I'll always have a special place in my hockey loving heart for Nino Niederreiter. When he and Team Switzerland stepped onto the ice for the 2010 World Junior Championships this past January, there wasn't much thought given to the players involved. The scouting focused reporters were aware of him, but he was still in the curiousity phase at that point, not even considered a surefire first round talent, just a potential one. The focus on Switzerland had more to do with Luca Sbisa, who had played in the NHL, and really that was all most of the media was willing to acknowledge them for: best save the ink for when Russia and Sweden arrive, especially since the Swiss weren't likely to even make it to the playoff round. After the Canada-Switzerland round robin game, only one reporter asked Swiss coach Jakob Kölliker a single question in the post-game media conference with both coaches, and it was about Sbisa's health (he left the game, and then the tournament, with a shoulder injury). When the team's other good defenseman, Roman Josi, pulled out of the tournament with a bad wrist, Nino finally emerged from the shadows and took control, leading the team to a surprising victory over Slovakia to make the playoffs, and then combined with Benjamin Conz, made for a huge upset over Russia in the quarterfinals to secure a 4th place showing. The two players were named to the tournament All-Star team, reflecting the huge roles they played in overcoming tremendous odds to push a team that wasn't in the top group at all the year before to playing for a medal.
So El Nino, as he was dubbed at the tournament, went from a probable late first rounder to a surefire top 10 pick, eventually being selected 5th overall by the New York Islanders. It was the highest a Swiss player had ever gone in the NHL draft, and he was definitely the first Swiss player who had reached recognizable name status in the hockey world before he turned 18. The Islanders, building more for their future than current success, decided to give Niederrieter a try at the NHL level right off the bat. In his nine game trial, he managed to become the youngest player in Islanders history to score a goal, and obviously the youngest Swiss to ever score as well:
The goal definitely showed the world a glimpse of what he can do... fending off fellow 2010 U20 WJC All-Star John Carlson to get a quick wrist shot past Michal Neuvirth of the Capitals. His game is as much about the down low work that led to the goal as it is the shot itself: Nino is known as a European that plays a small ice game, which makes his apprenticeship in the Western Hockey League such a great fit. All that being said, the goal itself was a fleeting moment, by his ninth NHL game, it seemed clear that he was not progressing at the NHL level, and returning to the WHL to arguably the top team in the league in Portland was the best decision for everyone involved.
WHL managers may not be too thrilled to see Nino playing against them, but I'm quite happy with it... at least for now. On Nov. 12, I'll get to see Nino play in the rink where his career took off: Saskatoon's Credit Union Centre, when his Winterhawks come to play the Blades in a battle between the best from the West and East in the WHL. It also means that he'll be teaming up with Benjamin Conz again to help Switzerland at the U20 WJCs in Buffalo and Niagara, NY. He'll be joined there by his Portland teammate, Sven Bartschi, as Portland uncovers more top Swiss junior players. For the Islanders, and for Nino, it's nothing but positives going forward this year: he gets to play at top level competition, first with great teammates, then virtually on his own with the national team in another Nino vs. the World type battle. He may even get to play for a Memorial Cup if things fall into place for the team. Then, next year, he can try and make the NHL for good... and score more than once for the season.