A personal confession: I’m very conservative when it comes to draft rankings. If a kid is at the top, it’s hard for me to knock him down. Smart people call this an “anchor bias,” and I am trying to shake it. As a symbol of progress, I am now confident in proclaiming Nico Hischier as the top prospect in the 2017 draft.
OK, so it’s not exactly a huge proclamation. Consider it the Rachel Maddow Tax Return of draft analysis. But it gives me the chance to unpack some things about how NHL teams view each draft class.
Recently, I was chatting with a director of scouting about the Hischier vs. Nolan Patrick debate. Throughout the season, different NHL team sources have told me that the race for No. 1 was real and some even said there could be several different players in line to go in that spot. But my latest interview provided the best sound bite on the subject: “Someone can’t just be anointed No. 1 because of their history,” he said. “You have to look at the future.”
Patrick, the big Brandon Wheat Kings center, certainly came in with an excellent pedigree. An all-around talent whose father (Steve) and uncle (James) both played in the NHL, Patrick tied for the lead in WHL playoff scoring last season, helping the Wheat Kings to the playoff title and a Memorial Cup berth. As a late September birthday, he missed the 2016 draft cutoff by four days. I ranked Patrick as the top prospect for 2017 in last year’s edition of Future Watch and last year’s edition of Draft Preview.
But since then, Patrick missed Canada’s summer world junior camp due to sports hernia surgery; then missed this year’s world juniors, a big chunk of the regular season and all four of Brandon’s playoff games as the Wheaties were swept by Medicine Hat. Again, due to injuries.
Now here’s the thing about prospects with late birthdays: they’re on the radar longer and that can sometimes lead to them getting picked apart by scouts and the media. As I’ve pointed out numerous times in the past, John Tavares was the focus of a late-season hate brigade by some pundits in his draft year, with some believing Matt Duchene could usurp him. Ask Islanders fans if they’ve been satisfied with their captain since that decision occurred.
But here’s the challenging thing about Patrick: his points production during the regular season actually dropped a bit year over year, from 1.42 to 1.39. I know that’s tiny, but it’s also peculiar. Was it because of the injuries? Was it because Brandon no longer had Jayce Hawrlyuk (FLA), Ivan Provorov (PHI), John Quenneville (NJ) and Tim McGauley (WSH) in the lineup? These are the questions that scouts and execs are now pondering.
“Patrick has been a bit underwhelming,” said my exec. “Hischier has gone in the other direction. He has the benefit of coming from behind. And Hischier’s projection…he just doesn’t disappoint.”
Indeed, Hischier likely came on most fan radars with his magnificent showing at the world juniors for Switzerland. The dynamic center nearly beat Team USA all by himself in the quarterfinal and was named one of the top three players on the team for the tournament.
In Halifax, the rookie has been a huge driver on a very young squad. The Mooseheads have one NHL draft pick on their roster (Tampa Bay seventh-rounder Otto Somppi) and a bunch of kids with a lot of promise. So for Hischier to come in and throw up 1.5 points per game in his first North American season is pretty significant. The No. 15 Mooseheads are current battling the second-seeded Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in the first round of the QMJHL playoffs and have taken two games off the defending champs already. Hischier has six points through five games to lead the team.
And not only has he improved his draft stock throughout the year, but he may even end up helping his linemate, Maxime Fortier (who was passed over last summer), get picked in 2017.
So what do you do if you have the first pick overall this summer? Patrick’s two-way game and 6-foot-3 frame seemed to make him a safe top pick before the injuries, but Hischier’s hockey IQ and elite offensive skills make him look like another Jonathan Drouin. For me, it’s Hischier right now – and he certainly had to earn the distinction.