night and I’m beyond happy I had the opportunity to do that.”

***

Call up Niedert’s profile page on HockeyDB.com or EliteProspects.com and your mouse will get a decent workout from all the scrolling you’ll have to do. In his 15 years as a professional, the Hudson, Iowa native has played or dressed for 36 teams in 11 different leagues.

Those numbers, however, are unofficial, something that Niedert says may make him one day sit down and sort through game logs for an true tally. He does estimate he’s dressed for somewhere between 700-800 games in his career.

Want an idea of the hectic life Niedert once led when he was a regular dial-a-goalie?

Here’s a sample of one week during the 2011-12 season:

Tuesday: Sent down from ECHL Elmira (NY) to FHL Danbury (CT). Picked up on waivers by ECHL Wheeling (West Va.)

Wednesday: Drive from Danbury back to Elmira for Wheeling road game. After pre-game skate, informed he was called up to AHL Bridgeport (CT). Drove back to Danbury for Thursday practice with Bridgeport.

Thursday: Practice with Bridgeport. Drive to Albany (NY) for game.

Friday: Play in Albany. Get sent back down to Wheeling, who were playing in Cincinnati (OH) on Saturday night.

Saturday: Travel to Cincinnati. Serve as EBUG.

Sunday: Play game. Travel back to Danbury.

That emotional roller coaster led Niedert to ask himself if it was really worth it to continue. But again, the phone kept ringing and he kept answering and grabbing his pads.

The ups and downs he’s experienced during a life in the minors has taught Niedert about resiliency and battling adversity, qualities needed in order to last as long as he has in the game.

***

The thought of retiring has crossed Niedert’s mind before, sometimes on those long car rides home. And while he’s worked as a manager at the Brookfield, Connecticut Wesco Sports Center since 2010, he keeps answering the phone when teams call, knowing his has very understanding co-workers.

The phone keeps ringing because his reputation follows him at every single stop. Coaches know what they’re going to get. No matter how long he sticks with a team, he’s never going to change. He’ll support his teammates. He’ll stick tap a player who dropped to block a shot. He’ll be positive. He’ll show up early and be the last one off the ice. 

There was a time when goalies of Niedert’s size were all the rage: small and quick. Now, bigger goalies are much more athletic and have become the norm around the game.

“All I honestly have is my compete level. My skill set is not even close to these other guys,” he said. “Not even close. I’ll be honest, I’ll tell people that all the time.

“I just work. That’s all. That’s literally all I have in my bag, is just go out, give an effort, don’t be a s——- team guy, and see what happens.”

Down the line, when Niedert finally stops picking up that ringing phone, he’d like to get into coaching — junior hockey, specifically — in order to make an impact on young players’ lives. He doesn’t envision himself as a head coach, but feels more suited in the role of an assistant, that middle-ground guy who can be the liaison between the head coach and players.

He’s back working at Wesco — he put in a full shift on Sunday afternoon after arriving back from Glens Falls — and waiting for his next call. Reading head coach Kirk McDonald told him he’d get in touch if the team needed him again. In the meantime, he plays in a pro/am league once a week to keep sharp and works out regularly in case another EBUG situation pops up.

If he wanted to be like George Costanza he could go out on top, which very well could be the case. That next opportunity could come at any time and he’ll be ready to answer the call, if needed. If it doesn’t, Saturday night’s experience put Niedert at peace.

“If that was it — perfect,” he said.

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Previewing the 2019-20 Chicago Blackhawks

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

Better or Worse: After failing to make the playoffs again, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman had to shake up his roster. He didn’t really add a core player, but that’s fine considering he already had Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Alex DeBrincat on his roster. Instead, he decided to surround those players with some more quality depth. He was able to bring Andrew Shaw back into the fold in a trade with Montreal and he also improved his defense by acquiring Calvin de Haan from Carolina and Olli Maatta from Pittsburgh. With all the uncertainty surrounding the health of goaltender Corey Crawford, the ‘Hawks also signed Vezina-Trophy nominee Robin Lehner to a one-year deal. It’s hard to argue that Chicago isn’t better on paper heading into this season.

