When was the last time we had a real competition for the top spot in the NHL Draft?
In 2012, Nail Yakupov went first overall, and although his career has since fizzled, there was never really any doubt that he was going to be picked by the Oilers. In 2010, Tyler Seguin made a push on Taylor Hall and though he may be the more productive NHLer today, again, Hall was always going first overall to Edmonton. Even John Tavares in 2009 faced a late-push from speedster Matt Duchene and top defenceman Victor Hedman, but the safest choice was Tavares, who was granted early entry to the OHL as an exceptional player.
Often what happens is a player who has held the No. 1 mantle for more than a year leading up to his draft has been in the spotlight for such a long time that we start to nit-pick and look for faults we may not otherwise do for the challengers.
This season, however, may actually be different. Sure, Patrick has been the No. 1 prospect in this draft for about two years now so he could be experiencing some of those late negative reviews we’ve seen before. But he also has had very real injury concerns in his past and a slight drop off in point-per-game output this season has been answered by Nico Hischier’s explosive entry on the North American scene.
So for the first time in a long time, we could have a real competition at the top of the draft, and perhaps a surprise pick at the top in June.
Here’s a look at Hischier.
Team: Halifax Mooseheads
From: Naters, Switzerland
Weight: 174 pounds
HE’S FORCED HIS WAY INTO THE FIRST OVERALL DEBATE
While Patrick has been the top guy in the 2017 draft for more than a year, Hischier’s charge really began at the World Junior Championship this season.
Coming into the year, Hischier was still an A-rated prospect, acknowledging his standing as a first-round prospect. But he was ranked anywhere from a late first-rounder to a mid-first rounder (Jeff Marek had him ninth in October) and certainly wasn’t challenging Patrick’s place atop the board.
At the world juniors, though, Hischier led his Swiss team with seven points in five games, finishing tied for 11th in tournament scoring despite the fact his team was knocked out in the quarter-final. Hischier’s best game was a two-goal effort in that elimination game against the United States, in which he nearly single-handedly lifted his underdog squad over the favoured Americans. Switzerland ended up losing 3-2.
After that tournament, which Patrick missed due to an undisclosed injury, Hischier was suddenly being thought about as a potential No. 1. When he went head-to-head against Patrick at the Sherwin-Williams Top Prospects Game, he scored two goals and was named player of the game for Team Orr.
By the end of the season, Hischier had scored 86 points in 56 QMJHL games to rank 10th among all players in league scoring and leading all rookies by 23 points. In the QMJHL playoffs, Hischier’s Mooseheads were eliminated after one round, but he again had a strong showing with seven points in six games.
Hischier played 77 games this season between his QMJHL and international time and scored 48 goals and 111 points.
HE MODELS HIS GAME AFTER PAVEL DATSYUK
Not a bad guy to try and emulate on the ice, eh?
Hischier wears No. 13 and says he’s inspired by the way Datsyuk plays and controls the game at both ends of the ice. While Patrick has been called “cerebral” and lauded for his all-round play, it’s not as though Hischier is a one-trick pony.
In fact, before he arrived in the QMJHL this season, Hischier was playing in the Swiss junior league. But, he did get a taste of the pro game with SC Bern in Switzerland’s top league, where he spent 15 games in the season before his draft year. This is the same league where Auston Matthews posted 24 goals and was better than a point-per-game player in his draft year – but he was more than a year older than Hischier when he did that. The Swiss native managed just one goal in his 15-game cup of coffee, but got glowing reviews from then-coach Guy Boucher.
“He manages the game like an adult, like a man,” Boucher told the New York Times. “Great vision, great poise, but he’s always in the right place defensively too, which puts him ahead of a lot of young guys — they rarely have both sides of the ice figured out, especially at that age.”
BEST SWISS PLAYER EVER DRAFTED?
Whether or not he gets picked first overall, Hischier looks poised to be the highest-ever draft pick from his home country.
That distinction currently belongs to Nino Niederreiter, who was chosen fifth overall in 2010 by the New York Islanders. Now with the Minnesota Wild, Niederreiter is coming off his best NHL season yet, with 25 goals and 57 points.
There have been four Swiss players taken in the first round since Niederreiter: Sven Baertschi 13th overall in 2011, Mirco Mueller 18th overall in 2013, Kevin Fiala 11th overall in 2014 and Timo Meier ninth overall in 2015.
ANOTHER HIGHLY TOUTED PROSPECT FROM THE HALIFAX MOOSEHEADS
When Hischier’s name is called in Chicago later this month, he’ll join a collection of recent high picks to graduate from the QMJHL Mooseheads – and he’ll have a lot of work to do if he’s going to match up to these other names.
Nathan MacKinnon was the first overall pick in 2013 and won the Calder Trophy as NHL top rookie the next year. Jonathan Drouin heard his name called third overall in 2013 and after a contentious start to his NHL career, Drouin is on track and scored 53 points in 73 games this season. Nikolaj Ehlers was the ninth overall pick in 2014 and broke out in his sophomore NHL season this year with 25 goals and 64 points. And finally Meier, a fellow Swiss product, was the ninth overall pick in 2015 and scored six points in 34 NHL games this season, his rookie year.