By Steve Lichtenstein
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According to NHL.com’s Mike Morreale, Nolan Patrick scheduled interviews with 13 different teams during this week’s NHL Scouting Combine in Buffalo.
I find that strange, considering the 18-year-old center has been tabbed either first or second in virtually every mock draft.
Think about the NBA and NFL combines, where the top players often bypass such meat markets and limit whom they’ll talk to. Lonzo Ball, the UCLA star, won’t even interview with the Celtics, who own the first overall pick in the upcoming NBA draft.
The Devils, who won the draft lottery last month and will get their top choice on June 23 in Chicago, will surely select either Patrick or Nico Hischier, the more dynamic but smaller center who burst onto the Canadian junior scene last season after coming over from Switzerland.
Or maybe they won’t.
New Jersey general manager Ray Shero has been coy about his options. In an interview with TSN’s Pierre LeBrun on Monday, Shero acknowledged he has been receiving calls (and a semi-joke text from Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher) from rival executives about moving the pick.
Hence, other teams are doing their due diligence on Patrick and Hischier.
It’s not unwise for Shero to listen to offers, but he has to be overwhelmed to act on them. No team has dealt away the No. 1 overall pick since the Panthers did so in back-to-back offseasons in 2002-03.
The Panthers didn’t fare so well in those exchanges. They basically traded away Rick Nash for Jay Bouwmeester in 2002 and a year later got Nathan Horton and Mikael Samuelsson for the rights to franchise goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
While Edmonton seemingly had a hold on the top draft slot for a while, repeat lottery wins really aren’t a common occurrence. It will be the first time the Devils franchise selects first overall since 1979, when they were known as the Colorado Rockies (and chose defenseman Rob Ramage). As bad as the Devils fared last season, they lucked into No. 1 — their 8.5 percent odds were only the lottery’s fifth-highest behind Colorado, Vancouver, Arizona and expansion Las Vegas.
Thus, the Devils can’t afford to pass up this opportunity. While no one is comparing Patrick and Hischier to the recent top prizes of Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid, most reports indicate that there’s a significant drop-off in talent and NHL readiness after the first few picks (Finnish defenseman Miro Heiskanen is the consensus third selection, owned by Dallas). This means that the Devils would have to recoup a substantial amount of veteran value should they opt to swap out to a lower slot.
As for Nolan versus Nico, it appears that Patrick still has an edge based on his size and head for the two-way game. Hischier, though, has a growing number of proponents who believe his superior puck skills make up for the approximately two-inch and 20-pound disparity with Patrick.
While Hischier shot up the NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s rankings over the course of last season, Patrick’s sheen diminished somewhat after an injury-plagued year. He played only 33 games for Brandon in the WHL and his production per game dipped from the previous season.
Patrick’s lengthy teenage injury history might tend to obscure what a marvelous season he had as a 17-year-old, when he recorded 102 points in 72 games while leading Brandon into the Memorial Cup tournament as WHL playoffs MVP.
While Shero again won’t divulge his intentions, I think Patrick is still the better fit. The scouting reports indicate that with his size, Patrick has the ability to make plays in the tighter areas that define today’s NHL game, even though Hischier owns the edge in space. Patrick may not be an Anze Kopitar clone as hyped, but he surely has the potential to be Travis Zajac 2.0 — strong in all areas of the ice and on faceoffs, but with more creativity and finishing ability in the offensive zone.
All prospects will undergo medical testing (Patrick was given the green light Wednesday, per Morreale) in order to be cleared for Saturday’s fitness tests, where Shero will have one last look before the draft in three weeks. I won’t sulk if the Devils end up with Nico over Nolan, so long as it isn’t neither.
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