New Jersey Devils rookie Nico Hischier wants to be the next Pavel Datsyuk

ByDave Caldwell via ESPN logo
Wednesday, July 19, 2017

NEWARK, N.J. -- Besides being a shrewd judge of talent and a superb deal maker, Lou Lamoriello also happened to be superstitious when he was the general manager of the New Jersey Devils. For example, Lamoriello prohibited any Devils player from wearing No. 13. Why tempt fate?

When centerMike Cammalleriarrived in New Jersey three years ago, he wanted to wear No. 13, as he had for most of his career. But Lamoriello scuttled that idea, and Cammalleri wore No. 23 -- until Ray Shero replaced Lamoriello a year later and said Cammalleri could wear No. 13.

But Cammalleri signed recently as a free agent with the Los Angeles Kings, freeing up the number for Nico Hischier, the 18-year-old center from Switzerland whom the Devils selected with the No. 1 overall pick in June. Hischier has worn No. 13 because it represents skill to him, not luck.

Hischier's favorite hockey player, and the player he thinks he most resembles on the ice, is Pavel Datsyuk, the 38-year-old legendary left-handed center who played for the Detroit Red Wings for 14 years before joining St. Petersburg SKA in the Kontinental Hockey League last season.

Hischier wears No. 13 because Datsyuk wore No. 13. The Devils will decide later whether Hischier will become only the second player in the team's 35-year history to wear No. 13, but even if he is assigned another number, Hischier said he plans to keep playing like Datsyuk.

"I just really like his game," Hischier said at the Devils' development camp last week. "It's just his two-way game -- he's one of the best defensive centers, and offensively, he's pretty good, too. I try to be a center like Datsyuk."

Datsyuk would be a good role model for anyone. He was named one of the 100 greatest players in the 100-year history of the NHL, winning the Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive forward three times and helping the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup twice.

Troy Dumville of NHL Central Scouting regularly watched Hischier play last season for the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and told in an email that "Nico is as complete a player as I have seen in the Q."

Although Dumville said Hischier first reminded him of Washington Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom, he added, "For him to compare himself to Datsyuk is fitting, since he plays a very strong two-way game. He's hard to knock off the puck and protects it well. He has great offensive instincts and makes players around him better. He has high hockey IQ."

But there is apparently much more. Hischier, who at 6 feet, 176 pounds is an inch taller and 18 pounds lighter than Datsyuk was in his NHL playing days, scored 38 goals in 57 games for the Mooseheads, helping them make the QMJHL playoffs a year after the team failed to qualify.

But Hischier also had 48 assists for the Mooseheads in the regular season. He had five game-winning goals, 11 power-play goals and three short-handed goals. He had a team-best plus-20, and he was penalized only 24 minutes all season. Similarly, Datsyuk won the Lady Byng as most gentlemanly player four times in his career.

"[Hischier] was always the first one on the ice, trying to work on offense and defense. He was a good guy, too -- everybody in the room liked him," said Jocktan Chainey, a Mooseheads defenseman from Asbestos, Quebec, whom the Devils selected in the seventh round and who also participated in the Devils' developmental camp.

"He has everything to be a really good player," Chainey said. "He's like a complete player -- even his defense is really good. He also takes care of the boys. If we have supper or something together, he invites everybody."

Hischier's father, Rino, played professional soccer in Switzerland, and his mother, Katja, was a swimmer. His older brother, Luca, plays professional hockey in Switzerland, and his older sister, Nina, played volleyball at a high level. Nico played several sports as a youngster.

Shero has said the Devils selected Hischier mostly because of his talent and potential, calling him "another building block" and a "great fit for us," but it has become apparent Shero liked him personally. Hischier is smart, friendly and polite. His English is nearly perfect.

Shero has tried publicly not to compare Hischier with Nolan Patrick, whom Shero said he also seriously considered. Patrick, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound center, was projected earlier in the season as the potential No. 1 but was taken second overall by the Philadelphia Flyers. But Shero has made it clear that he thinks Hischier's speed and attentiveness to defense made him an ideal fit for the Devils, who are looking to become faster. Shero also had a five-hour lunch in Switzerland before the draft with Hischier, who is much more outgoing and talkative than Patrick.

The Devils have not made the Stanley Cup playoffs since they lost to the Kings in the 2012 Stanley Cup Final, and the team is still attempting to become younger and faster. Hischier helps in both ways, of course, but he also understands that the team might take some more lumps.

"He has a tremendous personality; he has a passion for the game," said John Hynes, who will enter his third season as Devils coach. "When we did an investigation with his family and with Nico, it was really important for us not just to be able to find the right player, but the right person. ... Those are the people you want to have in the organization, the type of people you want to have to help drive the return to greatness."

Devils goaltender Cory Schneider said at the development camp of Hischier: "He seems like a pretty mature and polished kid for an 18-year-old. I know I wasn't that way, but these kids today, they come in more ready than ever."

Later, Schneider added, "I think that's the key, the veteran group. It's up to us to make sure that he doesn't feel that much pressure, or that he's got to be The Guy from day one. Hopefully we can do that and let him be the player that he is, because by all accounts, he's an incredible talent."

Hischier said he was honored to become the first player from Switzerland selected first overall in the draft. Because Switzerland is not as populous and is a smaller hockey outpost than the U.S. or Canada, he has been asked to contribute more, and sooner, for his country's teams in international competitions.

Gilles Senn, a 21-year-old goaltender from Saas-Almagell, Switzerland, who played for Davos in the top level of Swiss professional hockey, remembers being impressed simply that Hischier joined the Swiss under-20 national team last year as a 17-year-old.

"He'd already scored many goals," Senn said. "He's also got his mind on defense. He's not going to forget about it. He also does the dirty work.

"And he's funny," added Senn, who was also at the Devils' developmental camp. "When we met each other at the airport, it was the first time we'd seen each other for a while, and he was just really open, really easy to talk to."

Though the Devils say they are holding a roster spot open for him -- he signed a three-year entry-level contract for the maximum $925,000 on Saturday -- Hischier said he still must earn a Devils jersey, no matter what number is on the back. He acknowledges that wearing No. 13, which he did in Halifax, is not the same as playing like his favorite No. 13.

"I know what I can do, but I still know I have to work hard for it," Hischier said.