EDMONTON - In a perfect world for the Austrians, Marco Kasper would have been doing his best to force Austria into a quarterfinal spot at the World Junior Championship.
No relegation, less pressure, and just about every team in the tournament is hurting for talent in one way or another. Kasper could have cemented himself as a heavyweight on a team that needed one.
But he's not here, instead focusing on the upcoming Swedish Hockey League season with Rogle. Fair enough, that's probably a better use of his time than just trying to secure a playoff spot at a tournament that hasn't received much attention in Canada.
Enter 2005-born Ian Scherzer, the next potential NHL draft pick out of Austria.
Austria once had a seven-year run of having players selected at the NHL draft from 1997-2003. The best player in Austrian hockey history, Thomas Vanek, was taken fifth overall in 2003. Notably, Gregor Baumgartner was taken twice by Montreal (1997) and Dallas (1999). But the past few years have been successful too, with Marco Rossi leading a three-player selection in 2020 before Kasper (eighth overall) and Vinzenz Rohrer (75th) went earlier this year.
It's not technically a streak, with no Austrians taken in 2021, but the small hockey nation has managed to churn out quality players in recent years with two first-rounders over the past three years.
Scherzer is the second youngest player in the tournament behind Canadian phenom Connor Bedard, having just turned 17 last month. That's typically a good sign on the minnow teams, because that means management typically believes highly enough to bring someone so young to a tournament typically dominated by players two years older.
Austria came close to earning a quarterfinal spot, losing 3-2 to Switzerland on the heels of a late-game major penalty. Scherzer tied with veteran Senna Peeters for the team lead in scoring with three points in four games.
Scherzer called being at this tournament a learning experience, getting to play against high-level NHL-drafted talent and taking cues from their games and adjusting his play accordingly.
"If you're on the ice, you get much more mature, I think. And that's what it's about, being mature and being a responsible player for your team. That's what the coaches want," Scherzer said.
And throughout the round-robin, coach Philipp Pinter hasn't been afraid to thrust Scherzer into key roles, mostly playing center within the top six.
"Hes a young kid, he really wants to show what he can do," Pinter said. "I think it's obvious that he wants to perform on that stage and just seeing his birth year, that scouts are looking out for him."
As one of just a handful of first-year eligible prospects in the spotlight in Edmonton, scouts have indeed kept their eye on Scherzer. One European scout believes there's some good late-value to be found, but he'll need to stand out when he returns back to league action.
"The raw tools are there," he said. "Good footwork, always attacking. Can be aggressive too, but his biggest asset is his brain. He makes good decisions with the puck and gets his stick in the right areas."
That was evident in the dying seconds of the second period against Switzerland on Monday, tipping in a point shot to tie a game that Switzerland had control of, shot-wise.
"He competes hard. I like that and we have trust in him. I think he deserves it," said Pinter, who likened his play style to that of Kevin Fiala. "I think he can be a great player. He still has a long way to go and lots to learn, but he competes, he's very driven. Physically, he's in good shape, he can skate."
When watching Scherzer, he was moving at a high speed, and getting pushed around didn't slow him down. He wasn't willing to stick to one side of the ice, and his teammates kept finding him alone without much pressure. Around the net, he was always battling, and had the strength to get around defenders trying to move him away from the crease.
Scherzer said he grew up watching Sidney Crosby, but, in a bit of an unusual twist, he said he likes watching modern-day puck-moving defensemen a lot, too. He enjoyed watching and playing against Sweden's Simon Edvinsson, one of Detroit's top prospects. And while that's not a typical move for young forwards, Scherzer's game has a nice mix of smart defensive responsibility that you don't always see in forwards his age, so it clearly works.
It's still too early to see where Scherzer ends up in the draft, but he's definitely in the conversation. And for Austria, these past few years have seen the country reach new heights with the quality of talent they're producing. Just getting one player drafted in a year is a big deal, and getting a handful in a short span is a big step in improving the team's long-term fortunes.
Now let's see what Scherzer can do.