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Lichtenstein: For The Devils This Preseason, It’s All About Hischier

By Steve Lichtenstein
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Since Monday’s preseason opener wasn’t televised locally or broadcast on WFAN, here’s what you need to know about how the Devils looked against the Capitals: Newly acquired Marcus Johansson received the first opportunity to replace the injured Travis Zajac as New Jersey’s top-line center between Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri …

Hold on.

The few thousand folks who gathered at the Prudential Center on Monday weren’t interested in the play of veterans in a meaningless exhibition. They came to be the first to catch a glimpse of Nico Hischier in a bright red (and newly designed) Devils jersey.

Devils center Nico Hischier skates against the Washington Capitals during a preseason game on Sept. 19, 2017, at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Wearing lucky No. 13, the 18-year-old, who was the first overall selection in June’s draft after New Jersey jumped over four clubs with better odds to win the lottery, mainly centered the second line between John Quenneville and PTO veteran Jimmy Hayes in the Devils’ 4-1 victory.

Whether he’s ready or not, the spotlight this season will belong to the Swiss rookie. No. 1 overall picks just don’t come around these parts very often. In fact, Hischier was the franchise’s first top overall choice since 1979, when it was known as the Colorado Rockies.

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For over 55 minutes, Hischier provided only tiny morsels as to why Devils general manager Ray Shero passed on the bigger Nolan Patrick on draft day. A couple of quick moves to draw penalties. A few offensive zone entries with speed to set up the power play. Some responsible defensive zone play. He played in all situations — five-on-five, power play and even a little penalty kill.

However, Hischier was given just 13:37 of total ice time from Devils coach John Hynes, with only a handful of shifts in the third period. Most were relatively nondescript.

Then, with under five minutes remaining in the game, Hischier jumped on Caps wing Kevin Elgestal at Washington’s blue line, lifting Elgestal’s stick to steal the puck. In one swift stride, Hischier burst through past the right faceoff circle to the net, one-on-one against backup goalie Vitek Vanecek. The left-handed-shooting Hischier deked to his forehand and then deftly maneuvered the puck to his backhand before sliding it under Vanacek’s pad.

“I tried a move to try to freeze the goalie, and I got lucky a little bit,” Hischier said.

MORE: Devils Sign Young Defenseman Severson To Long-Term Extension

Chants of “Ni-co Hisch-ier!” rang through the generously reported crowd of 6,310. It didn’t count for anything, but the fans recognized that the goal was somewhat momentous nonetheless.

We all know it’s going to take time for Hischier to develop into the best he can be. He needs to add some bulk to his listed 6-foot-1, 175-pound frame. He won only three of 10 faceoffs (“I’ve got to work on that and try to get some tapes,” Hischier said.). I thought he could have shown more hunger in the dirty areas during his power-play opportunities.

But what Hischier must do in the short term — and I should have used a capital M — is prove that he belongs in the NHL.

If he doesn’t, it’s one big, fat failure on Shero’s part. More so if, down the Turnpike, Patrick is immediately contributing to a renaissance in Philadelphia.

Getting Hischier up to speed should be Hynes’ highest priority on his preseason agenda, other than reinstilling the grit-and-grind mentality (which I delved into in my previous post) to a club that lost its way last season.

It’s only one game, against a team that left most of its superstars behind in Washington, but Hischier got off to the start he needed, according to Hynes.

“(Hischier’s) skating was a factor,” Hynes said. “He was competitive on the puck. I thought as the game went on, in the second and third period, he started to make a few more plays. He got adjusted to the time and space and the battle level that was out there. You see the goal — he was really tenacious on the puck. He hunted it, he had a second effort, he had a great stick, created a turnover, and his work ethic allowed him to put himself in a situation to have a breakaway. That’s when his skill can take over.”

That level of skill is what made Shero gush to his staff before the pick that he “wasn’t leaving Chicago without drafting Nico Hischier.”

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.

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