Strengths: There’s no denying that the Blackhawks have a lot of high-end talent up front. Kane posted a 110-point season last year, while Toews added 81 points in 82 contests during a bounce-back season. They also have DeBrincat, who found the back of the net 41 times last year and Brandon Saad, who can do more than he did a year ago (23 goals and 47 points). It’ll also be interesting to see if Dylan Strome and Brendan Perlini continue to improve at a rapid rate. The Blackhawks shouldn’t have much trouble generating offense this year.

Weaknesses: Even though they’ve added Maatta and de Haan this summer, their defense still has to be considered a question mark. How much will they be able to get from veterans like Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith? Both players are in their mid-30s and you have to wonder how many minutes they’ll be able to log on a Chicago blue line that has to be better this year than it was in 2018-19. The goaltending situation, which was weak once Crawford went down last year, has been shored up by the addition of Lehner.

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): 2. It’s hard to imagine the Blackhawks getting rid of Jeremy Colliton during or after his first full year behind an NHL bench. Of course, if things get really ugly for them this season, anything is possible, but it’s tough to envision them dropping deeper into the standings than they have been over the last couple of seasons. Colliton had success with Chicago’s AHL affiliate and although that doesn’t necessarily guarantee he’ll do well in the NHL, it should buy him some time when it comes to putting his team together.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Strome, Lehner and Shaw are the players to keep an eye on this year. Strome is a former third overall pick that couldn’t seen to put it all together with Arizona. After he got traded to Chicago, all he did was score 51 points in 58 games. Can he continue producing at that rate? Can the 22-year-old actually improve his scoring clip? He could develop into a real difference-maker for this Blackhawks team.

As for Lehner, it’ll be interesting to see if he can build on the strong season he had with the Islanders in 2018-19. Can he produce similar results to last year now that he’s away from Barry Trotz’s smothering defense-first system? Will he play well enough to earn himself a long-term extension with a team that was only willing to give him a one-year deal? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered in this situation.

Shaw is back where it all began. He had a solid season with Montreal last year, as he scored 19 goals and 47 points in just 63 games. Those are significant numbers for a player that plays with an edge. The only question surrounding Shaw is whether or not he can stay healthy. He’s a small player that plays a physical style. The 28-year-old also has a long history with concussions.

Playoffs or Lottery: As much as the Blackhawks have added to their roster, it won’t be easy for them to sneak into a playoff spot in the Western Conference. They’ll likely be battling with St. Louis, Dallas and Colorado for the final Wild Card spots and that’s a battle they might not win. In the end, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them finish in ninth spot in the West. They’ll be in the race until the end though.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

PHT Morning Skate: Laine off to Switzerland; Who will play with Crosby?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Jets restricted free agent Patrik Laine will practice with SC Bern of the Swiss League. (Swiss Hockey News)

• With Laine and Kyle Connor still not signed, the Jets are relying on Mason Appleton and Gabriel Bourque. (Winnipeg Free Press)

• The re-signing of Mitch Marner is a clear message from Maple Leafs management. (Leafs Nation)

• Pension Plan Puppets argues that Marner’s contract is set up for him to fail. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• The Flyers are incredibly disappointed that Travis Konecny isn’t in training camp. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• The Matthew Tkachuk situation in Calgary could make things ugly for the Flames cap situation. (Flames Nation)

David Backes is hoping to have a great camp so that he can make an impact on the Bruins roster. (NBC Sports Boston)

• Is the Provorov extension a good deal for the Philadelphia Flyers? (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

Adam Fox is looking to carve out an important role on the Rangers this year. (Blue Seat Blogs)

• The Canucks need more than just two lines to score if they’re going to make the playoffs. (Vancourier)

• Ever wonder what happy to Robby Fabbri‘s tooth? (NHL.com/Blues)

• Who will play with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel this year? (Pensburgh)

• What’s new on the latest NHL 20 video game? (Game Spot)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Maple Leafs expect Hyman, Dermott to miss significant time

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Once you get beyond the sticker shock of the $10.89M cap hit, the Mitch Marner contract is a reason for the Toronto Maple Leafs to rejoice. Rather than the saga drag on deep into the season like the William Nylander fiasco, Marner is gearing up in training camp.

