CHICAGO – In the past two years, the simple drop of a lottery ball changed everything for the Edmonton Oilers and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Just think about it. There was a time when the Oilers future revolved around the likes of Nail Yakupov, Taylor Hall, Justin Schultz and Jordan Eberle. All of them are gone now, all dealt away by GM Peter Chiarelli, in large part because Connor McDavid fell into their laps.
It would be unfair and unwise to expect an exact duplication for the New Jersey Devils, who took Nico Hischier with the first overall pick in the draft Friday night. It would not be unfair to expect Hischier to play in the NHL next season, though, and eventually be a key factor in leading the Devils out of the wilderness. With every first overall pick come expectations and it will be up to the Devils to manage them, both their own and those of their fan base.
“When you get that pick, there’s a certain amount of pressure and expectation that comes with it,” said Devils GM Ray Shero. “Let’s be honest, it’s been like a back-to-back thing where we’ve had these incredible players and it doesn’t happen very often, maybe every 10 years. No one is going to promote (Hischier) as the next Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews, that’s not the expectation from them or us, but it is to make a difference in our franchise in a positive way.”
What sealed the deal for Shero in many ways was a trip he made to Switzerland to meet with Hischier after the Devils won the lottery and moved up from the No. 5 spot to No. 1. The two agreed to meet in Bern, with Shero making the one-hour train trip to the city from Zurich and Hischier taking the train from his hometown of Naters. Shero said he had never been to Bern before and was overwhelmed with how busy the train station was. He had never met Hischier before, but was happy to see him waiting on the platform for his train to arrive.
“He saw what time my train was coming and he was waiting for me,” Shero said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty good.’ ”
The two followed it up with a five-hour meeting that started with lunch and stretched into coffee. “I told him, ‘It was very good for me to spend this time with you, very important and enjoyable. Hopefully two of the three for you – I’m not sure about enjoyable.’ But it was good. It was important.”
As is always the case, only time will tell whether the Devils made the right choice taking Hischier over Nolan Patrick. Hischier is an offensive player who has a lot of room to grow while Patrick is more of a two-way player who has already developed his game to a mature level. There’s probably more risk in taking Hischier, but the rewards could potentially be higher, too.
As far as Hischier’s immediate future, that’s not exactly clear. It has become common for first overall picks to immediately transition into full-time NHL players. The last player not to go directly to the NHL on a full-time basis was Marc-Andre Fleury in 2003. The last major junior player to not make the jump immediately was Chris Phillips in 1996. There’s little doubt Hischier has the skill to make the offense-starved Devils right away, and at 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds, he could be ready to face the rigors of the NHL with a good summer in the gym. There’s a funny picture making the rounds of a nine-year-old Hischier wearing a Devils sweater on a hockey card. It turns out that every year there is a tournament in Switzerland where the teams are divided into NHL teams and his team that year just happened to be the Devils. Hischier doesn’t recall how that team did, but his goals wearing a Devils’ sweater this time could not be clearer.
“Yeah, for sure,” Hischier said 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.”