On paper, Sweden's 2021 world junior squad always looked a lot stronger on the wings than it did down the middle, but that gulf widened when returning center and New York Rangers pick Karl Henriksson was forced to miss the tournament due to a positive Covid-19 test.
Henriksson has historically been the pivot between Sweden's Terror Twins, Alex Holtz (NJ) and Lucas Raymond (DET) for international play. Now, it looks like the job will go to another Red Wings pick, Theo Niederbach.
Taken 51st overall by Detroit in 2020, Niederbach was always an interesting pick: he missed all of the 2018-19 season due to a knee injury, but his potential as a top-end player was still obvious even though his physical development was a bit behind his peer group.
"It's his skill level and his hockey sense that stand out," said Shawn Horcoff, Detroit's director of player development. "He was coming off an injury and wasn't able to train the same so there were a few concerns about that, but he sure rebounded well and got off to a great start in junior this year. And when he got more minutes up in the SHL as of late, I thought he played very well. There's lots to like about him."
This is Niederbach's first time playing at the world juniors and the youngster knows he has been given the chance to do something special.
"Both Holtz and Raymond are really skilled players and the role of the center between them is maybe more about defensive responsibility," Niederbach said. "I may not be a two-way center like Karl Henriksson, but if I play with Holtz and Raymond, I can take that responsibility in the 'D' zone and complete those two. I will do everything I can to take the opportunity - I want to be a leading player; I can take that role."
Luckily for Niederbach, he already has some experience stepping up this season. The teen center made his SHL debut this year for Frolunda, getting into 11 games after thrashing the junior circuit for 35 points in 19 games.
"It's a big difference, from the players to the game itself," he said. "It's faster, but the more I played, the more comfortable I've been with the puck to make good plays. I think I've done decent in the SHL so far."
Frolunda is based in the southwestern city of Gothenburg, but Niederbach is actually from Bjasta, in the north. He grew up near Ornskoldsvik, the famous small town that is home to the Modo hockey team and NHL stars such as Victor Hedman, the Sedin Twins and more - two of which made an early impression on Niederbach.
"When I was seven or eight years old, both Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund went back to play for Modo, so I saw them at the end of their career," he said. "Of course I have always been a fan of Modo, but now they play in the second division; I have to support Frolunda in the SHL."
Frolunda has also become a factory for developing young talent in recent years, which attracted Niederbach to the program (he joined in 2018 but didn't play until the following year due to his injury) in the first place. Recent Frolunda alums include Rasmus Dahlin, Victor Olofsson and Erik Gustafsson. It's also where Raymond, Niederbach's fellow Red Wings pick, has been playing. Niederbach's twin brother, Adam, also plays for Frolunda's junior squad, while older brother Ludwig plays back home with Ornskoldsvik HF. Needless to say, growing up with hockey-playing siblings was enjoyable.
"It's fun," Niederbach said. "Our big brother always took us to training and he really likes to train off-ice. When we have time, we all practise together - it's more fun to have someone to train with all the time."
And training will be key for Niederbach as he finds his way through the hockey world in the coming years. The youngster still needs to get stronger as he continues to make up for lost development time. Detroit's amateur scouts were convinced by Niederbach's potential when they drafted him and the early returns are positive on that bet.
"They did a tremendous amount of homework to look into how he was progressing and his work ethic," Horcoff said. "And he's figuring that out. He's starting to mature and put the work in and it shows. This year he looks massively better. The skating has improved and it will continue to get better as he gets stronger."
Not that Detroit is expecting an immediate jump.
"There's no quick fix for strength - it's not like you can have one good summer and it's over," Horcoff said. "It takes time: summer after summer and longer for others, especially if you've had an injury that set you back. For where he is right now, one year into being drafted, we couldn't be happier."