Portland Winterhawks’ Ryan Johansen, Nino Niederreiter leaving early for NHL didn’t pay off

The Portland Winterhawks, who are tied 1-1 with the Edmonton Oil Kings in the WHL final, have moved on from Ryan Johansen and Nino Niederreiter. It's a tribute to the Winterhawks that they are playing for a spot in the MasterCard Memorial Cup after seeing two top scorers both leave for the NHL as 19-year-olds. It does bear examining whether it paid off for both players.

Johansen and Niederreiter did appear to be ready for a new challenge this season. Johansen was coming off a 40-goal, 92-point season in 63 games and led the WHL in playoff scorer. Niederreiter posted 41 goals and 70 points in 55 games. They both clearly had nothing left to prove at the major junior level. The best-case scenario for each teenager would have been for them to play in the American Hockey League. But because of the NHL-CHL agreement, they weren't eligible to play in the minors. So the pair of 19-year-olds made the jump to the National Hockey League and stayed put for the entire season. Those decisions by their respective teams do not look too bright in hindsight.

(Meantime, the Winterhawks are prepping for Game 3 of the final with star Ty Rattie being a game-time decision due to an upper-body injury. Obviously, they have block out any thoughts of whether it would be nice to still have their two stars. Sixteen-year-old Nic Petan performed admirably in Rattie's role in Game 2.)

Columbus conundrum

Johansen became very familiar with press boxes this year. The Columbus Blue Jackets fourth overall pick in 2010 was a healthy scratch seven times, including four consecutive games in February.

When in the lineup, Johansen played sparingly. The 6-foot-3, 196-pound centre averaged fewer than 13 minutes over 67 contests, mustering up nine goals and 21 points.

Aaron Portzline of the Columbus Dispatch shared his confusion with the Johansen situation in a February column after the Port Moody, B.C., native's fourth straight game in the press box.

For a club that sits two zip codes out of 29th place and should be playing with at least one eye toward the future, this (sitting Johansen) is somewhat mysterious.

The Blue Jackets said he wouldn't be in the NHL this season if he wasn't ready to play center, but Johansen has played all but a handful of games at right wing. Now, with the season reduced to playing out the string, would seem a likely time to not only dress Johansen on a nightly basis, but to see what he can provide -- what he needs to learn -- at his natural position.

... "A couple of guys have tapped me on the pads during practice and said Keep going,'" Johansen said. "But nobody's really pulled me aside and said anything."

It's not like the Blue Jackets were a good team this year. They did finished dead last, nine points adrift of 29th-place Edmonton. So if Johansen wasn't good enough to earn a regular roster spot on the worst team in the league, why was he rushed into The Show?

There also seemed to be a communication problem in Columbus. Interim head coach Todd Richards stated in the above column that conversations with Johansen were somewhat hit and miss. Good thing it is not like Johansen needed some guidance in his first year in the big leagues. Oh, wait.

Johansen goes on to say that up until that point in the season none of his teammates took him aside and tried to take him under their wing. Where was Rick Nash? One would think the team captain would have taken the youngster out for dinner to try to boost his confidence and give him some pointers.

Lost on Long Island?

Unfortunately for Niederreiter, his rookie season with the New York Islanders was even rockier than Johansen's.

The Switzerland native only scored a single goal in 55 games, averaging 10:06 per game. What takes the cake is El Nino played 50 games in row without registering a point. How the Islanders' coaching staff and management didn't realize by the time Niederreiter's drought hit 25 games that he wasn't ready for the NHL is mindboggling.

Islanders GM Garth Snow could have sent Niederreiter back to Portland any time during the season. Sure, a year of his entry-level contract would have been used up. But it seems to be a small price to pay for the big picture of his career. After all, the Islanders did invest the No. 5 overall pick of the 2010 draft into the 6-foot-2, 205-pound winger, choosing him over the likes of Carolina Hurricanes sniper Jeff Skinner, Anaheim Ducks defensive star Cam Fowler, and Minnesota Wild top-prospect Mikael Granlund.

This seems to be the writing on the wall for a disconnection between the coach and the general manager. The GM wants him on the team, but the coach hardly plays him. Meanwhile, Niederreiter is stuck in the middle of this fiasco - not exactly a great situation for a vulnerable rookie.

The Islanders rushing Niederreiter into the big leagues wasn't out of the ordinary. They are notoriously known for making questionable judgements with their younger players. Case and point: rushing Josh Bailey into The Show immediately after drafting him ninth overall in 2008 from the OHL's Windsor Spitfires. Four years later, Bailey's point totals have hardly increased since his rookie season. This may not be necessarily because of making an early jump into the NHL, but it's still a possible factor.

It appears another full year in Portland would have been both of these youngsters' best options this year. They could have been in the middle of a WHL championship series right now with a good shot of heading to the Memorial Cup. They would have also represented their respective countries at the world juniors in Alberta. These once-in-a-lifetime experiences could have really benefited their careers in the long run.

It is definitely possible Johansen and Niederreiter could shrug this season off and go on to have great NHL careers. However, it's also possible their early jumps in the NHL did long-term harm to their chances of stardom. A risk that could have been easily avoided.

Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen.

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