Nino Niederreiter will still be only 18 years old when he reports to his second NHL training camp this September.
But after the season he just enjoyed -- his second in North America -- the highest Swiss player ever selected at the NHL Entry Draft (No. 5, 2010) could already be ahead of the game.
After beginning the 2010-11 season in the NHL, Niederreiter was returned to the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League. In 55 regular-season games, the 6-foot-2, 203-pound left wing had 41 goals, 29 assists, 67 penalty minutes and a plus-28 rating. But it was Niederreiter's postseason that has to have Isles GM Garth Snow downright giddy.
Falling just three wins shy of a Memorial Cup appearance, Niederreiter had 27 points (9 goals, 18 assists) in just 21 games. After winning Game 1 of the WHL Finals by a 4-3 score, the Winterhawks went on to lose four straight to the Kootenay Ice. Niederreiter's season officially ended with last Friday's 4-1 loss.
But what a season it was.
"I was OK, but it was a tough ending for us," Niederreiter told NHL.com Monday night. "I thought we had an unbelievable team and we probably could have went further. But in the end, I've got to give Kootenay credit for the way they played.
"I think it was definitely a great experience for myself. I had a feeling we could go pretty far and maybe win a conference championship. Moving on to the finals, the pressure was there and it was a tough ending for us."
Niederreiter arrived for a second season in Portland after playing nine games for the Islanders. He scored his first NHL goal on national television in a 2-1 loss at Washington on Oct. 13. It was one of two points he tallied during that brief stint. Looking back, Niederreiter believes returning to juniors was the proper move for all parties involved.
"I think it was the right decision. I don't know how much I would have played," Niederreiter said. "Obviously we had all the injuries, but it was a great experience here with Portland. I had to chance to do something special."
But what if Snow had decided to keep Niederreiter like he did with Josh Bailey back in 2008? Would the Swiss forward been ready to contribute on a consistent basis in the NHL as an 18-year-old?
"That's a tough question … I honestly have no idea," Niederreiter admitted. "Obviously if I had stayed, I would have been very, very happy. It's every player's dream to play in the NHL one day. But at the end, I want to play. I don't want to just sit down. You want to play hockey because it's your passion. You just love it. I want to play a lot."
A power forward with tremendous offensive ability, Niederreiter was happy for those nine games the Islanders provided him at the NHL level. Not only did he get to play with the big boys, but he also quickly learned that there's a certain aspect of his game that still needs a bit of work.
"I tried to improve my skating," Niederreiter said. "I would say that was the biggest part. I really tried to get quicker and tried to move on my skates all the time. I think my skating's getting better. I'm doing a power-skating camp right now and I'm going to stay a little longer in Portland (before heading home to Switzerland)."
Niederreiter still has two years of junior eligibility, so Portland and New York are his only options for the 2011-12 season. Given his production in the WHL these past two seasons -- Niederreiter has tallied 130 points (77 goals, 53 assists) in 120 games -- there's a very good chance he'll become a full-time NHL player this October.
"He's had an outstanding season in Portland," Snow said last Wednesday at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. "He can only play in one of two places (next season) -- either with us here on the island, or back to juniors. He's one of the leaders on that team. We feel he'd probably be one of the top or the top pick in this year's draft and he missed it by about seven days. We feel he's gonna push hard for a spot on our team.
"That's a great part about our group -- we've got a strong crop of young, talented players that are gonna grow together."
That being said, Niederreiter isn't taking anything for granted. If he gets a roster spot this October, it'll be because he earned one.
"I'm just getting ready for a very hard summer," Niederreiter said. "I'm going to be tough on myself. I'm just trying to push everything and that's what I'm doing right now with this power-skating camp. I'm going to come back in August for another power-skating camp. I'm definitely going to improve on my skating and I hope that I'll make it next season."
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL