Niederreiter, who ‘wanted to come back’ to Hurricanes, returns with Predators

The rugged winger played three-plus seasons with Carolina; Pacioretty to make Hurricanes debut

Predators forward Nino Niederreiter will play the Hurricanes for the first time Thursday since leaving in free agency. (Mark Zaleski / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — On July 19, it looked like the door for Nino Niederreiter’s return to the Hurricanes was slowly reopening.

Niederreiter had entered free agency expecting one final big payday, a deal that would pay him more than the five-year, $26.25 million contract that had just expired.

But like so many players in this flat cap economy, the market for the 30-year-old dried up as big-ticket players scooped up much of the available cap space.

So the Hurricanes and Niederreiter circled back to each other with Carolina knowing that, at the right number, Niederreiter would continue to be a great complement on Jordan Staal’s wing and as a secondary scorer.

Two days later, Niederreiter agreed to a two-year contract worth $4 million annually with the Predators, much less than what he expected at the start of free agency but still more per year than the Hurricanes were willing to offer.

On Thursday, he’ll play against his old team for the first time when the Hurricanes host the Predators at PNC Arena.

“It’s always pretty emotional coming to a place where you spent some quality time,” Niederreiter, now with his fourth NHL team, said Thursday following the morning skate. “It’s definitely emotional. It feels weird.”

Niederreiter got off to a fast start with his new club, scoring three goals in Nashville’s first two games of the season against Sharks in Prague, Czechia, with nine goals in his first 18 games overall. His production has slowed since — he has 12 goals and 21 points in 36 games this season — but he did have the second three-assist game of his career in the Predators’ 6-3 home win over Montreal on Tuesday.

“He’s been really good for us on the ice, off the ice,” Predators coach John Hynes said. “So it’s good to have him in our lineup, and I’m sure he’s excited to come back here and play too.”

Excited, yes, but Niederreiter made it clear he is still crestfallen that things didn’t work out for him to stay in Raleigh.

“At the end of the day, I wanted to come back here,” he said. “But this is a business and sometimes things don’t go as well as you were hoping for. But I’ve got nothing but good things to say about this organization. Sometimes the business hurts.”

It was no secret that Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour pushed for keeping Niederreiter — who had 69 goals, 68 assists and 137 points in 234 games over three-plus seasons with Carolina — in the fold.

“Business is business,” Brind’Amour said following Wednesday’s practice. “I don’t ever begrudge players for doing what they have to do financially. I mean, they get X amount of years to play. We all know Nino was great for us and we appreciated what he did for us.”

Niederreiter caught up with a few teammates on Wednesday, having dinner with Sebastian Aho and former linemate Jesper Fast.

“It’s very easy to play with Jordo and Fast,” Niederreiter said of playing in the spot on Staal’s left wing now occupied by Jordan Martinook. “They’re such hard-working guys, they do the little things right. You just follow their lead and good things happen.”

He added that he might have a little something extra for his former teammates if he meets them in the corner tonight.

“I’ll definitely get a couple licks on a couple of the guys and do whatever it takes to get the puck and win one-on-one battles,” he said with a smile.

Making Niederreiter’s return to Raleigh even a bit stranger is the Carolina debut of Max Pacioretty. The Hurricanes traded for Pacioretty on July 13, seemingly ending any chance of Niederreiter’s re-signing given Pacioretty’s $7 million cap hit.

Carolina, as mentioned, still made a final run at Niederreiter before he agreed to his deal with Nashville, while Pacioretty suffered an Achilles tendon injury that required surgery in August. The latter will make his first appearance with the team Thursday as Niederreiter will get the salute he deserves from fans upon his return wearing a different uniform.

“It definitely was hard leaving,” Niederreiter said. “But like I said, sometimes the business goes the other direction and it’s hard. And that’s what kind of hurts the most, I guess.”