If fans were wondering exactly who Nino Niederreiter
was, he certainly showed them at the 2010 World Junior Championship.
Niederreiter, a 6-foot-1, 205-pound right wing, had a star tournament for his native Switzerland at the WJC, scoring the tying and winning goals in the stunning quarterfinal upset of Russia, and finishing with 6 goals, 10 points and a spot on the tournament all-star team.
But for folks who follow the WHL's Portland Winterhawks, they've known all season just what Niederreiter is capable of doing. He's second among WHL rookies with 26 goals and fifth with 44 points.
"He's a bubbly, energetic kid who has a contagious personality," Portland coach Mike Johnston told NHL.com. "He's a great teammate, the kids love him and he's a very-focused, driven hockey player."
He's also a pretty good one.
Niederreiter dominated the Swiss under-20 league last season with Davos, posting 20 goals and 34 points in 30 games. After scoring 3 goals and 6 points for Switzerland at the World Under-18 Championship, he decided to jump to North American to challenge himself.
"I came to Portland because I want to play against the best players in my age," Niederreiter said, "and the WHL is a tough league. I know it's going to be tough."
The Winterhawks traded up to the No. 2 spot in this past summer's Canadian Hockey League Import Draft to select Niederreiter, and haven't been disappointed.
"He's a very competitive kid," Johnston said. "He got physically involved right away. It was obvious he was going to have a fairly easy transition to the WHL."
The scouts certainly agree. Niederreiter was the No. 6-ranked WHL skater in NHL Central Scouting's preliminary rankings for the 2010 Entry Draft in November, and then jumped to No. 14 in the midterm rankings of North American skaters in January -- and fourth among WHL skaters.
"He's been tremendous in Portland," a scout for an Eastern Conference team told NHL.com at the World Juniors. "He's one of the first Swiss kids that you've been able to see here come in and combine his skill with the physical part of the game which usually you don't get from the Swiss. … Lot of these games they (Switzerland) don't have the puck that much, the other team does, so he's had to do other things and he's shown that he's willing to pay the price."
Niederreiter didn't need long to figure out the differences in the North American game, especially the smaller ice surface. He already has a pretty strong grasp on the English language, and he's getting a good handle on the on-ice jargon.
"I think after training camp, Mike Johnston and (assistant coach) Travis Green
helped me a lot," Niederreiter said. "Don't try my Swiss moves, my Euro moves. Special moves don't really work over here."
Johnston said he started seeing the real Niederreiter after about 10 games in.
"It probably took about 10 games," Johnston said. "His first 10 games he felt he should be scoring and scoring every game. He recognized that these (international) tournaments he's playing in he's counted on to score. He felt he was letting the team down. We tried to impress upon him he didn't have to score every night, he had to play well and the goals would come. Over time he took some pressure off himself and there was a different evaluation, not taking it as hard if he didn't score and let down the team. It's great that he has that concern and wants to have a real impact on the team, but at the same time he put so much pressure on himself it took away from his game. After that 10-game mark the goals started to come."
In his first 10 games, Niederreiter had 4 goals and 10 points. In 34 games since then, he has 22 goals and 34 points.
"He started off a little slow, there's no question it has to be the adjustment," said the Eastern scout. "But Travis Green
and Mike Johnston knew what it would take, they were patient with him. He's a top player out there."
And now the scouts are flocking to catch Niederreiter. He knows it, and he relishes the spotlight.
"I like it," he said. "It helps me play my best game every time."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com.