Nino Niederreiter might be one of the most popular Swiss imports since Toblerone bars.
The Portland Winterhawks forward who became a cult hero this past winter after scoring tying and overtime winning goals to help Switzerland bounce Russia from the world junior hockey championship could become the highest-drafted player ever from his homeland. Neiderreiter, 17, NHL Central Scouting's 12th-ranked North American skater, is the epitome of a big, talented right wing (he is listed at 6-foot-1, 201 pounds) who can finish off plays. He did it throughout his first season in the Western Hockey League, scoring a team-high 36 goals for the resurgent Winterhawks. He also had a strong post-season, totalling eight goals and 16 points in 13 games, including a goal in a Game 7 overtime road win over Spokane that started Portland's climb back from a 3-0 deficit.
Niederreiter, among most fans, has probably created more of an impression internationally. Despite being a young 17 (his Sept. 8 birthday means he only made the cutoff for the 2010 draft by a week), he was the main cog in the Swiss finishing fourth at the world junior, namely with those two aforementioned decisive goals in the quarter-final. Neiderreiter also returned to Europe to play for Switzerland in the world championship, although somewhat ironically, his team lost in the quarter-final despite being the favourite against host Germany.
Niederreiter could sneak into the Top 10 -- the New York Islanders, who draft No. 5 overall, have had him visit Long Island. The highest-drafted Swiss player ever was Michel Riesen, who was taken 14th by Edmonton in 1997.
His Portland linemate, Ryan Johansen, is also a projected first-rounder, while the third member of their line, Brad Ross, is likely to be a second-day pick. At least ten of the Winterhawks' top 12 point-getters from last season are likely to return (11 are eligible). Niederreiter and his linemates could have an even higher profile in the WHL next season if their team continues to improve.
1. In your mind, what would scouts say is the biggest thing you have to work on between now and when you'll be on the cusp of turning pro?
"Speed, I think I have to work on my first three steps [acceleration]. I still have a lot of steps to go before I can go to the NHL. I have to try to be a leader next year in Portland.
2. What is the biggest asset you bring to a team?
"I kind of want to be known as a big-game player. At the end of games, I want to feel like I'm going to score the winning goal."
3. What do you consider your proudest hockey achievement?
"I would think the world junior was a highlight, but for me, it was going over to Germany to play for Switzerland in the world championship and to beat Canada 4-1. It was a great feeling."
4. Whom in the NHL do you look at and say, 'That's someone I need to be playing like?'
"I think I'm a two-way player, quite a heavy shot and with some good skills. I am trying to be Vincent Lecavalier one day. I always looked up to Lecavlier and [Ilya] Kovalchuk. Both are amazing players with great skill."
5. Favourite pregame meal or ritual?
"I never take a nap before a game. Just listen to music or talk to [Winterhawks linemate] Troy Rutkowski."
For more NHL draft coverage, visit ca.sports.yahoo.com/juniorhockey.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Sports Canada. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.