United States center Peter Mueller
is no stranger to international competition. He flourished as one of Team USA’s top guns at the World Junior Championships last season and now is doing the same this season at the 2008 World Championships.
Mueller wasn’t nominated for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie this season, but if there were four or five nominees instead of just three, he would surely have been among them. His 22 goals were just two less than Chicago’s Jonathan Toews for the most goals among NHL rookies.
In fact, Toews -- who is playing for Team Canada in this tournament -- and Mueller have followed very similar paths to NHL stardom.
Toews bested Mueller in the World Junior Championships last season when he scored three shootout goals for Canada. Mueller scored twice, but was thwarted by Canadian goalie Carey Price in his third attempt, enabling Canada to advance to the gold-medal game.
Both Mueller and Toews play for Western Conference teams in the NHL and faced each other four times this season. Despite their competition, they have become friends.
“I’ve gotten close to Jon the past couple years,” Mueller said. “He’s a great young player and I like competing against him. We have taken such a similar path to making it and I’ve actually become friends with him off the ice and I call him sometimes and we talk.”
Mueller knows that this tournament is a cut above the World Junior Championships because of the presence of established NHL stars playing for the better teams.
“This is definitely a step above the World Juniors,” Mueller said. “At the World Juniors players are playing for their country, but they aren’t in the NHL yet, even though many of them will get there and they are still young. At this tournament, there are established NHL stars, who are a step above the other tournament.”
Obviously Mueller is hoping for a better result for Team USA than the one in last season’s World Junior Championships.
Mueller has three assists in the first four games for the United States, which is 3-1 in this year’s World Championships entering weekend play. In addition to being a dangerous weapon in even-strength situations, Mueller is particularly potent as a power-play performer where he is used at the point with both Phoenix and Team USA.
“Playing the point on the power play gives you an opportunity to produce offensively and it also gives me more defensive responsibility,” Mueller said. “I feel it has made me a better defensive player because I am the last player back on my side and I can’t let anyone behind me.”
Even though Mueller turned just 20 last month, he shouldered a large load for the Coyotes and is now doing the same for Team USA. Mueller averaged the fourth-most ice time among rookie forwards in the NHL with 17:15 per game and averaged 15:23 through Team USA’s first three games of the World Championships.
Mueller thrives when the pressure is at its highest and takes the added minutes as a compliment from his coaches.
“Playing a lot of minutes is definitely an accomplishment and I do like the pressure,” Mueller said. “It means that I’m playing well and that I’m earning the ice time that I’m getting from my coach. I like to be in the spotlight.”
Mueller is thrilled to play in the World Championships, even though he’d rather be playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with the Coyotes. Mueller realizes that even though he is facing Phoenix teammates when the U.S. faces Canada, as it did Tuesday. The teams might meet again in the medal round.
Shane Doan, Canada’s captain, is also captain of the Coyotes. Phoenix All-Star defenseman Ed Jovanovski is also a member of Team Canada. But Mueller knows that his friendships can’t get in the way of his on-ice performance.
“It’s a great experience to play in such a great tournament,” Mueller said. “You have to put your NHL teammates on the back burner for 60 minutes because you can’t be too friendly out there because it’s still a competition and we want to win. Even though they are friends and teammates off the ice, you have to forget about that during the game.”
Mueller is also an NHL teammate with blossoming young Team USA defenseman Keith Ballard. The Coyotes, like Team USA, have a young core of players and both programs figure to thrive in the future.
At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Mueller is a rare combination of skill and size. Although not the most physical of players, Mueller uses his size to his advantage by fending off defenders.
”I’m a big guy,” Mueller says. “I’m also fortunate to be skilled and I try to do the best I can with the skill that I have.”
Mueller’s best may not have gotten him a Calder Trophy nomination, but he has a tremendous upside and is an integral part of both Team USA and the Coyotes.