The first overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft is a funny thing. In a year like this, all the Philadelphia Flyers (picking 2nd) have to do is select whomever the New Jersey Devils (picking 1st) do not.
The privilege New Jersey have been gifted also carries great responsibility. They used the honour of their franchise’s first ever Number 1 pick to select Swiss centre Nico Hischier out of the Halifax Mooseheads.
In a class possessing no real knockout Number 1 prospect, such as Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid the past two years, the Devils passing up on Canadian centre Nolan Patrick was still a bit of a surprise.
Will Nolan Patrick come back to haunt the New Jersey Devils?
That’s not to say they didn’t grab a great player and brilliant NHL prospect in Hischier. The 18-year-old left handed shot flew up draft boards this year, and did overtake Patrick on some; just why he did will be discussed later.
What perhaps stands out most when watching the CHL Rookie of the Year is his speed, and his quickness. Hischier is lighting fast, and jackknifed through defences with ease last year in the QMJHL.
Scoring 86 points off 38 goals and 48 assists in 57 games last season for Halifax, Mooseheads general manager Cam Russell told NHL.com of a player with much more than offensive zone prowess to his game.
“He plays a complete game, he’s not one-dimensional. He’s got world-class skills, great hands, great vision, but he’s also our best defensive player,” Russell said.
“When you have a player that is your most skilled and basically your best player on the team, and he’s also your best defensive player, it provides great leadership for your younger players.”
These are all fantastic qualities for a rookie to bring to an NHL club. However, how much or whether Hischier contributes to NJ’s campaign next year is unknown.
Consensus seems to be that he may be given another year to develop his skills, as well as his 6’2″, 179 pound frame, although SB Nation’s John Fischer believes he is every chance to be on the roster next season.
It has been noted that he did struggle in his lone professional year for SC Bern in Switzerland’s NLA before coming to North America to further his career.
Alongside Taylor Hall, Hischier could help jumpstart at New Jersey offence that ranked third last in the League last season in. On paper, they seem to fit well together.
Hall was certainly pleased to have Hischier coming to Newark, tweeting this shortly after the pick was announced:
Huge welcome @nicohischier to NJ. Excited to have you! 🇨🇭
— Taylor Hall (@hallsy09) June 23, 2017
Nico vs Nolan
However, if history has shown us anything, Nico Hischier’s name will perhaps be forever inextricably linked to that of the man who went 2nd overall – Nolan Patrick – whom many expected would be called out first.
Most seem to think Patrick has the higher ceiling of the two. He is already an incredibly accomplished passer with a high hockey iq, which is an extremely valuable skill for a player of his age that translates well to the professionals.
The nephew of James Patrick, former Buffalo Sabre, New York Ranger and Quebec Nordique, Patrick is a strong skater, and is also a big body, and strong in the defensive zone, not unlike Hischier.
Scouts also point to the fact that Patrick has been at the level he at now for longer – roughly three years, to be precise. This speaks to his NHL readiness, and there is less guesswork required when projecting his NHL impact.
Patrick particularly impressed NHL scout Paul Henry, saying, “I don’t see any vulnerability or weakness in his game. He’s so big, so strong, with great hockey sense, and he’s totally unselfish, I think he’ll be an A-plus, franchise player.”
What the may have scared Devils General Manager Ray Shero off Patrick is his notable, long-term injury battle.
That we know of, Patrick has broken his collarbone twice, has struggled with groin issues twice, has suffered a sports hernia, and most recently missed Brandon’s playoff campaign with a knee/leg issue.
Despite being the larger of the two prospects, Patrick seems to have had the much longer and more public battle with bodily issues. Whilst he of course could maintain a relatively healthy NHL career, this without doubt scares general managers, and it may have struck again this year.
Answering His Critics
Patrick answered his injury critics though, responding as followed when pressed by Bleacher Report’s Adrian Dater:
“People can say what they want about me. 99 percent of the people who are talking don’t even know what happened with my [hernia] injury and how it went down,”
“People can talk and have a right to their opinion, but for me, it is what it is. Before [last season], I think I played 110 games or something like that, didn’t miss a game. I’m 100 percent healthy now.”
It’s clearly something getting on Patrick’s nerves, and rightfully so. Struggles with injuries are never fun, especially when it sees you slide from 1 to 2 on draft night. But say Patrick does develop into the better player – will New Jerseyans relieve Shero of grief because he erred on the side of safety? Will fury rage that they let him slip through their fingers?
We saw this kind of two-horse race in 2010. That year, the Nico vs Nolan debate took on the form of Taylor vs Tyler. For a refresher, that was Tyler Seguin, current Dallas Stars centre, vs Taylor Hall, mentioned above.
Almost seven years to the day later, there is no clear winner. Both have been traded. Hall has 381 points in 152 games; Seguin 427 in 189.
But I digress; there was always going to be the added pressure for the Edmonton Oilers, who owned the number 1 pick. That pressure eluded the Boston Bruins, who owned number 2.
Edmonton was under pressure to get it right. Boston was just there to clean up the scraps, free of any sort of blame of an incorrect decision.
It harkens to the old proverb, “a man with one watch will always know the time, a man two is never quite sure.”
The same sentiment rings true here. NJ were under massive pressure to get this right, given their horrific season; and their jump in the draft lottery to number 1.
Philadelphia not nearly as much; despite missing the playoffs. They enjoyed a decent-ish season. They also made an extraordinarily lucky cosmic jump in the lottery from number 10 to 2.
Even despite their easy draft job, the context of the pick is entirely different.
NJ could’ve chosen Nolan Patrick, and enjoyed less scrutiny. That would’ve been the consensus pick. But they doubled down on their own franchise direction by going against the grain, and selecting Nico Hischier.
Hischier is far from a bad selection. For the reasons started prior, he has every chance to be an NHL superstar, just as Nolan Patrick does.
The real pressure is on for it to be the right selection.
Main Photo: KELOWNA, CANADA – OCTOBER 25: Nolan Patrick #19 of Brandon Wheat Kings skates against the Kelowna Rockets on October 25, 2014 at Prospera Place in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Marissa Baecker/Getty Images)