QUEBEC â€” There will be 40 players dressed for the Canadian junior Top Prospects Game but most eyes will on only two of them â€” Brandon Wheat Kings centre Nolan Patrick and Halifax Mooseheads forward Nico Hischier.
Patrick and Hischier are expected to go first and second in the NHL draft June 23 in Chicago and each was named captain of a team for the game Monday night at the Centre Videotron.
“I have a lot of respect for him, but I’m not going into the game thinking it’s me against Nico,” said Patrick. “I just want to help my team and play the best I can.”
Patrick leads Team Orr, which includes Windsor Spitfires forward Gabe Vilardi, who is ranked third by NHL Central Scouting among North American skaters. Hischier is on Team Cherry, whose roster includes Windsor goaltender Michael DiPietro.
Dozens of NHL scouts will be gathering information on how the best players from the three Canadian-based major junior leagues perform against their peers.
Patrick, who missed out on last year’s draft due to a late birthday, has been the consensus No. 1 choice my most scouting services since the start of the season. But the Winnipeg native missed 35 games with an abdominal injury while Hischier’s stock soared after a standout performance for Switzerland four weeks ago at the world junior championship.
The six-foot-three Patrick developed a sports hernia while leading Brandon to a Western Hockey League title last season, when he had 102 points in the regular season and added 30 in 21 post-season contests.
He played only six games this season before he was injured again. It caused him to miss the world junior tournament but Patrick looks to have picked up where he left off when he returned on Jan. 14.
He hopes to demonstrate to the scouts what the injury is now completely healed.
“I took a little extra time,” he said. “I probably could have played about two weeks earlier but I wanted to be 100 per cent and make sure I wasn’t going to tweak it or anything. It’s good now. No pain.”
What hurt was missing the world juniors, where he likely would have been Canada’s only draft-eligible player and, maybe, the difference in winning or losing in a shootout to the U.S. in the final. If he is drafted first overall, he’ll likely be in the NHL when next year’s world junior is played.
“When I noticed that my injury wouldn’t be ready on time I didn’t pout about it, I turned my focus to supporting my teammate Kale Clague who went there,” said Patrick. “He represented our team really well.
“My main goal is to get drafted and hopefully make the NHL next year. It sucks to miss a chance to play for your country but it is what it is and I just focused on my rehab.”
Patrick comes from a hockey family. His grandfather played football for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and his uncle James Patrick played 1,280 NHL games for the New York Rangers, Hartford, Calgary and Buffalo. His father Steve Patrick was also an NHL player, lacing up 250 times for Buffalo, the Rangers and the Quebec Nordiques.
He is among three Team Cherry players whose fathers were once Nordiques along with defenceman Callan Foote, son of Adam Foote, and forward Jake Leschyshyn, son of Curtis Leschyshyn.
“He said he really liked it here,” said Nolan Patrick. “He’s happy to come back and watch the game. He had nothing but good things to say about Quebec.”
While Patrick is in his fourth year of junior hockey, Hischier is leading the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in rookie scoring with 68 points in 40 games. Scouts already knew the six-foot, 175-pounder was good, but he opened more eyes while putting up seven points in five games at the world juniors, where Switzerland lost a tight quarter-final 3-2 to the U.S.
American coach Bob Motzko called him “the best player we’ve seen in the tournament.”
Dominique Ducharme, who coached Canada at the world juniors and is a Team Orr assistant coach, was also impressed.
“We saw him score big goals at big times at the world juniors,” said Ducharme, who coaches the Drummondville Voltigeurs. “If you’re a scout, if you want to build a team, you want players who can rise up in those moments and make a difference and I think he is a difference maker.”
“It was such a great experience,” Hischier said of the world juniors. “We had a good group of guys in the locker-room so it was fun to play there, but there’s a lot of hockey to play until June so I have to keep it up and work hard.”
The Naters, Switzerland native has a chance to be the highest-drafted player from his country ever, topping Minnesota forward Nino Niederreiter who went fifth overall in 2010.
And he also doesn’t see the Top Prospects contest as a two-man show.
“It’s 20 against 20, not one against one,” he said.
The players were put through skills testing on Sunday. They will have one skate with their teammates Monday morning before the game.
The event is officially called the Sherwin-Williams CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game.
Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press