By Scott Wheeler
January 3, 2017
In a tournament dominated by 19-year-olds, draft-eligible forwards rarely find themselves in the spotlight.
That’s what made Nico Hischier‘s performance for Switzerland at the 2017 IIHF World Junior Championshp so special.
“Their guy (Hischier) was the best player we’d seen in this tournament,” Team USA coach Bob Motzko declared after his group edged Switzerland 3-2 in the quarterfinal Monday. “We tried all four lines against him and I thought he was playing every shift because every time he got out there the ice was tilted.
“The first thing we said when we got into the locker room was that that’s the best player we’ve seen in the tournament.”
The 17-year-old Hischier led his team in scoring through to their close quarterfinal loss to the United States on Monday night.
In four round robin games, he tied for the team lead in scoring alongside Washington Capitals prospects Damien Riat and Jonas Siegenthaler with five points, and did so centering Switzerland’s top line while matched against the opposing team’s top defenders.
Hischier led all forwards in the tournament in average time on ice through the quarters.
He added three points on three Swiss goals in pre-tournament action against Canada, too.
It should come as no surprise, though.
After being selected sixth overall by the Halifax Mooseheads in the 2016 CHL Import Draft, the young forward has taken the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League by storm as a rookie with 48 points in 31 games to sit fourth in the league in points-per-game, and first among all freshmen.
That skill was on display Monday.
With the Swiss down 2-0 and on the brink of elimination against the United States, Hischier danced around Charlie McAvoy (Boston Bruins) before beating Tyler Parsons(Calgary Flames) to cut into the lead.
Later, in the third, he drew a hooking penalty Tage Thompson (St. Louis Blues) to send Switzerland to a power play.
Then, a moment — the kind of iconic moment the World Juniors have built over and over — as Hischier tied the game on a wraparound.
“I tried to lift the puck near post but I couldn’t and then I saw the opportunity for the wraparound,” the 6-foot, 174-pound draft hopeful said of his game-tying play.
And with 4:09 left, he nearly did it again, robbed by Parsons to deny him the hat trick.
But it wasn’t enough.
Even as Switzerland outshot the Americans, Jordan Greenway (Minnesota Wild) picked up the decisive 3-2 goal, sending Hischier and the Swiss home in heart-breaking fashion.
With the Toronto crowd behind Switzerland, Hischier knew he almost pulled his team into the semi-final.
“We said in the locker room the crowd is on our side and that pushed us, it was good for us,” he said. “It was amazing playing with this crowd, I think I will never forget this tournament, it’s such a big thing.”
After it all, Hischier was named Switzerland’s Player of the Game and one of its top three players of the tournament.
This limelight isn’t new, though.
In Switzerland, Hischier has always been special, hailed as the next big thing.
He played professionally at 16 with SC Bern last year after posting 28 points in 18 games in Switzerland’s under-20 league.
He also posted four points in five games at the U18 Worlds, where he was also named one of Switzerland’s three best players, and another six points in four games at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup.
That body of work, his start in Halifax, and performance at the World Juniors helped Hischier to a fourth-place slotting in Future Considerations’ Winter ranking for the 2017 NHL Draft. Should he go fourth, or higher, he would become the highest Swiss-born player ever taken in the NHL Draft.
Hischier’s teammates know he has nothing to worry about at the draft.
“He’s obviously going to get drafted,” Riat said.
“He’s a great player. He’s going to have a long career.”
“He’s a great player, skilled, speed,” Siegenthaler added.
“He’s going to make his career in the NHL for sure.”
Even opposing players recognize Hischier is special too.
“He’s a real good player,” Team USA forward Jeremy Bracco (Toronto Maple Leafs) said. “You have to be aware of him every time he’s on the ice so that just speaks volumes to him being so young and having such an impact.”
Hischier tries not to focus on the unique attention he gets, though.
“You personally, you have to put you in the back of your head, so I’m not happy (with the tournament),” he said.
“I’m proud of the way I played but I don’t think about that right now.”
He doesn’t want to get caught up in the draft hype either.
Hischier says he hasn’t even considered whether he could go first overall.
“Now I have to go back to Halifax,” he said. “I have a half season left so I will look at the draft after the whole season but not right now. I want to improve all my skills and get stronger.”
Nor does Hischier listen to the comparisons.
The ones that call him, with all his speed, the Swiss Connor McDavid.
“I just try to focus on hockey and have fun and keep working hard,” he said.
But Christian Wohlwend, Switzerland’s coach, thinks his top player has all the right tools to be dominant at the next level.
“He has everything,” Wohlwend said.
“He has to get bigger, and hopefully he can play a 20-year NHL career.”