It was just an ordinary Saturday evening, between the game where the Rangers collapsed and the Pens showed the Caps who was really the best team in the East (again). Ordinary, that is, everywhere except in New Jersey, where in one fell swoop, it seems like the Devils’ fortunes immediately changed. Inexplicably, the Devils won the draft lottery and will select the first overall pick in the Entry Draft in Chicago next month. I say inexplicably because the odds of New Jersey winning that lottery were only 8.5%.
The Devils finished fifth to last in the NHL this season–a dismal showing in a year that wasn’t even touted as one in which the team was rebuilding. It was thought that the pre-season trade for Taylor Hall would immediately make a difference, but while the trade was an excellent one for the team, Hall alone (or in concert with iffy first-line players) could not overcome some of the team deficits.
The season ended on a very down note, not only with the Devils’ record, but also with rumors that, if something did not happen soon, Hall would bolt when his contract expires in 2020. Well, two things happened this week that should lift Devils’ fans (and Hall’s) spirits. Not only did the Devils win the lottery (and will likely get a player that will have an immediate NHL impact) but rumors surfaced that New Jersey’s retired star, Ilya Kovalchuk, is interested in returning to the NHL. Kovalchuk’s contract with SKA St. Petersburg has expired, and any NHL return would have to go through the Devils (either to return to New Jersey or a trade to allow him to play elsewhere). Now, before anyone gets really excited about this, remember that this could be a negotiating tactic to get more out of his KHL club. But, if its not, the Devils will win big time.
Now, as for the first round draft pick, every scouting agency, including NHL Central Scouting, has just two top players separated from all others. Both are centers, both currently play in the CHL. Nolan Patrick, the Manitoba born WHL scoring phenom is the consensus number one, while Nico Hischier, who was born in Switzerland and plays in the QMJHL is second. Patrick, who is one of the oldest first-time eligible players in this year’s draft, has size, speed, and puck handling skills, should be NHL-ready in the fall. The issue with himm is a sports hernia that needed repair this season. Not only was Patrick out for a good part of the season (and post-season), but his numbers were down from the 2015-16 campaign during the time he was skating. To me the numbers is a non-issue–he was dealing with a sports hernia and maybe even a slow start. And when Patrick is checked out medically at the NHL Combine early next month, the Devils should know the exact nature of his medical condition. They could even ask him to see another doctor.
Hischier just spent one season with the Halifax Mooseheads and showed incredible skill. Before that, he played in Switzerland. If he had been in North America longer, who knows, he might even be the consensus number one. And his performance in the World Juniors was fantastic. However, he is nowhere near the size of Patrick, and even though he keeps getting better and better, with a very high effort level, to me, once Patrick’s health should be checked out, he should be the Devils’ pick. His size and experience with the North American game make him a better choice. Never mind his pedigree (both his father and uncle played in the NHL). It should be exciting to have him, Pavel Zacha, and Adam Henrique down the middle on this team.