CHICAGO – In the first night of the 2017 NHL entry draft in Chicago, the names of more non-North American players were called than ever before. Ten of the 31 first-round selections played in Europe during the 2016-17 season. And then there’s the name of Nico Hischier. The Devils decided to make Hischier the first player overall in this draft. New Jersey was rumored all day to be favoring Hischier, but it was not a sure thing until General Manager Ray Shero called out his name to begin the draft.
The Halifax Mooseheads’ center also won the EJ McGuire Award for Excellence (given to the player that best exemplifies a commitment to excellence through strength of character, competitiveness, and athleticism), which will be awarded before the second round begins. The award, which will be presented this morning, is being given by NHL Central Scouting to the player combining character and skill. A fitting tribute to both Hischier who represents those qualities and for the man for who it is named, who represented the best of those values in leading Central Scouting for years (and before that was part of the Rangers organization) before passing away tragically in 2011.
Of Nolan Patrick and Hischier, the two leading candidtates for the first overall pick, it was Hischier who progressed the most during the 2016-17 season. More of a playmaking center than a scorer, Hischier does have a very good release, sees the ice incredible well, and was a team leader. Shero said what impressed him most was the way Hischier “was able to drive the team and made a difference on a team that wasn’t really supposed to be there.” He is a team leader, but it is less clear that Hischier is NHL-ready than has been true over the last several years with the first overall picks. He will get a very good look in training camp, but if he is not ready, Hischier could get sent back to Halifax. Frankly, it would be a big disappointment to Devils’ fans everywhere to have to wait an extra year to see Hischier make an impact in New Jersey, but as a long term asset, Hischier’s development has to be the most important consideration.
After the Hischier pick, things became a little less exciting at the United Center last night. But several things got our attention. First, was the aforementioned number of European players selected in the first round of the draft. Granted, this top round was the most wide open in probably 10 years, but European players usually have more risk/reward than do North American juniors, and the teams went for it anyway. In a draft known for good players, but not particularly outstanding talent (below the top two), it was a very good risk for the teams to take–in this kind of environment, it was okay to swing for the fences and pray you get a winner.
And then there was Gabe Vilardi, the Windsor Spitfire’s top 2017 prospect, who dropped from his projected position of top five to number eleven in the actual draft. Every notable scouting agency had Vilardi much higher, but he was passed over by teams time and again. With incredible hands and the ability to make plays, several teams told me that it was Vilardi’s questionable skating that held them back from pulling the trigger on him. There is no question that he has some of the best skill available in the draft, but these days world class skill, without excellent skating will put a prospect outsdie the top ten, even in a draft with less than generational talent.
Another somewhat unusual happening last evening was the selection of Boston University’s goaltender Jake Oettinger at number 26 overall. Last year, there were no netminders selected in the first round. And it has become common practice not to select one there. But, with Dallas in such need for help between the pipes, it was worth the team taking a risk with Oettinger on their second pick of the round.
And finally there was the Rangers. With two picks in the first round (numbers 7 and 21), some fireworks were expected. After a day of trading Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta to Arizona, there were definite holes in the team. Would the Rangers trade one or both of the picks for players to fill the current needs? Or would they try to move up? New York did neither. They picked Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil, two pretty much unknown European players, who have lots of talent, but are very high risk. Gordie Clark, Director of Player Personnel, spoke of Andersson that “He plays a North American style, [although] he is not a dynamic scorer, he is a dynamic player. … He does not lack confidence, at the Combine, he was one of the top kids there. … He drives the net, forechecks, finishes checks.” In reflecting on the fact that the team selected two centers last night, Clark said, “we needed some centers …. and we can get Lias and Filip (this guy is going to be a big guy, he is a great skater, a great passer) it was a gret combination to have centers in the organization to play like that.”
On to day two. Expect more trades today and things to move much faster.
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