When speaking with Mathias Niederberger, the son of a 20-year veteran of the German professional leagues and a Milanese mother, the union of European styles is illustrated through the way he converses.
His German accent is complemented with a subtle Italian streak, with hand gestures and expressions laced throughout his means of communication.
It’s similar to his national team ties. Though the Düsseldorf native has represented Germany in U-17, U-18 and U-20 competitions, his Italian eligibility is still worthy of consideration.
“I mean, it’s always an option. I keep that open, for sure,” Niederberger said. “I think the rule says that the first time you play on the national team, like for one country, you can’t switch anymore. But I haven’t done that yet. I was up to under-20 with Germany, so I always keep my options open. You never know.”
The path to playing internationally with Germany would be a more challenging road for Niederberger, as Phoenix goaltender Tomas Greiss is the preferred starter – if available – for international competitions, and there are talented and more senior goaltenders in the Deutsche Eishockey Liga, Germany’s top professional league. Niederberger played eight games with DEL-Düsseldorfer EG in 2010-11, and his father, a defenseman who appeared in four Olympics, spent 12 seasons with the club.
Coincidentally, Germany won’t appear at the upcoming Winter Olympics due in part to an overtime loss to Italy in qualification.
It’s an interesting, if secondary, table discussion. More at the forefront is another question that should be asked of the 21-year-old who signed a one-year AHL contract with Manchester over the summer and counts Toronto’s Korbinian Holzer as a friend: Which Kings affiliate will he suit up for this season?
“It’s up for a debate,” said goaltending coach Bill Ranford. “Kind of the history of the way we’ve done things here with our goalies, it’s time in Ontario, then time in Manchester. We feel that J.F. Berube has really earned the opportunity to compete for a job in Manchester this year, but by no means is that a done deal at this point. We’ll let it play out, but J.F.’s had an outstanding camp, and we’re really happy with the way he’s moved along. At this point, it’ll probably in Kim’s hands once they get into Manchester, and the three or four goalies that we have there start battling for those three spots.
Martin Jones is the established starter in Manchester, with J.F. Berube vying to prove that he should be worthy of a promotion from ECHL-Ontario, with whom he has spent two seasons.
Both Ranford and Darryl Sutter referred to Niederberger’s competitive side, an essential characteristic to have when tending net with five feet and 11 inches of size.
“He’s a really good competitor. Works really hard. Out early, stays, late,” Sutter said. “It tells he’s got a real passion for the game. He’s going to have to get used to, quite honest, the pro game over here. He’s going to have to go and prove that he can play.”
Ranford’s evaluation was in unison with Sutter’s of the active goaltender who impressed through his two periods of game usage against the Anaheim Ducks rookies and has turned some heads through training camp. Last season, Niederberger finished second in the OHL with a .933 regular season save percentage for the Barrie Colts before allowing the game-winning goal to London’s Bo Horvat with under one second remaining in the third period of Game 7 of the OHL Championship. Niederberger stopped 45-of-48 shots in the final and was named the game’s second star.
“He competes. He makes up for his size by his competitive nature,” said Ranford. “When he came to us this summer in development camp we didn’t really know much about him – just the reputation of a hardworking goalie and stuff, and he’s really showed us that, and he’s really adapted as he’s moved up to going up against the big guys, so it’s been impressive.”
The instruction has gotten through to Niederberger, who described the aspects he continues to refine.
“When you make the save, use your hands and not be too stiff with the upper body. So I think that helped me a lot,” he said. “Especially rebound control, because in a higher level, if you give up a bad rebound, it usually ends up in the back of the net. So you’ve got to be very precise and detailed, and lots of details they work on with us.”
Leaving Europe for North America in 2011 turned out to be a successful choice by Niederberger, whose first NHL camp has proven to be an encouraging stepping stone in the establishment of a career that he hopes will be as distinguished and long-lasting as his father’s.
“I’ve loved every minute of it. The speed and the players are unbelievable, so that makes you just compete that much more. The two great goalie coaches – Billy and Kim – I worked on so many things, and I can see it every day. Progress and get better, so it’s just nice to work so professionally.”