Is the end near for El Nino?

Wednesday’s contest against the Montreal Canadiens marks the ninth game on the Islanders’ schedule and decision time regarding top prospect Nino Niederreiter. If GM Garth Snow keeps him on the roster beyond that point, the clock starts on his NHL service time, meaning his current contract would expire after the 2012-13 season. Alternatively, the team could return him to his junior hockey team, the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League, and save that year for a season when the roster seems better aligned for a run at the playoffs.

Head coach Scott Gordon said today that no decision has been made and that El Nino will skate against Montreal, where he may need to improve on his early output in order to stick around.

In his first eight games, Niederreiter has done okay. Not great. Not bad. Just okay. He’s recorded two points (a goal and an assist), mostly while playing alongside Doug Weight on the third line. That ranks him tied for eighth in the points category among NHL rookies, while he stands 22nd in shifts per game (19.1). And keep in mind Niederreiter is the youngest player in the NHL this season.

Lighthouse Hockey takes a look at El Nino from an advanced-metrics perspective, using CORSI and more to measure his impact. It’s an interesting study, which concludes by showing that he really hasn’t been all that effective. Opponents are putting more shots on goal than the Islanders when he’s on the ice, despite the fact that Niederreiter starts a team-high 63.9 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone. That means the puck is usually flowing towards the Isles’ net when El Nino goes over the boards. (Big stick tap to the folks at LHH for a great post, by the way.)

So what to do now? Well, it comes down to faith. If you believe that Niederreiter will improve and/or he’s an integral part of the Isles’ early success and his presence gives the team a legitimate shot at an odds-defying run to the playoffs this season, you keep him. If you think New York’s hot start will fizzle, or Niederreiter just isn’t ready for the rigors of an NHL season, you send him back.

In speaking with NHL draft guru Gare Joyce last week, he’s adamant that Niederreiter should be returned to Portland, more for developmental reasons than the Islanders’ playoff chances. As for what Snow believes, we’ll find out soon enough.