By Matt Loughlin
After suffering through one of the worst seasons in team history, the fortunes of the New Jersey Devils took a turn for the better on Saturday night when the Devils won the NHL’s draft lottery giving New Jersey the number one pick in June’s draft.
“This is a great day for our franchise, and to pick first overall, to have that for our Devils’ fans and our organization, is great news,” said team General Manager Ray Shero in a release.
This draft class is without a so-called “generational” player like Edmonton’s Connor McDavid (class of 2015) or Toronto’s Auston Matthews (class of 2016) each of whom has lived up to his advanced billing as the overall number one pick in his draft year. But there is talent at the top, particularly in center Nolan Patrick of the Brandon Wheat Kings and center Nico Hischier of the Halifax Mooseheads,
Shero would not reveal his hand last night after the team won the lottery so I thought I’d go to my friend Mike Morreale of NHL.com for his insights as to how things may shake out.
“This draft is deep in centers and goaltenders. I do think this draft has been a two-horse race all season long between right-hand center Nolan and left-hand center Hischier. Numbers 3-13 are all interchangeable and each team list will probably look different in those areas,” said Morreale, who spends countless hours speaking with scouts, coaches and the players themselves, in addition to watching junior and college games and tournaments.
“Defensemen are at a premium, although we’re seeing more quality blue liners popping up after the World Under-18 Championship in Slovakia,” he added.
So let’s take a closer look at the two players at the top.
The 18-year-old Patrick is 6’2, 198 pounds and played an injury-shortened season with Brandon. An upper-body injury caused Patrick to miss a big chunk of time early in the season while a lower-body injury sidelined him at the end. Overall, in 33 games with the Wheat Kings, he scored 20 goals and added 26 assists but last season he put up 41-61-102 with another 13-17-30 in the playoffs. However he doesn’t just put up numbers.
“Patrick has exceptional hockey sense,” said Morreale. “The kid was thinking four strides ahead of everyone else on the ice in the WHL (Western Hockey League). He has an underrated shot, can play power play and penalty kill. He’s a 200-foot player and told me he models his game after Anze Kopitar. He had a target on his back this season and what I liked was the fact he plays with an edge; he dropped the mitts when I saw him play in Brandon in March.”
Nolan comes from an athletic family. His grandfather played in the Canadian Football League, his father, Steve, was a forward who played 250 games in the NHL while his uncle, James, was a defenseman who played nearly 1,400 regular season and playoff games in the NHL.
Hischier, 18, is looking to become the first Swiss-born player taken with the first overall pick. The 6’1, 176 pound native of Natters, Switzerland, just completed his first year of playing in North America, recording 38-48-86 in 57 games with Halifax.
“Hischier has elite skill and hockey sense and he can play any style of game and be effective. He plays a complete game and his projection is through the roof after doing so well at the World Junior Championship (4-3-7 in 5 GP) and then winning rookie of the year in the QMJHL (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League)”, said Morreale. “The best comparison I’ve heard is to Nicklas Backstrom. Hischier is skilled but he’ll also muck it up in the corners and go down to block shots.”
Patrick or Hischier? It seems like the Devils can’t go wrong no matter which player they choose. We’ll all know come Friday, June 23rd, when the first-round of the draft is conducted in Chicago. Until then, we’ll leave the final word to Morreale.
“Why I would choose Patrick over Hischier is the fact that Patrick is a little older (four months), a little bigger, more polished and he has the pedigree.”