No player in the 2010 NHL draft class has enjoyed a more meteoric rise than Portland Winterhawks winger Nino Niederreiter.
The native of Chur, Switzerland (a relatively small city of 36,000 people near the bigger metropolitan area of Davos) arrived on the West Coast last summer not being able to speak English and having to adjust to the smaller ice surfaces and rough-and-tumble game of the Western Hockey League. In March, he not only has 30+ goals in his rookie year, but is now a fluent English speaker and plays a gritty and skilled North American-style game.
Niederreiter's seamless transition has seen him vault from 47th overall on Red Line Report's August 2009 bulletin, to No. 5 overall in February, with an expected jump to No. 3 here in March. No player in the history of Red Line (17 seasons) has seen a bigger jump in their rankings and for more on him, see Red Line scout Mike Remmerde's observations I posted last week.
The NHL's Central Scouting Service only had him as the 14th-ranked skater in their midterm report, but that didn't factor in his performance at the World Jr. Championship in Saskatoon, which was a major coming out party for him. Expect him to be inside the top-10 when their final rankings come out in May.
In 60 games with the Winterhawks, Niederreiter has 35 goals, 57 points and 68 penalty minutes.
I spoke to Nino today before practice, and here are some excerpts from the interview. I will have a more comprehensive and detailed feature on him over at hockeyjournal.com in the next few days.
Bruins2010DraftWatch: What has been the biggest hockey adjustment for you in Portland this season compared to what you experienced in the Swiss junior leagues?
Nino Niederreiter: I think the smaller ice was pretty difficult. In the bigger ice, you have more space to make plays, but here you can shoot the puck everywhere. The plays come a lot faster on the smaller ice, too. You don't have a lot of time and have to be faster to react to what is happening.
B2010DW: Your line consisting of you, (center) Ryan Johansen and Brad Ross has had an outstanding season so far. All of you are eligible for the draft. What do you think some of the keys to your success and chemistry has been?
NN: Brad is kind of the little grinder and Ryan makes all of the passes and plays. I try to go out and score. I think they're great guys and we're friends, which makes it pretty easy to just go out and have fun and play hockey.
B2010DW: How was your experience at the World Junior (Under-20) Championship? Was beating Russia the highlight of your career so far?
NN: It was unbelievable to play for my own country and the Under-20 was my first time there as a double underager. Haivng Luca Sbisa and Roman Josi on the team was great for me because they are awesome players and I think we just played unbelievable. It was definitely great to beat Russia and is something I won't forget.
B2010DW: Big game players want the puck on their stick at crunchtime. When the time was counting down in that game, did you go out there wanting to be the one to tie the game and then later help win it in overtime?
NN: Yes, I did. My agent told me before the tournament that I could make the winning goal, so I went there with a lot of confidence. As the time was going down, I wanted to get the puck on the net because I believed I could get the score, so when I did it was awesome. I think big-game players...everybody knows you can score. It's like Sidney Crosby at the Olympics. He didn't maybe get all those points in the other games, but in the overtime when Canada needed to win, he went out and got the score. I think that's what makes good players great players-- the ability and confidence to make the score with all the pressure.
B2010DW: Is playing in the NHL your top priority?
NN: Yes-- I want to play in the NHL one day. I came to North America because obviously the NHL is in North America, but also because I want to play against the best players and they are over here in North America. I always wanted to be drafted in the NHL, and I think other guys (from Switzerland) who are late-92s will be coming over next year to play here because they want to be in the NHL, too.
B2010DW: Have you thought a lot about the NHL draft in June?
NN: It's kind of hard not to think about it the NHL draft. Every day, you have someone talking to you about the draft and where I think I will go. I try not to think about it too much, because I think I have to play my best hockey still with the rest of the season, and so I can't be thinking too much about where I might get picked. Things will happen eventually, but I have to keep playing hockey.
I'll have more on Niederreiter over at hj.com-- don't want to give away the store here. But, suffice to say that for a kid who couldn't even speak the language in August, his transition on the hockey and cultural side is remarkable. He's a highly intelligent young man, and given his compete level, skills and willingness to put in the work, Niederreiter won't be on the board long in Los Angeles.