HE’S ALMOST TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE.
But who’s to say that the razzle-dazzle center from a hamlet you’ve never heard of — it’s called Naters — won’t wind up like McD, The Fabulous Oiler, or Matthews The Magnificent in Toronto? Or, the perfect blend?
Ever since Hischier emerged at training camp last September, the National Hockey League’s first overall pick in 2017 has defied critics who — not surprisingly — expected less.
And why not?
Scouts had seen only one year of his work with the Halifax Mooseheads while New Jersey prospects such as Michael McLeod, Blake Spears and John Quenneville all boasted excellent credentials in their quest for varsity jobs.
But they didn’t have the same talent as the Swiss Mister.
It’s Hischier’s blend of dynamism and creativity coupled with his ability to excel in high-pressure situations that helped Nico leapfrog over the competition last fall and make the big club.
What’s more, it hasn’t hurt that Nico is a natural leader and a world-class stick handler.
The Game’s bible, The Hockey News, summed up Hischier’s other forte in eight little words: “He rates off the charts in hockey I.Q.”
But as many highly-touted flubs sadly have learned, it’s one thing to be a teenage hockey whiz and another to orbit from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League right into the world’s best league — as a star, no less.
“Maybe a superstar,” asserted Leo Scaglione Jr., Devils beat columnist for New York Hockey Journal. “He’s got good speed, he’s a team-first kind of guy, plays a two-way game and is defensively underrated. He could teach the 30-year-olds.”
And he’s skating for the Garden Staters all because of luck. Ray Shero luck.
With only an 8.5 percent chance of winning the draft lottery last June, the Devils GM defied the odds and wound up in the top slot. Shero wasted no time picking Hischier over Nolan Patrick who was claimed next by Philadelphia.
If necessity is the mother of invention, it also was the key that locked Nimble Nico into a starting job.
“When both starting centers, Travis Zajac and Brian Boyle, went down with injuries,” said Devils radio analyst Glenn (Chico) Resch, “John Hynes had no choice but to put Hischier in the number one spot at center.”
Not that this appeared to be a gift from the hockey gods. Nico was flanked by Taylor Hall, who had a mediocre season in 2016-17 and a total unknown, Jesper Bratt, a sixth-round Swedish import.
What’s more, Hischier’s game proved a catalyst to both Hall — now New Jersey’s top scorer — and Bratt, one of the genuine, yet underrated, first-liners.
Hischier galvanized his mates and before anyone could say “What’s going on here?” the Devils were perched atop the Metropolitan Division stunning the experts who had slated them to finish eighth.
As fall blended into winter, Devils-watchers wondered whether an anticipated nosedive would coincide with the collapse of Hischier’s game. But by the onset of February, the kid still was doing just fine.
Resch: “The key to Nico’s success is rooted in the ‘completeness’ of his game. He’s as complete a young player as I’ve ever seen. Yet with all his talent, there’s an unmistakable humility and kindness about him.”
Fans at Prudential Center have taken to Hischier like an uncle would to his favorite nephew. Season ticket-holder Jonathan Liss, an electrical engineer from Marlboro, New Jersey, swoons over the kid’s packet of moves.
“When I look at Hischier,” Liss explained, “I see a kid playing like he is still innocent, yet focused. He’s full of energy while being an unselfish team player who’s continuing to build upon his skills.
“He carries himself like a professional and doesn’t appear to ‘cry’ like some superstars who crave special treatment. He takes his lumps and comes back for more.”
The wave of accolades have not gone to Nico’s head nor have they turned him away from a public that just wants to shake his hand and say thanks.
George Falkowski, a New Jersey journalism professor and broadcaster, annually takes his students for a tour of the Devils dressing room to learn how the media handles the players.
“This year,” Falkowski recalled, “we focused on Hischier and he couldn’t have been more accommodating. Whether it was picture-taking, signing autographs or just talking hockey, Nico was the best.”
But the on-ice performances best define his budding career. He could score the game-winning goal in one game and follow that up without a point and yet still be as valuable, playing well in the defensive zone.
On February 1, the Flyers were at The Rock with a scary 3-2 lead entering the third period. After Damon Severson tied the count, The Kid came through with the winnerconverting a neat pass from Blake Coleman.
“I just reached for the puck,” explained the modest rookie, “and got a little tip on it. Luckily it went in and that’s all I saw.”
That’s all that was needed at 18:33 of the final frame for the 4-3 victory.
The Hall-Bratt-Hischier unit has magically remained intact for virtually the entire season, at times creating scoring plays seemingly out of nothing.
Hynes, a master of the understatement, knows that praise for his rookie will not create big-headedness as often does for freshmen in the NHL.
“He’s competitive, skates well and knows the game,” said Hynes. “Nico is so versatile that he can also work the power play and kill penalties.
“We’re counting on him and planning on him to be a real important part of our team.”
Hynes’ laudatory comments are underlined by comments from out-of-town scouts who visit New Jersey on a regular basis. One of them, Peter Mahovlich, bird dog for the Florida Panthers, waxed ecstatic about the Swiss whiz.
“Then, you’d turn around and — almost by magic — Gretzky would come from out of nowhere and score another goal. That’s what I saw in Nico’s game-winner against Pittsburgh. He was in the right place at the right time for the winner.”
A comparison to The Great One sounds to me as good as putting Hischier in the McDavid-Matthews class, alias generational talent.
Not too shabby for a 19-year-old