After weeks of speculation, the New Jersey Devils selected Nico Hischier first overall in the NHL’s centennial draft. The Devils passed on the former consensus first overall pick Nolan Patrick in favor of the dynamic Halifax Mooseheads center. In an article I wrote after winning the draft lottery, I made the case for drafting Nolan Patrick first overall. As the draft drew closer however, Hischier continued to impress. Many coaches and scouts began to rave about his character, work ethic, and he interviewed extremely well with the Devils. He’s also an agile player with more straight-line speed, a couple tools Castron and Shero have emphasized.
What exactly did the Devils get with Hischier? They selected what looks to be a future first line center who’s very gifted offensively, while also being able to play in all situations. Hischier is a creative playmaker that uses his hockey IQ to think a couple steps ahead of his opponents. He was one of the quickest and smoothest skaters in the draft and is extremely hard to knock off the puck (despite his lanky stature). Hischier also puts himself in positions to score goals, having tallied 38 last season. The Swiss-borne center burst on the scene at World Juniors where he almost singlehandedly upset the future gold medal winning United States, scoring two goals in the opening round. He earned high praise from U.S coach Bob Motzko, who told the press “Hischier was the best player we’ve seen in this tournament.” He arguably has all the skills to jump into the NHL right away and be productive, but still has plenty of room to grow.
In the second round, skill and speed continued to reign as the Devils selected Jesper Boqvist out of Byrnas in the Swedish Elite League (SHL). Boqvist was projected as a potential late first rounder and slid to the Devils at 36th overall. He has an amazing combination of skating, stickhandling, shooting and passing. The slightly undersized center impressed last year by playing some games in the SHL after dominating his own age group. Boqvist admittedly needs to work on his two-way play while also gaining some weight, but has NHL-ready offensive skill. He’ll play overseas next year and hopefully be ready to make the jump in 2018-2019.
With the first pick of the third round, the Devils returned to Sweden to select Fabian Zetterlund out of Farjestad (SHL). The stocky Swedish right winger is a puck hound who loves to shoot. Zetterlund is an extremely hard worker, who pushes play to the front of the net. While Zetterlund profiles more as a sniper, he puts himself in positions on defense and the forecheck to force turnovers, and has the skating ability to rush with the puck up the ice. Zetterlund had an impressive U18 where all these skills were on display. He’s also likely to play overseas next year, and is a pick that fills a positional need at right wing and organizational need of generating more shots.
The Devils finally addressed their need for defensive prospects with their second pick of the third round by selecting Reilly Walsh. The US-borne defenseman split last season between New Hampshire prep school Proctor Academy, the USHL’s Chicago Steel, and will play at Harvard next season. Walsh is praised for his ability to create offense from the back end, having dominated the prep school circuit by scoring a goal per game. He went on to post 10 points in 24 USHL games. Hopefully he can shore up his defensive game while continuing to refine his offensive prowess. He could potentially become a top-four puck moving defenseman in the NHL.
In the fourth round, the Devils made a pick that many have described as a steal. They drafted Russian right winger Nikita Popugaev out of Prince Albert (WHL). Popugaev stands at 6’6” and weighs 210 lbs. He’s a pure sniper, having one of the best wrist shots in the draft. He’s also talented offensively with smooth skating and great hands. He can also pass the puck well as evidenced by his saucer pass to Hischier in the CHL Top Prospects game. This all sounds good, but there’s a reason Popugaev fell to the 4th round…He’s often described as lazy and exhibited attitude issues early in the season while on Moose Jaw. This led to him being traded and with that trade his production stagnated. Before the trade, Popugaev was ranked as a mid-first rounder after scoring 20 goals in 22 games. This pick is extremely boom or bust. The Devils are either going to get the guy who can score at will, or will watch Popugaev eventually bolt for the KHL if he’s unable to make the big club. Getting someone who’s shown the ability to be a first round talent this late in the draft is a big win, however it’s definitely going to be a waiting game to see if Popugaev can attain that level again.
The next pick was the most peculiar. The Devils drafted 21-year old goaltender Gilles Senn out of Switzerland. Senn started 34 games for HC Davos in the NLA last year, posting a 2.64 GAA and .911 SV%. There’s some reasoning behind this pick. Due to Senn already playing professionally, it’d be easier for him to make the jump to pro than any other goalie prospect drafted. With Kinkaid potentially leaving for free agency, there’s an open spot behind Corey Schneider. Scott Wedgewood would have been the most likely candidate if not for his long-term injury last season, while Mackenzie Blackwood still needs some seasoning in the AHL. Senn provides a plan B if the Devils can’t find a backup goalie or Wedgewood can’t regain his pre-injury form. Senn was sought after this offseason so this was mainly a move to attain his rights. It’s an interesting pick and like all draft selections, time will tell if this move pans out.
Marian Studenic was the Devils next pick out of Hamilton (OHL). The Czech right winger had a successful first season in North America. On Hamilton he routinely led the rush and created plays out of transition. Once again, he’s another fast forward that can create offense and loves shooting. He’s looking like another steal in the fifth round. Hopefully Studenic gains a larger role in Hamilton next year, and can break out similarly to how Blake Speers surged in his draft after year.
In the sixth round, the Devils drafted Finnish forward Aarne Talvitie, who played his whole career in Finland but is coming over to play at Penn State next season. Talvitie had a great year in Finland’s Jr. A league with 37 points in 46 games. He also captained Finland’s U18 team to a silver medal. Talvitie is described as a two-way center who can be counted on in all situations. He’s extremely versatile and can play any forward position. Talvitie seems to be a hard worker so it’s extremely possible he can make the NHL in some capacity.
The Devils finally continued to address their defense in the seventh round. Many were hoping the Devils would refurbish their defensive prospect pool this draft, and those people had to wait until the 7th round to get anyone else besides Reilly Walsh. The first defenseman chosen in the seventh round was Jocktan Chainey, one of Hischier’s teammates on Halifax, who posted four goals and 20 assists in 55 games. Chainey has been praised as one of the better defenders on the Mooseheads. He played through a shoulder injury this season so next year will be a true measurement of his skill.
The Devils also selected Russian defenseman Yegor Zaitsev, who’s described as a defensive defenseman that likes to play physical. He played in the KHL last year, which speaks to having some maturity in his game. This pick harkens back to the Yegor Rykov selection last year. It’s yet to be determined if he’ll yield the same results, but picking up a defenseman with professional experience isn’t a bad move.
The final selection made by the Devils was defenseman Matthew Hellickson of the Sioux City Muskateers. Hellickson was an assistant captain and registered 28 points in 52 games. He’s committed to the University of Notre Dame, where he will play next season. Not a lot of tape is out on him, but hopefully he can gain some good experience and recognition playing for a bigtime D1 program.
Paul Castron continues to impress as many of these picks have high upside. He was even able to find a potentially steal in Popugaev. Time will tell how good this class will become, but gaining Hischier already catapults this to one of the most successful drafts in Devils history. Overall, the arbitrary grade I will give is an A-. Draft grades are pretty meaningless as some team’s fifth round picks will become all-stars while other team’s second round picks will never even see the AHL. Right now however, it looks like the Devils had a very successful weekend.