This is an article I certainly didn’t expect to be writing. The New Jersey Devils won the draft lottery Saturday night and will be picking first overall in the upcoming NHL entry draft. It’s an unprecedented turn of events (much like the potential return of a former Russian superstar). The Devils are now in the position to draft the first line center they have desperately needed. There is only one person to thank- John Moore.
Without his overtime goal against the Flyers on April 4th the Devils could have been stuck picking 7th (also if this goal had come in regulation it would be the Jets, not the Flyers, picking 2nd overall). All hyperbole aside, it is now time to examine the options the Devils have with their draft pick.
The battle for first overall this year has been dominated by Nolan Patrick of the Brandon Wheat Kings and Nico Hischier of the Halifax Mooseheads- two centers who had very different seasons. Both are capable of becoming franchise first line centers, but each comes with their own distinctions.
Nolan Patrick is a prototypical NHL two-way center. Standing 6’3” and weighing 198 lbs, he already has NHL size. Patrick excels in his versatility. He has the ability to beat his opponents in multiple ways at any moment. If Patrick has the space he can beat you with his shot. If he catches you flat-footed, he has the speed to blow past you. He has the size to outmuscle defenders and drive the net. If the defense hones in on Patrick and sends two guys to cover him, he has the playmaking ability to find the open man and get him the puck. All of this offensive skill and IQ is coupled with a mature defensive game to make an all-around complete player. None of these skills are on the level of Conner McDavid and Auston Matthews, but they do come together to create a player who can center a first line in the NHL.
The knocks on Patrick mainly stem from his health. Throughout his junior career (dating back to 2012), Patrick’s struggled to play a full season due to a myriad of nagging injuries. The most consistent has been a lower-body injury that was revealed this year to be a sports hernia. It caused Patrick to miss 34 WHL games, along with the World Juniors. He was reinjured later in the season and missed Brandon getting swept by Medicine Hat. These injuries, along with the depletion of the Wheat Kings roster, has also led to a minute drop in Patrick’s point production. It has been a rough season for Patrick but due to his track record, he still seems to have a hold on first overall.
His main competition comes overseas, and is known as “The Swiss Conner McDavid”- Nico Hischier. He was ranked in the late-teens before the start of the season, but an explosive performance at the World Juniors coupled with a rampant scoring surge in the QMJHL catapulted him into conversation for first overall.
Hischier excels at driving offense. He is a smaller center, so he relies on his agility and elusiveness to create space for himself and his teammates. He’s incredibly quick and can stick-handle through the defense to create opportunities. His playmaking, creativity, and vision are arguably the best in this draft class. He has also excelled at not only playing at a high level, but helping make his teammates better. He has led some mediocre Switzerland teams into the playoffs of international tournaments that gave their opponents some commendable runs for their money. Even Halifax is lacking in high-end talent as their roster only harbors one NHL draft pick. It’s impressive Hischier is still able to be so effective, despite teams focusing on neutralizing him.
The knocks on Hischier are his size, ability to play center at the NHL level, and his slump at the end of the QMJHL season. Hischier stands 6’0” and weighs 174 lbs. Size is definitely an asset while playing center in the NHL, and Hischier will need to bulk up in order to effectively play this position at the pro level. This leads into the fact his speedy offensive-oriented game can often seem to fit the profile of an elite winger and not a center. It will be up to the team that drafts Hischier to decide if his skillset fits their idea of a center or if they will transition him to wing. Hischier also suffered major fatigue at the end of the QMJHL season and struggled to keep up his torrent scoring pace. It certainly wasn’t what scouts wanted their last impression of Hischier to be.
The Devils should draft Nolan Patrick. He fits the bill of a franchise first line center. He’s a complete hockey player who can step into the NHL next season and make an impact. He already has the size and skills, so it will just come down to Patrick adapting to the pace of NHL play (which he definitely will). The injuries are certainly a concern but none of them are career-endangering like a concussion or chronic back problem. It can even be speculated that if Patrick has played this well through these injury spells, he can be so much more than we’ve seen if he’s fully healthy. This opinion may change between now and the draft and the Devils will have plenty of time to do their research on Patrick and assess how severe these injuries were but as the information is right now, Nolan Patrick should be a New Jersey Devil come June 23rd.