Nino Niederreiter has good reason to look forward to this year’s World Junior Hockey Championships in Buffalo, NY.
It was the same tournament last winter that catapulted the then 17-year-old Swiss winger into the international spotlight and led many NHL teams—including the Islanders—to take notice.
In his most memorable performance, Niederreiter tallied two late goals to lead the Swiss to a 3-2 upset over the Russian team and advance to the tournament semi-finals. Finishing 7th in scoring, Niederreiter was named to the tournament All-Star team.
“Last year there was a lot of pressure on me going into my draft year, so this year I'm a little more excited,” Niederreiter told Newsday in a telephone conversation earlier this week.
Niederreiter’s breakout performance inspired his dramatic climb on draft boards across the league. When the Islanders selected him fifth overall at the draft this June, Niederreiter became the highest-drafted Swiss player in history.
“In the end it worked out perfect. It's always an exciting time,” he said.
After an impressive training camp, the Islanders kept Niederreiter around for the first nine games of the season before ultimately deciding to send him back to his junior team, the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League.
“Obviously I would have loved to stay, but at the end of the day, I think it was the right decision,” said Niederreiter, who has 13 goals and 13 assists in 23 games for Portland this season. “I'm playing on a good team, we're winning a lot of games and I feel like we have the chance to go far. I really hope to make it next year.
Until then, he’ll worry about the task at hand. In an exhibition game today, Niederreiter and his Swiss teammates will take on Team Canada, a roster that includes fellow Islanders prospects Calvin de Haan and Casey Cizikas as well as his Winterhawks linemate Ryan Johansen.
“It's gonna be fun,” Niederreiter said. “I've gotta try to give those guys a hard time.”
Although the Swiss surprised many with their fourth-place finish last January, Niederreiter knows they won’t be favorites this year competing against the powerhouse U.S. and Canadian squads, who finished with gold and silver medals, respectively.
Even so, Niederreiter hopes to keep things interesting.
“I think last year we had such good [defense] and a phenomenal goaltender. This year we have a good group of forwards as well so I think we'll be a lot stronger this year,” he said. “We'll still be underdogs going in, but it's always good to be underdogs.”