From the perspective of a Flyers fan, the general story of their No. 2 overall pick (which they got after they moved up from No. 13 in the lottery) (boy, that’s still fun to type, isn’t it!) has been considered a pretty straightforward one. In a draft that’s largely considered to have two top talents at the top that happen to be centers — Brandon’s Nolan Patrick and Halifax’s Nico Hischier — most Flyers fans and observers believe that the most likely scenario on June 23 is that the New Jersey Devils will take one of those two players with the top pick, leaving the other one for the Flyers. The idea that both of the two will still be on the board come the Flyers’ pick has largely gone un-pondered, because it’s so hard to imagine the Devils would pass up on both of the consensus top-2 guys from the draft’s top spot.
So hard to imagine ... and yet, apparently, not impossible? Screw it, let’s do some daydreaming. Via Elliotte Friedman’s weekly must-read 30 Thoughts column, posted on Saturday afternoon:
6. Watch New Jersey in the lead-up to the draft. There is a growing suspicion the Devils feel their greatest need is on the blue line, and there are some good ones they like (Miro Heiskanen? Cale Makar?). Anyway, would GM Ray Shero take one of them at the top, or would he move down just a little bit, adding something else, if he knew he could still get what he wanted? Vancouver could use a centre, for example. The compensatory pick from Columbus for hiring John Tortorella (55th overall) is something they dangled to see if it could help them move, but so far, no dice.
As mentioned already, it just seems so hard to imagine the Devils — a team that, to be blunt, needs a serious infusion of talent up and down its roster — passing up on a shot at one of the draft’s clear top two talents, no matter where they may have needs in their pipeline positionally. Even acknowledging Friedman’s speculation above (and not, for a second, doubting his reporting), the most likely scenario for them probably still involves taking either Hischier or Patrick.
Still, there are some trends in their recent history that do at least make you think a bit, and Friedman’s passage above helps us shine some light on them. The Devils haven’t drafted a defenseman in the first round since Adam Larsson in 2011 — and he, of course, is now in Edmonton. They’ve had decent luck drafting defensemen in the second round during that time — Damon Severson and Steven Santini seem like decent young blueliners — but by all means, there’s a lot of work still to be done on defense if they’re looking to build a contender, and it’s tough to see which if any of their current defensemen projects as a top-pair guy long-term.
Contrast that with what they’ve done up front in recent years in the draft. The Devils’ last four first-round picks — Michael McLeod (2016), Pavel Zacha (2015), John Quenneville (2014), and Stefan Matteau (2012) — are all forwards, and while none of them have quite emerged as legitimately good NHL forwards just yet, there’s at least some reason for optimism with that group.
Could the Devils eschew the logic of “take the best player available” from the draft’s top perch and instead look for a need? Again, it seems unlikely. But it’s not that hard to envision a world in which Ray Shero decides his pipeline desperately needs a cornerstone defenseman, such as Miro Heiskanen, Cale Makar, or Timothy Liljegren, and that they can’t wait any longer to get to developing a guy like that.
Of course, as Friedman alludes to, if the Devils really do have their sights set on a defenseman, their best move may be to look to trade down a bit lower into the top-10. And in a draft that appears to have a drop-off in talent after the top two, it wouldn’t be that surprising if they’d find a team that thinks the cost of moving up is worth having their choice of one of Hischier/Patrick. Friedman mentions Vancouver as a possibility; who knows which other teams are high enough on the top centers to make that worth it.
But if they can’t find a dancing partner, are the Devils prepared to go ahead and just take someone like Heiskanen or Makar at No. 1? Our friends over at All About The Jersey profiled Heiskanen — the guy who’s most frequently referred to as the best defenseman in this draft — back in May, and while they acknowledged the fit in their system, they just don’t seem to think taking him is something they could do from the draft’s top spot:
Heiskanen seems to have the potential to turn into a reliable top 4 defensemen that can play in all situations and do it well. He may even have the potential to be a #1 down the road. The tools are certainly there, he just needs to keep getting stronger and rounding out his game. With all that said, there is no way I'd want the Devils to use the top pick on him. Even though he may be the best blueliner in the draft and the Devils really need a prospect like him, I don't see how you could pass up on Patrick or Hischier at #1. That's not a criticism towards Heiskanen but more a compliment to Patrick and Hischier.
But for a second, let’s entertain the thought. What if Shero did take Heiskanen at No. 1, and the Flyers suddenly had their choice of Patrick or Hischier at No. 2? After two months of our fanbase generally accepting that the Flyers aren’t going to have much of a choice at No. 2, it’d be pretty hilarious if they could suddenly have their choice of either one. Additionally, it’d be fascinating to see Ron Hextall — who figured to basically have his choice at No. 2 made up for him — suddenly have to put his cards on the table, and show us which of the draft’s top two prospects he and the Flyers’ scouting team really prefers.
Again, this all still seems hard to believe and I’d still bet strongly that only one of Patrick and Hischier will be on the board around 7:25 p.m. on Friday, June 23, when the Flyers go up to the podium at the United Center to make their pick. But when an internationally respected and plugged-in reporter floats the idea out there, it’s worth at least keeping an eye on it. 13 more days.