The 2017 NHL Draft has been described as “lacklustre” or a “drop off” relative to recent years, which have featured obvious generational talents at the top – we can think of this as the McDavid-Eichel-Matthews effect.
The top two candidates for the first overall pick this year are both highly regarded, but come with significant question marks.
Nolan Patrick of the Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL) is a prototypical, well-rounded centre with size who has a significant pedigree – but questions have arisen due to his not insignificant injury history and late birthday.
Swiss wunderkind Nico Hischier of the star factory Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL) and formerly SC Bern in the NLA (Switzerland) has steadily risen in the eyes of scouts throughout the 2016-17 season. His breakout showing at the IIHF World Junior Championship drew even more attention to what was one of the better CHL import rookie seasons in recent memory.
Patrick has been tracked as the top prospect of the 2017 NHL Draft for a couple years. His father and uncle both played in the NHL and he was heavily scouted as the fourth overall pick in the 2013 WHL Bantam Draft.
It is worth remembering that Patrick’s Sept. 19 birthday means he missed being eligible for the 2016 NHL Draft by only four days – similar to how Auston Matthews missed the 2015 Draft cutoff by two days. The majority of his top-end peers in the WHL Draft were NHL draft eligible last year and four of them were first-round picks.
If we compare Patrick’s 2016 WHL results to those of his bantam draft peers we see he likely had the numbers to put himself in the running as a high-level first-rounder in last year’s NHL draft. He significantly out-produced the likes of Benson, Steel, and Howden – all three of whom were late first-rounders.
Unfortunately, injuries limited Patrick to only 33 games this season, and when he did play his point production was slightly lower compared to 2016 – though his goal scoring did tick up slightly from 0.58 per game to 0.60.
The lack of games for Patrick and the solid season from Hischier allowed the gifted CHL rookie to enter the conversation for the first overall selection. Despite the fact his Mooseheads were in the midst of a rebuild, Hischier drove them offensively as a 17-year-old rookie import, finishing 10th in QMJHL scoring.
What makes the debate around who goes first overall most interesting is that while neither Hischier nor Patrick seem to be generational talents, this seems to be one of the closer statistical comparisons in recent memory. Using a similar point projection model to what I have employed in the past to examine CHL-NHL translation for top tier prospects, we find Patrick is likely still the superior selection, but by a very small degree.
Because of Patrick’s injuries and lack of games played this past year, it makes some sense to try and incorporate the data we had from his 2015-16 season to develop a clearer picture of his true ability. We can age adjust his production and then take the weighted average of the two seasons to obtain a hybrid projection based on his two prior years.
We can then compare this projection to what we could expect out of Hischier and a similar cohort of top NHL draft picks selected from CHL teams in recent seasons:
Arguably both Patrick and Hischier could directly make the jump to the NHL, but they would likely slot in as second or third line skaters who produce around half a point per game in relatively sheltered minutes. It is worth noting that the main reason Matt Duchene and Tyler Seguin were projected to be more productive is due to their higher average time on ice. Obviously, if Patrick or Hischier are given more significant TOI by their NHL clubs as rookies, their projection will be significantly higher.
Patrick’s closest comparable offensively at the junior level is Philadelphia Flyers centre Sean Couturier, and for Hischier there is a striking similarity to Sam Bennett’s output.
These comparisons also give us a more concrete sense of where these prospects should rank compared to those from recent draft years. Both Hischier and Patrick would reasonably compare to other top five picks, and thus should still be viewed as extremely skilled prospects who will slot in near the top of most organizational depth charts.
Whichever of these two players is selected first overall will likely to be productive for many years to come and Philadelphia should be happy with whoever is left at No. 2.