NHL Draft 2017 Preview: Is this draft really any good?


Just like any other debate over the top two prospects in any given draft year, “Nico vs. Nolan” has been the big question for some time now.

They’re both good-sized centers. They’re both extremely talented, skate well, see the ice well. Nolan Patrick is more of a finisher, one supposes, while Nico Hischier is the distributor of the two. Not that they can’t do both at the junior level with ease.

Blah blah blah, you can read the scouting reports as well as I can. Doesn’t really answer the question of who New Jersey should take first overall tonight. This is one of those things where, like the Taylor vs. Tyler debate in 2010, you can’t really go wrong, but it’s worth noting that neither one is any sort of star in the making.

The consensus over the past few months has slowly shifted from Patrick — the clear No. 1 at the start of the season — to Hischier, who dominated both World Junior and the QMJHL. Patrick will probably receive some knocks to his No.-1-overall credibility because he spent much of the season injured, but frankly an abdominal issue like his isn’t a knee or back problem that should hurt his stock. Everything you read suggests it hasn’t and won’t.

With that in mind, though, Hischier has overtaken Patrick as the No. 1 prospect this year in many incredibly smart people’s minds — mine included — for a number of reasons. Most obviously is how both players racked up their points: Hischier had 1.51 per game versus Patrick’s 1.39, which maybe shouldn’t be that surprising given that it’s a little easier to score in the Q than the Dub, but take a closer look at the stats (thanks to Prospect-Stats.com) and you see a bigger gap.

More than 80 percent of Hischier’s 86 points came either as goals or primary assists. A smaller majority (65 percent or so) were primary points for Patrick. Moreover, Patrick only had 19 points at 5-on-5 in 33 games. Hischier had 40 in 57. And here too, the primary/secondary points gap comes into play.

In junior hockey, high-skill players can rack up a whole ton of points on the power play, especially if they play on lines with older players, so it can mask a lot of the struggles they might have at 5-on-5 playing as 17-year-olds. It’s worth noting that Patrick ranked sixth in 5-on-5 points per game among U-18 WHL forwards (with 0.79), whereas Hischier blew away every other U-18 forward in the Q (0.84, with the next-closest being Antoine Morand’s 0.67). Morand is considered a mid-to-late second-round pick by most scouting resources.

Add in the fact that Hischier is a few months younger — Patrick was born less than a week too late to be eligible for the Auston Matthews draft — and you can see why the majority of scouts are now lining up between this Swiss kid over a Good Canadian Boy.

So if your big question is Nico or Nolan, well, Nico seems to be your guy at this point. Things change, and even if New Jersey goes for Patrick instead, it wouldn’t be the biggest shock in the world. The gap is narrow, but it’s there.

Of course, that covers New Jersey and Philadelphia will have available to them in all likelihood. Dallas at No. 3? They’ll probably take a defenseman — not that they don’t need one — in either allegedly-UMass-bound AJHLer Cale Makar or Finnish pro Miro Heiskanen. There doesn’t seem to be a true consensus there either, but most agree they’re both a step behind the two forwards. And frankly, there are a number of centers the Stars could settle on here as well.

(Please note that Corey Pronman has stated that Makar could go first overall to the Devils, but is one of the only national voices claiming this. Something to keep an eye on.)

The term “weak draft” gets thrown around a lot, but it doesn’t strike me as particularly fair to this year’s crop of prospects. Perhaps the more accurate term is “shallow draft.” Because while the high-level guys aren’t nearly as high-level as even, say, Aaron Ekblad, the number of guys who are seen as being on roughly the level of, say, Leon Draisaitl (that is, Draisaitl pre-McDavid-driven-scoring-binge) is more considerable than the gloomy anti-hype would leave you to believe.

Corey Pronman’s ranking of all the recent high-end picks tells the story pretty well: among top prospects in the last five years, he ranks Hischier the highest, just behind Mathew Barzal at No. 22. Pierre-Luc Dubois comes in at No. 23 before Patrick ranks 24th. But three more forwards — Windsor’s Gabriel Vilardi, Portland’s Cody Glass, and Owen Sound’s Nick Suzuki — are also in the 25-29 range.

That is, of course, one man’s opinion cultivated over seasons of observation (Bob McKenzie’s famous ranking system has those players sprinkled in this draft’s top-12 with a handful of other players) but it’s instructive, and in line with other analysis I’ve seen and heard. Any given team picking in the mid-teens won’t get a player who’s appreciably worse, potential-wise, than a guy taken in the top five or six. Or in fact, even the top three.

Which, hey, that’s not bad. It sets up just about any team to get a solid prospect, potentially as late as the early 20s. And if that’s where you end up, most teams take that happily. But it also tells you a lot about why so many teams have been making noise about their mid-teens first-rounder being available “for the right price;” these aren’t huge difference-makers by any stretch of the imagination, even in comparison with other mid-teens picks in recent years, but it’s not like any of these kids are obviously bad or anything.

(As an aside: One area where teams are most definitely getting better is in drafting. The things they seem to value in higher-end guys coming into the draft is more in line with what actually drives success in the NHL: skating, skills, and hockey IQ, as opposed to physicality, size, and intangibles. You don’t always see that type of evaluation in, say, time-on-ice distribution or free agent acquisition, but scouting staffs are for the most part getting a lot smarter.)

Simply put: This is not the 1999 draft class, arguably the worst one ever. That year produced just eight players who played at least 800 games in the league; 1998 had 21, 2000 gave the league 15. But it’s also not a draft of the quality seen in the past few years either.

So I wouldn’t go around getting too hyped up about your team getting such-and-such a prospect it they happens to be picking. But a good chunk of this draft’s first round are going to be NHLers for a while, and that’s the whole point of drafting outside the top 10 to begin with.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All statistics via Natural Stat Trick unless otherwise noted.)