Nico Finds His Niche
June 11, 2017
By Grant McCagg
Sometimes when a prospect is evaluated it becomes apparent that his major strength lies in his weaknesses – in that there are none.
Halifax Mooseheads center Nico Hischier is not going to skate like McDavid, hit like Chara or shoot like Laine, but few will argue that the “Swiss Can’t Miss” is the antithesis of his nation’s famous cheese, as there are no holes in his game.
“He’s just so well-rounded,” said a senior scout of a team picking in the top five. “He’s got some dynamics to him, but it’s not like he goes out there and sets the pace every shift. He really knows whenever things are not going well on a particular shift to not just chase pucks. He goes ‘Okay…things aren’t going great this shift I better make sure I don’t get scored on’…so he doesn’t play that selfish offensive style. I like that about him, he’s a good linemate in that he makes everybody better.”
While he’s a stickler for tending to his defensive duties, that does not diminish his high-end offensive potential. Hischier stepped into the QMJHL and finished top ten in scoring with 86 points, 23 more than the next best rookie, who finished 32nd overall. That total is even more impressive when one considers that he started slowly as he adjusted to the North American game and then missed close to a month while competing in the World Junior tournament.
“He’s not dynamic like a McDavid, but he’s still a pretty good offensive player,” noted his coach in Halifax Andre Tourigny in an interview after the QMJHL season. “For me, he’s a (Henrik) Zetterberg, when Zetterberg was at the top of his game, he’s the same type of player.
“I often say he’s a cross between (Pavel) Datsyuk and Zetterberg. Defensively he’s a Datsyuk, and offensively he’s a Zetterberg. He can’t dangle like Datsyuk offensively. It’s not fair to compare anyone in the world to Datsyuk in that sense.”
His coach is not alone in eliciting comparisons to the longtime elite Detroit forward duo. Scouts have been trying to come up with his NHL comparable all season, and also have mentioned the likes of Jonathon Toews and Nicklas Backstrom. Yes…he has been called the “Swiss Toews”.
“I’ve heard some Pavel Datsyuk comparisons,” said one eastern conference crossover scout that has Hischier at the top of his draft list. “I don’t know about that. I get what they’re saying because Datsyuk is a great two-way forward…but does Hischier become that dynamic offensively? Yeah maybe…I don’t know…that would be good. But that’s a high expectation for a kid right now.”
Hischier better get used to those high expectations, as players who are picked at the very top of the draft will always be highly scrutinized in today’s rabid social media environment…just ask Auston Matthews. All indications point towards him being able to handle the hoopla, though.
“If you pick top five that means you have to build your team around that player, and I would be so happy to build my team around him for the next 20 years,” noted Tourigny. “A person like Hischier…a player like Hischier. Nico is such a good man, good heart. He’s very polite, respectful, I’ve spoken to his parents and I can’t say enough about the values. A lot of reasons why he’d be a really, really good pick.”
It’s not just his coach who envisions Hischier as a player who will someday wear a letter on his NHL team’s sweater, perhaps even be a captain.
“I know everybody looks up to him on Halifax; he was a big part of their team,” said a Quebec-based scout. “It shows you his leadership qualities. He plays like there are leadership qualities. Even at the World Juniors; when he was out there he carried them all on his back and he was one of their youngest players.”
Tourigny knew early on that he was was coaching a player with special character traits that separate him from the pack.
“When you are that good defensively at that age…I’ve never seen that before,” gushed Tourigny, who has coached in both the QMJHL and NHL for the past 15 years. “I’ve coached really good players at U-18’s and World Juniors, and in the NHL. The pride he has to play well defensively; I’ve never seen that. He studies so much defensively.
“We’re doing a drill with defencemen under pressure on a breakout, a drill where defencemen have to break out under hard pressure, and Nico asked me if he could go as a defenceman. I asked why, and he said ‘sometimes during the game when I’m back with the puck I’m under pressure…I want to make sure I can break out with the puck from my own zone.’
“I said ‘oh my god.’ He wants to be a pro, he wants to be good defensively. Every time he’s here in my office the first thing he asks me about is his defence. He is special, he’s an awesome player. He sees the game sometimes where nobody can.”
The true turning point for many NHL talent evaluators when it came to seriously considering him as a top-five pick fittingly came with a game on Remembrance Day since the scouts who witnessed his back-to-back performances that weekend in Halifax will never forget his nine-point outburst.
“That weekend was a pretty special one for him,” noted the same QMJHL-based NHL scout. “And you just go ‘Wow, nine points’. And every goal he was on the ice for, he either made the key play or finished it off. He was unbelievable that weekend, probably the best performance I saw from a prospect all season.”
Hischier’s next “coming out party” came at the World Junior Championship as he bedazzled scouts, GM’s and media alike with a standout performance that included a terrific quarter-final match against eventual champs US in which he almost singlehandedly willed Switzerland to an upset victory, scoring both Swiss goals in a 3-2 loss that was decided in the last ten minutes.
