SASKATOON -- The U20 World Junior Hockey Championship is generally regarded as a tournament dominated by 19 year olds. Certainly, most of this year's top players (Canada's Jordan Eberle(notes), Sweden's Jacob Marktsrom) fit that mould.
So when an upstart seventeen year old starts taking over games, their performances are regarded as something special; and this year's special story comes from an unlikely source: a Swiss forward named Nino Niederreiter.
Switzerland has had a small list of players make an impact in North America, and have recently been appreciated for their goaltenders and defensemen, players like Jonas Hiller(notes) of the Anaheim Ducks and Mark Streit(notes) of the New York Islanders. There hasn't been a regular Swiss forward in the NHL, with Patrick Fischer's(notes) 27 games for the Phoenix Coyotes in 2006-07 the high water mark. In a great bit of hindsight, the IIHF ran a feature on Niederreiter on the subject before his great quarterfinal performance yesterday.
But it's not just the international hockey world taking notice. Bob McKenzie of TSN speculated yesterday that Niederreiter has a very good chance at being the highest drafted Swiss player ever, beating the failed Michel Riesen pick by Edmonton in 1997 (15th overall). A top 10 selection seems inevitable after this tournament, which is an amazing improvement from the preliminary draft ranking putting him at sixth amongst WHL forwards (pdf), which would likely have placed him at the end of the first round or into the second.
What makes him so special?
He's a strong winger with decent size (6-1, 205 lbs.) that seems to have the ability to slow the game down when the puck is on his stick. On a team that doesn't drive to the net consistently, he has managed to fight his way through traffic into the prime scoring areas. At seventeen, living in a new country, he was leading the WHL in rookie scoring heading into the WJHC, helping pace the Portland Winterhawks into a strong playoff position after years of futility.
Most importantly, however, is his desire to have the puck on his stick. When the Swiss were playing in overtime yesterday, it appeared that when Niederreiter was on the bench, the Swiss were holding on tight trying to kill the clock and hope for the best in a shootout. When Niederreiter was on the ice, the Swiss kicked it into gear and tried to win the game. When Niederreiter's last-ditch shot bounced off a Russian defenseman and past Igor Bobkov, it was the result of the Swiss driving the net and abandoning post. In fact, it was defenseman Patrick Geering who provided the screen in front.
Due to Switzerland's lack of forward depth, El Nino had an advantage over many other draft eligible prospects in getting the opportunity to play at this tournament. He's certainly made the most of it, and there are plenty of opportunities for him to further his cause.
The WHL playoffs will be the next challenge, followed possibly by the U18 WJC's in Minsk, and potentially the 2010 World Championships in Germany. If his exploits continue, we could be looking at a top five draft ranking.
Wait a sec, wasn't this supposed to Taylor Hall's tournament?
Notebook: There's a relegation game today, as the Czech Republic took on the crowd favorites from Latvia. During yesterday's Switzerland/Russia quarterfinal, the big screen showed Team Latvia in attendance, and the crowd gave them a standing ovation. Legendary Canadian hockey players Mark Messier and Ray Bourque didn't even get that kind of a reception when they were shown. ... Canada plays Switzerland in the early semifinal (5 p.m. EST), followed by what should be a great semifinal with the USA taking on Sweden (9 p.m. EST).