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Devils happy with Hischier ahead of first game against Patrick, Flyers

Chose center with No. 1 pick in 2017 Draft before Philadelphia took forward No. 2

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

On the night the New Jersey Devils won the NHL Draft Lottery and the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft, general manager Ray Shero was out with Colorado Avalanche GM Joe Sakic at a Toronto restaurant where some members of the media had also gathered.

Some began hounding him, asking, "Who are you going to take?"

Shero eventually gave in to one reporter and said, "OK, I'll write it down on a piece of paper."

He took out a pen and wrote, "Vontae Mack no matter what," folded the paper, and handed it over.

Instead of a scoop, the reporter received a reference to the 2014 movie "Draft Day," in which fictional Cleveland Browns GM Sonny Weaver (played by Kevin Costner) wrote that message on a Post-it as a reminder to himself to select the player he wanted most in the NFL Draft.

The truth was, on that day, April 29, Shero had no idea he'd select center Nico Hischier with the No. 1 pick in Chicago on June 23. Prior to the lottery, the Devils were sitting at No. 5 and Shero didn't think he'd have a shot at Hischier or center Nolan Patrick, who were considered the top two prospects.

After the Devils took Hischier, making him the first Switzerland-born player to be selected No. 1, the Philadelphia Flyers chose Patrick at No. 2.

With Hischier and Patrick set to face each other for the first time in the NHL at Prudential Center on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; MSG+, NBCSP, NHL.TV), the Devils understandably are happy with their decision.

Hischier, who turned 19 on Jan. 4 and is the youngest player in the NHL, has 26 points (eight goals, 18 assists) in 41 games and has been a catalyst in the Devils' jump from last place in the Eastern Conference to third place in the Metropolitan Division (22-11-8, 52 points).

Video: DET@NJD: Hischier blasts a one-timer past Howard

Patrick, 19, who missed nine games because of an upper-body injury, hasn't had as big an impact with the Flyers (two goals, six assists in 33 games), but Shero warned that it's too early to make a full assessment of either rookie.

"Don't judge Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier," Shero said. "They're kids, and they're going to be good players. For us, we're real happy with Nico. We were real fortunate to win the lottery. It gave us other options, and Nico's been fantastic. Having said that, I know Nolan Patrick will be a real good player."

Between the lottery and draft, Shero, with director of amateur scouting Paul Castron and his staff, did his due diligence to make sure he picked the player who'd best fit the Devils.

As Shero noted, there were no generational talents like 2015 No. 1 pick Connor McDavid (Edmonton Oilers) or 2016 No. 1 pick Auston Matthews (Toronto Maple Leafs) to choose from in the 2017 draft.

But there were some very good players.

Hischier (6-foot-1, 175 pounds) made an impression last season by coming over from Switzerland to play for Halifax in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and getting 86 points (38 goals, 48 assists) in 57 games. He also stood out for Switzerland at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championship in Toronto and Montreal, getting seven points (four goals, three assists) in five games.

Patrick (6-2, 198) was limited by injuries to 33 games with Brandon in the Western Hockey League last season but had 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists).

Shero traveled to Switzerland to meet with Hischier and sat down with Patrick in Winnipeg. He also met with Finnish defenseman Miro Heiskanen, who was selected third by the Dallas Stars, and defenseman Cale Makar, a Calgary native who was picked fourth by the Colorado Avalanche.

Video: CGY@PHI: Patrick roofs loose puck from in front

"I spent a lot of time with all these guys," Shero said. "I wasn't sure it was going to lead me to the right decision, but I didn't want to be sitting there three years later and I didn't check all the boxes off with all these guys."

In the end, Shero kept coming back to Hischier.

"It really was just his skillset for our team, and the creativity," Shero said. "His year in Halifax last year, an underdog team that willed its way into the playoffs, was a big part of that. And certainly, the World Juniors were [a factor] with an underdog Switzerland team."

By the time Shero arrived in Chicago the week of the draft, he had made up his mind but discussed it only with Castron and Devils co-owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer. Shero said he didn't tell assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald his decision until two hours before the draft.

There was some talk of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights trying to trade up for the No. 1 pick, but it never led to anything. Shero said the only way he would've considered moving down was if he was guaranteed to get Hischier.

"That last week in Chicago, I was still talking to teams just to see what was going on. But I came back to the same thing, asking the question, 'If I wake up on Monday and, whatever we do, if we don't get Nico Hischier, is that a good weekend, or is that the right thing?'" Shero said. "It always came back to me, 'That's the guy I think we should draft.'"

Hischier's play this season has reinforced Shero's conviction and his belief that there's a lot more to come.

"It's going to be real enjoyable watching Nico over his development on and off the ice," Shero said. "As he gets older, we'll see how he handles things, but he certainly is a great fit for us, and he's been a great addition. So, we'll see how it all plays out."

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