It's impossible to quantify how many people have become smitten with one another or how many lasting relationships have begun over a casual lunch. To be sure, Nico Hischier and Ray Shero were not the first two people whose bond started out over what was supposed to be a midday meal that stretched into five hours.
But it was that lunch in Bern, Switzerland, that made Shero, the GM of the New Jersey Devils, more convinced that he would walk to the podium with the first overall pick in the 2017 NHL draft and select Hischier. The body of work was already impressive enough to warrant selection ahead of Nolan Patrick, who spent much of last season as the consensus No. 1 prospect, but that meeting basically clinched it for Shero. From the moment it began, when Hischier impressed Shero by knowing exactly which platform to go to in order to meet Shero’s train, to the lunch that stretched into afternoon coffee, it became more and more clear to Shero he had found the guy most likely to lead the Devils out of the wilderness.
“Nico’s got that great playmaking ability and the ability to make other players better,” said Shero at the draft. “For our franchise, we thought that was the best pick, so it’s a good day for us. No disrespect to the other players, but for myself and (Devils director of amateur scouting) Paul Castron, we just felt our team, how we wanted to move forward, made the most sense for us.”
It’s clear Hischier’s decision to play major junior hockey for the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads paid off for him in a major way. Had he stayed home and played in the men’s league in Switzerland and had a good year, he likely would not have rocketed up the charts of the first round. Hischier entered 2016-17 as a good bet to be chosen in Round 1, but was not seen as a contender for No. 1 overall status.
A couple of things changed that. One was his performance at the 2017 World Junior Championship when he turned in a dominating performance in Switzerland’s 3-2 loss to the U.S. in the quarterfinal. Not only did Hischier score both Swiss goals, he had the puck on his stick in the dying minutes and only a spectacular save by Tyler Parsons prevented the game from going to overtime. American coach Bob Motzko said after the contest that Hischier was the best player they had seen in the tournament – and he confided to observers that no matter what combinations he tried, his team had no response for Hischier.
Another factor was the impact Hischier had on a very young Halifax team. The Mooseheads are a perennial contender in the QMJHL, but were at the nadir of their rebuilding cycle and weren’t expected to make the playoffs. In large part due to Hischier’s exploits, they qualified for the post-season and stretched their first-round series to six games against the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, a team that finished 33 points ahead of them in the standings. Hischier, of course, led the way with three goals and seven points in the series. “The difference he made to help them get in the playoffs really said a lot about him,” Shero said. “He really drove that team and made a difference on a team that really wasn’t supposed to be there.”
Hmm, that sounds an awful lot like the Devils, doesn’t it? It would be too much to expect Hischier to have that kind of impact in his first season in the NHL, despite the fact he’s following in the No. 1 draft footsteps of generational talents Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews. Shero expects him to play in the NHL this season, but it’s going to take some time for Hischier to find his way in the big leagues. It would be unfair to expect McDavid- or Matthews-like production from Hischier in his rookie season, but his two-way game and his offensive upside have the Devils excited. His positive attitude will also help as the Devils work their way back from oblivion. “He’s one of these kids who always has a smile on his face,” Castron said. “I don’t know if he’s had any bad days.”
The "Nolan vs. Nico" race that basically began after the world juniors went right down to the wire, and it will be years before we know which player was the better choice. One scout compared it to the 1988 draft when Mike Modano went first overall, followed by Trevor Linden. Linden was a known commodity, the same way Patrick is, while there was a little more mystery and upside attached to Modano, the way there is with Hischier. Both teams ended up getting superb players, and that’s what the Devils and Philadelphia Flyers hope will be the case this time around, too.
Nothing is guaranteed, though. In a draft that was so wide open, there might be a fourth-round pick that ends up being the best of the bunch. Hischier has a goal of playing, and sticking, in New Jersey in 2017-18 and beginning the process that Shero envisions. “Yeah, for sure,” said Hischier when asked if it’s important for him to play in the NHL immediately. “I mean, it’s my goal, so it is important for sure. I really want to achieve my goal, but I still know I have to prove a lot of things to play there.”