Apparently the Maple Leafs will still be without a noteworthy player or two anyway, even though their losses aren’t nearly as significant as the prospect of being without Marner.

Head coach Mike Babcock estimates that forward Zach Hyman could miss approximately 14-15 games, while defenseman Travis Dermott may be sidelined for a similar span (12-14 games), according to TSN’s Karen Shilton.

If that forecast is correct, then the Maple Leafs could anticipate Hyman and Dermott back sometimes during this range:

Game 12 – Oct. 25: home vs. Sharks
Game 13 – Oct. 26: at Canadiens
Game 14 – Oct. 29: home vs. Capitals
Game 15 – Nov. 2: at Flyers

Naturally, when it comes to injuries, things can change. Ailments can worsen, or players can heal up faster than expected.

All due respect to two useful players in Dermott and Hyman, but the cap management aspect — particularly use of LTIR, and juggling once they’re ready to come back — is likely the most interesting part of this situation.

We already know that Nathan Horton ($5.3M AAV) and David Clarkson ($5.25M) will be on LTIR through the final season of their tragic contracts, providing $10.55M. Hyman carries $2.25M, while Dermott weighs in at $863K. The window for an LTIR stay is at least 10 games and 24 days, so one would expect that Hyman and Dermott would join Clarkson and Horton on LTIR. With Dermott’s cost fairly minimal, things would be most cramped once Hyman is healthy enough to play again. Will Toronto be forced to make a trade, or waive someone they’d rather keep?

Losing Hyman and Dermott for what sounds like close to a month isn’t great to begin with, but things could be especially tricky once they can actually play.

Although the Maple Leafs solved some of their biggest riddles, they’ll still need to answer more questions in the short term, so Babcock could be a busy man — almost as busy as Kyle Dubas.

(H/T to Rotoworld.)

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins get another major bargain with McAvoy contract

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Over and over again, the Boston Bruins find ways to sign core players at stunning discounts. They pulled off another steal with budding star defenseman Charlie McAvoy on Sunday.

Remarkably, they signed McAvoy for slightly less than what the Blue Jackets gave Zach Werenski. McAvoy’s contract is for three years, with just a $4.9 million AAV. That’s … incredible value.

Like with Werenski, it’s structured in a way that can make a future contract hefty, and open the door for eventual UFA status. But for a team that’s focused on now as much as the Bruins happen to be, this is even better. It also makes affording Torey Krug‘s next contract feel a lot more feasible. Also, Cap Friendly points out that McAvoy needs more time to reach UFA status than Werenski and Timo Meier, two players who’ve set a standard for how many RFAs approached negotiations this offseason.

When people try to beat up on the Maple Leafs for their expensive top guys, they often (almost unfairly) bring up Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak only costing about $20 million combined – less than John Tavares and Auston Matthews put together. This could be another contract people cite when they shake their head in awe at what the Bruins have done.

(Now, they just need to make sure not to give away any contracts to the likes of David Backes.)

About the only knock on McAvoy, 21, is that he’s dealt with some injury issues. Beyond that, he’s a really well-rounded defenseman, one who’s been instrumental in extending Zdeno Chara‘s career.

Check out how his RAPM charts at even-strength stack up against Werenski, via Evolving Hockey:

McAvoy made a resounding first impression during the 2016-17 postseason, making his NHL debut at that stage, and impressively logging 26:12 per playoff game. He then started strong in 2017-18, generating seven goals and 32 points in 63 games. This past season provided much of the same, as McAvoy scored seven goals and 28 points in 54 regular-season contests and delivering strong work in postseason appearances.

Again, the main concern is staying on the ice, as otherwise McAvoy’s passed his early tests with flying colors.

Cap Friendly estimates the Bruins’ remaining cap space at about $3.2M, and it’s possible that RFA defenseman Brandon Carlo might eat up all of that, or almost all of that breathing room.

This is fantastic stuff by the Bruins. Again.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.