Hischier finished fourth overall in goals-per-game and seventh in points-per-game, highly impressive for a 17-year-old playing in what is commonly referred to as a ’19-year-old’s tournament’.
“That was where I first started to really consider the notion that he may be the best player in this draft,” admitted one NHL scout. “You could make the argument that he was the best player in that tournament. He was exceptional.”
Top Prospect at the Top Prospecte Game
Hischier’s next audition for a huge throng of NHL personnel came at the CHL Top Prospects Game that was billed as a one-on-one contest versus his rival for first overall Nolan Patrick, and once again under the spotlight Hischier passed with flying colours, capturing the Player of the Game honours for Team Orr with a goal and two assists while scoring a highlight-reel breakaway goal.
“That was the game where some GM’s really started asking their scouts why this guy isn’t at the top of their lists,” said one scout with a chuckle. “It was no longer a question of whether he was a top-five guy, but whether he was the top guy…period.”
Ironically, just when scouts began to really start to take him seriously as a candidate to be first overall and crossover scouts from throughout North America congregated on Halifax to watch him…Hischier began to slow down. After collecting 73 points in his first 43 games, Hischier ended the regular season with ten points in 14 games, and looked to be lacking energy.
Tourigny concedes that Hischier hit a bit of a wall late in the season, and with good reason…three of them, in fact.
“He was playing in one of the two best divisions in the Canadian Hockey League. With Saint John, Charlottetown, Bathhurst, and Cape Breton…it was really strong. The last 19 games we played all within the division…so we played against very tough opponents every night.
“On top of that he had a wrist injury – he couldn’t shoot. He could pass the puck and his stickhandling was good, but at the same time, if he had to stick battle, that was hurting his wrist a lot.
“The other thing is he was a little bit tired. It was a long season. He was not used to playing that many games – the U-18s, our camp, the regular season, World Juniors, playoffs…it was a lot of hockey for him.”
He may have been tired and nursing an injury at the end of the season, but once the puck dropped for Halifax’s first-round playoff encounter with defending QMJHL champion Rouyn-Noranda “Big Game” Hischier was back with a vengeance.
“In the playoffs he was really, really good,” said Tourigny, who saw his team lose Game 5 at home in triple overtime with the series tied 2-2. “He was the best player on the ice every night. He was really solid…and we were right there. If we had won that triple overtime game it would have put a lot of pressure on Rouyn-Noranda.”
Hischier ended his season representing his country one last time at the U-18’s, and this time around in the big games Hischier was officially out of gas. He played well at the U-18’s, but he didn’t dominate as some expected. Did it hurt his draft stock?
“No..not at all,” said one NHL head scout. “He had a very long season and showed again and again what he could do. He was still one of the best players there…but you could see he was spent by the playoff round, and that’s understandable. He didn’t have anyone to play with either.”
Tourigny has a good thing happening in Halifax. Scouts are going to be flocking there again next season as the Mooseheads have three prospects who are legitimate contenders to be first-round picks – former number one overall QMJHL draft pick Benoit-Oliver Groulx, defenceman Jared McIsaac and goalie Alexis Gravel. The latter two played in the recent U-18’s as underagers, and all are expected to be very effective players in the Q next season.
They would be even better if Hischier was back, however, and the Mooseheads would be the odds-on favourite to win the league…so it’s no secret that Tourigny would love to see his prized prospect back on the team next October.
Does he expect that?
“That’s a good question for New Jersey or Philly. They will decide that…I don’t know. Positional-wise he will be able to play in the NHL. He will work hard enough, he will understand everything; the big thing will be physically.
“The way he plays he will be exposed. He doesn’t play on the outside, he goes in…he’ll be going to the net against 220-pound defencemen who are strong…oh boy…that will be a challenge. He’ll get hammered a bit. It will be a good learning experience for him. Can he do it for 82 games? We’ll have to see.”
The one thing Tourigny is pretty certain of is that Hischier won’t be rejoining the Mooseheads next October when NHL training camps wrap up.
“He will start the season there. He will play nine games, spend two weeks in the AHL, he will play in the world junior, and we will see after. I would be shocked if he’s sent back after training camp or nine games. I will be happy…but surprised.”
If there is one concern with Hischier at this time it would involve his lack of weight He is going to have to put on some muscle before he’s ready for an 82-game NHL schedule.
“He weighs 177,” said Tourigny. “He’s lean right now but he will fill out. You look at Kyle Turris. Kyle will never fill out…he’s so skinny, but that’s not the case with Nico. He will fill out, and get bigger.”
Scouts now have plenty of answers for why Hischier should be picked ahead of Patrick…a prospect who for more than a year-and-a-half was hailed as the unquestionable number one until Nico found his niche – but no one has offered a better testament than the hockey person who knows him best – his coach.
“He can beat you in so many ways. He can beat you with faceoffs. He can beat you with defensive play…he’s really, really proud of his defence. He can beat you with his work ethic, his intensity, his skill, he can beat you on the rush. He can beat you on the power play, he can beat you on the PK.”
That explanation is hard to beat.