Theodor Niederbach: Prospect Profile

By Jeff Watters

May 6, 2021

Theodor Niederbach was drafted in the 2nd round in 2020 and boasts a package of skill and hockey sense that few Red Wings prospects can match. But what exactly do the Red Wings have in Niederbach? How does he project? Let’s dive into Red Wings Pipeline’s #6 ranked prospect. 

Theodor Niederbach recently wrapped up a season that saw him lace up for three different teams in Sweden — four if you include the Swedish National Junior Team.

Prior to being taken 51st overall by the Red Wings at the 2020 draft in October, the playmaking centre had been dominating his peers in the J20 Nationell, Sweden’s top junior league. By the end of the 2020-21 season, Niederbach found himself as the 13th forward for Frölunda in the SHL playoffs.

He’s not without his flaws, but Niederbach is another very exciting prospect in the Red Wings system. He’s an incredibly smart and skilled forward who — despite his lack of size and explosivity — finds a way to create offense.

The Knee Injury

Niederbach missed the entire 2018-19 season — and 15 months of hockey in total — after undergoing knee surgery. He had suffered a serious knee injury known as Osteochondritis — a joint condition in which bone underneath cartilage or a joint dies due to a lack of blood flow. 

It was at this time that questions began to creep in when assessing Niederbach’s long-term outlook as an NHL prospect. 

Previously, he had been considered a sure-fire 1st round talent — a player in the tier below Lucas Raymond and Alexander Holtz in Sweden. But after the injury, many wondered how his knee would hold up and whether he would ever regain the strength to project as even an average skater as a pro.

Missing a draft-minus-1 season comes with obvious setbacks —  not the least of which was the rehab process Niederbach was forced to endure. But Niederbach put in the work, regained all — or most of — his strength, and prepared himself for the 2019-20 season.

His draft year. 

The Draft Year

The 2019-20 season provided Theodor Niederbach with a fresh start. The long and arduous rehab process had finally paid dividends as the young Swede made his return.

Niederbach spent most of the season with Frölunda J20 and totaled 15 goals and 48 points in 40 games — good for 11th in league scoring. It’s about what you would expect for a top prospect projected to go in the first two rounds of the draft — but it was perhaps even more impressive given Niederbach’s long layoff.

theodor niederbach sweden U18
Theodor Niederbach impressed at the international level in 2019-20. | Photo: JOHAN LÖF / BILDBYRÅN

Niederbach also performed well in two U18 Five Nations Tournaments in Sweden and the Czech Republic. He scored 4 times and added 3 assists for 7 points in 8 games for the Swedes.

Most importantly, however, Niederbach showed no lingering effects from his knee surgery. He played big minutes in the top junior league in Sweden — and produced. There was, of course, the expectation that he would need some time to fully recover from his procedure, but his ability to step in and play at a high level was incredibly promising.

Some NHL teams were undoubtedly reluctant to draft Niederbach. But his skill, hockey sense, and proven ability to overcome significant setbacks made him a perfect target for teams drafting outside the first round.

And for a team like the Red Wings — flush with picks — Niederbach was the perfect target. 

From the SHL to HockeyAllsvenskan (and back again)

Swedish hockey was in full swing well before the start of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft.

Niederbach had begun the 2020-21 season with Frölunda J20 yet again and quickly demonstrated why he was once touted as a potential first-round selection. 

The playmaker tore through the league and finished the shortened J20 Nationell season with 13 goals and 35 points in just 19 games — good for second in the league.

When the J20 Nationell was initially shut down, it was time to assess other options for Niederbach. As a player who had already missed significant development time, Niederbach couldn’t afford to wait things out.

Due in large part to injuries and Covid-related absences, Niederbach was almost immediately called up to the SHL, where he played on a line with fellow Red Wings prospect, Lucas Raymond. In limited ice time, he scored 1 goal in 7 games before departing for the 2021 World Juniors in Edmonton, AB.

After a solid showing at the tournament — where he scored 2 goals in 5 games — Niederbach was loaned to MODO of HockeyAllsvenskan.

The move was made to get the Swede more ice time and, presumably, bridge the competition between J20 and the SHL. 

Theodor Niederbach Modo
Theodor Niederbach played well during his brief stint in the HockeyAllsvenskan. | Photo: Bildbyrån

In 15 games with MODO, Niederbach had 3 goals and 9 points — very respectable numbers for the first-year pro. 

When Lucas Raymond underwent elbow surgery in mid-February, Neiderbach was returned to Frölunda, where he finished out the season.

Much like Raymond’s past two years with the men’s team, the counting stats don’t fully represent the play of Niederbach.

No, he wouldn’t have matched his junior numbers in the SHL by simply playing bigger minutes. But he was much more effective than his 3 goals and 5 points in 20 regular season games would indicate.

According to SvengelskaHockey, Niederbach had an excellent CF% (corsi for %) of 57.6 and a CF% Rel (corsi relative) of 2.3% with Frölunda. Both marks were good for 6th on the team among players appearing in at least 20 games.

With Niederbach averaging just 8:36 of ice time in the regular season — and 9:52 in 7 playoff games — it’s clear that he was making the most of his opportunities. 

Scouting Report

Niederbach was a nice pick at 51st overall. The Red Wings need centres — and although it remains to be seen if Niederbach can stick down the middle — he was still a good upside play in the middle of the 2nd round. There is some risk to Niederbach’s profile, but there’s some really exciting potential here. 

Strengths

Niederbach’s greatest asset is his hockey IQ. He anticipates play well and typically takes efficient routes to wherever he needs to be on the ice. Whether it’s conceding possession and backtracking to cover a pinching teammate or curling into an open lane to receive a pass, Niederbach sees the ice well and reacts accordingly. 

theodor niederbach world juniors
Niederbach has a way of finding open ice and anticipating play. | Photo: Jason Franson, AP

He processes the game at a very high level and routinely uses subtle movements to buy himself more space on the ice. He can be very elusive with the puck.

This is of huge importance, as Niederbach is not the most explosive skater nor the strongest player on the ice. At just 5’11” and 172 lbs, the 19-year-old controls and protects the puck well when given space. He has great edgework in tight spaces — though it’s not quite as good when moving at higher speeds.

Niederbach is also a very good playmaker with excellent puck skills. He can make high-level plays quickly and accurately as his excellent vision allows him to identify fleeting passing lanes. There are times he tries to do too much and forces a pass where a clear lane doesn’t exist, but the vision and creativity are there.

You are just as likely to see Niederbach sauce a tape-to-tape pass in traffic from his backhand as you are to see him make a much simpler play from his forehand. His hands are silky-smooth. 

Niederbach is a very confident player — and it shows. He’s calm with the puck in the offensive and defensive zones and recognizes pressure well. There’s not much panic in his game. He can sense a pinching defender, calmly curl back into his own end, and fire a cross-ice pass to a teammate to initiate a breakout. In the offensive zone, he’s comfortable holding onto the puck and biding his time in the corner, behind the net, or on the half wall as he scans the ice for an open lane.

Weaknesses

While Niederbach has many strengths, he’s not without his shortcomings. 

The obvious concern is his lack of explosiveness. It’s been well documented, but often mislabeled as “poor skating.”

Niederbach…takes some time to get moving. Once he gets going, he’s fine. He’s an average skater and has the skill and vision to make it work. But the first few steps are choppy, and Niederbach’s upright stance doesn’t allow him to generate much power in those initial strides.

The other concern with Niederbach is his overall strength. Of course, there aren’t many recent draft picks who have peaked in terms of physical maturity, but Niederbach’s lack of size and explosiveness make him way too easy to push around. When defenders close in on him, Niederbach struggles to maintain puck possession and win board battles. 

The other thing that I’ve noticed with Niederbach is he can be too deliberate with the puck at times. This, again, allows defenders to close in on him, take away passing lanes, and force turnovers. 

This is strange because Niederbach thinks the game at such a high level and has the ability to make incredible passes that no one sees coming. But at other times, there’s a pass everyone sees coming, Niederbach takes too long to make it, and then it’s easily knocked down or cleanly picked off when he finally decides to take action.

The Rest

Niederbach’s shot is never going to be his calling card, but there are things he does well when it comes to his positioning and release.

He has shown the ability to get his shot off quickly and from various angles. Whether a pass is on his tape or in his feet, Niederbach is able to contort his body, bring his hands in tight, and get an accurate shot on net. He can definitely finish.

Niederbach is going to have to continue to work on his defensive game, but he’s far from a liability in his own end. He’s generally well positioned and, of course, reads the ice extremely well.

What Will Theodor Niederbach Ultimately Become?

Niederbach will need to make improvements in a number of areas, but this a player the Red Wings were very fortunate to snag in the 2nd round. 

He’s not going to be a top-line centre, but there is a chance he sticks down the middle. 

There is a wide range of outcomes for Niederbach. If everything goes right for him, maybe he’s a 2nd line centre. There’s also a real possibility he’s a middle-6 winger if he’s unable to improve his first few steps. A more disappointing outcome would see him max out as a career SHLer who lacks NHL pace.

I do think the Red Wings have an NHL player here, though. Niederbach’s track record of perseverance does not go unnoticed. The sticktoitiveness he displayed while rebounding from a long-term injury speaks volumes about his character and drive.

Of course, it takes a lot more than character to become an NHLer, but I just don’t see Niederbach’s skating holding him back when the creativity and skill are so strikingly evident. Niederbach has an excellent chance to be a middle-6 forward for the Red Wings — hopefully at centre.

Final Thoughts

I’m a big fan of Niederbach’s game.

His selection was another example of Steve Yzerman and the scouting department targeting high upside talent outside of the 1st round of the draft.

Niederbach will be a full-time SHLer next season, and I look forward to seeing him gain another year of pro experience with Frölunda. He’ll also join Lucas Raymond at the 2022 World Juniors back in Edmonton and Red Deer, AB — this time, with fans in the building.

I’m sure the Red Wings will take their time with Niederbach and I wouldn’t expect to see him in Detroit earlier than 2023-24. 

Until then, let’s hope he continues to take steps forward and makes 30 NHL teams regret passing on him.

 

Featured Image:
Michael Erichsen/Bildbyrån

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