Back in June, the New Jersey Devils faithful were largely thrilled when the team selected Nico Hischier first overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. The hype was real as Nico went to sporting events, received jerseys, and even had a sandwich named after him at the legendary Hobby’s Deli in Newark. Fans popped huge when Nico’s face came on screen at the home opener in a pregame video package and were thrilled with what he did on the ice. Nico had the dangles, the distribution, the bravery, and the backchecks in his NHL debut. That debut featured 15:44 of ice time and six shots on net. It was a sign of things to come.
As the Devils sparkled through October, Hischier was not even the best rookie on his own team. Jesper Bratt and Will Butcher emerged as they piled up points and specialized on special teams. What’s more is that it is not a case that the Devils have really held Nico Hischier back. He has received plenty of minutes on a top line with the team’s top skater, Taylor Hall, and veteran right winger Drew Stafford. Prior to Sunday’s game against Calgary, Hischier has provided two goals, six assists, and 21 shots in his first twelve games. That is not at all a bad statline, however it is a little surprising that a clearly talented skater like Nico Hischier does not have more. Since his two-goal, one-assist performance in Ottawa, he has put up just one assist and seven shots in the following five games. I suspect the player could use some help to succeed more with the team. I think there are some ways the Devils can do this and do this right now.
Get Nico Off the Top Line - for Now
Before the Calgary game, Nico Hischier has one of the lowest CF% values on the team according to Natural Stat Trick. Hischier has a CF% of 44.41%, the fifth lowest on the team. This means when he has been on the ice, the Devils have been out-attempted quite a bit. His shots-for (SF% of 42.59%) and chances-for (SCF% of 45.75%) percentages are also well below 50%; meaning the Devils have also been out-shot and out-chanced when he’s on the ice. That is not at all good for an offensive player. Nico Hischier has some impressive skills with the puck. As good as it is that he’s willing to backcheck and pick up players deep in his own zone, he would be better suited in more offensive situations.
The coaches have been trying to do that. According to Natural Stat Trick, Hischier has an offensive zone start percentage of 63.21%. This means that he’s starting more shifts in the offensive zone than the defensive zone. Additionally, as per NHL.com, Hischier is second on the team in total power play ice time with 32:03 according to and fifth on the team in power play ice time per game with 2:40. That’s all good. But there is one larger issue: his line in 5-on-5.
Over the past few weeks, Hischier has been centering Hall and Drew Stafford. Per Natural Stat Trick, over eighty of his 137 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey has been with those two. That link goes to a WOWY and it is clear that Hischier has not played well with Hall and Stafford. Hischier’s CF% with Hall is a miserable 41.91%. With Stafford, it’s a low 45.03%. Both Hischier and Hall have much higher CF%s apart from each other. That means the team has been more offensive, which is what you’d want when offensively talented players like Hall and Hischier are on the ice. Why is it different when they are together? Opposing teams tend to get their best forwards and defensemen out against Hall and Hischier and the Devils have lost that match-up battle plenty of times in this short season. While Hall is used to those power-for-power matchups, it has definitely undercut what Hischier is capable of doing. While I’ve witnessed Hall and Hischier playing well off each other in moments, it’s just that - moments. They’re not creating nearly enough offense to make up for how much is being allowed. While Hischier has all of twelve games of NHL experience and less than that with Hall, it is clear: this combination is not working at the moment.
Making matters partially worse is Stafford. He’s up in this role because Kyle Palmieri is injured. Stafford has been bad in the run of play with and without Hischier. He has a good shot but he is not driving any play in the right direction and he is not contributing a ton on defense. While I understand his usage as the de facto top right wing for the time being, it is another component as to why Hischier is not able to do more on offense - which is where his skillset truly lies.
Therefore, this Hall-Hischier-Stafford line needs to be changed up for the benefit of all involved. While the ideal solution is for Travis Zajac to come back and be that power-for-power capable center that he has been in his career, the Devils have to do something in the interim. While not ideal, it may be time to give Adam Henrique or Pavel Zacha a shot at that role. This will allow Hischier to play on a lesser line, where he can receive more favorable match-ups in 5-on-5. This may give him and his linemates more of an opportunity to attack and Hischier can have more opportunities there.
The good news is that the coaches have started along this wavelength. In Edmonton on November 3, Pavel Zacha eventually received more ice time with Hall than Hischier in 5-on-5 play as per Natural Stat Trick. Jesper Bratt also received five minutes with Hall too. The Devils were playing with eleven forwards so some shifting of the lines was required. But I don’t think those players played that much on purpose. It wasn’t so much a removal as it was trying some other looks. The Devils started in Calgary with Hall, Hischier, and Bratt. While not ideal as the Hall-Hischier connection still received Calgary’s top defenders; it is a different look. This is encouraging, but I would still encourage the coaches to move Hischier down a line or two for a few games and see if that works out like the WOWY numbers suggest. Even if Hall put away a rebound created by Hischier for a goal in Calgary; one event or one good game does not undo the eighty-plus minutes of evidence. It is time to consider something else. (Of course, if Hall-Hischier-Bratt becomes crazy good, then I stand to be proven wrong - as usual.)
Figure Out His Power Play Role
Hischier has played quite a bit on the power play. Yet, he only has two assists and five shots for all of his power play ice time so far per NHL.com. While that is not too bad, it does leave me wondering whether he could do more. Per Natural Stat Trick, his most common power play teammates have been Damon Severson, Marcus Johansson, Pavel Zacha, and Drew Stafford. In other words, Hischier has mostly been on the second unit. In theory, that may be fine. Why stick him on a unit that already would have Palmieri, Hall, etc. who would command and demand the puck? The issue here is purpose. What is Hischier’s role on this unit?
Seriously, what is Hischier’s role on this unit? Typically, power play units are devised to have some general approach to how they do business. Stafford is typically in the middle, Johansson was on the sides, and Severson has been the point man. Is Hischier’s role primarily to distribute first and shoot second? Is it more of a free role? Is he to work up close or from the perimeter? Is he even taking the puck in? Given that Severson went into the Calgary game second in power play shots with nine and Stafford is tied with Hischier with five; I guess the offense is largely coming from the back. If that’s where the shot is, fine, but there are some questions yet to be answered as to what this second unit is doing and what Hischier needs to do it.
I don’t mean this to be sarcastic, I’m not really sure. This could be a case that Hischier has played all of twelve games and nobody really knows what is best for him on a power play other than that he should be involved. I’d rather give him a set role to see how he’ll perform and then adjust. If it is to work from the sides, then try that. If it is to play around the back, then so be it. If it is to carry the puck in - something I’d give him a chance at given his stickhandling skills - then so be it. I know the unit has seen some changes due to injuries and so forth, but a more defined role for Hischier can help himself and the power play.
Why Not Some More Penalty Killing Time?
After the Vancouver game, Mike Morreale had this quote from head coach John Hynes about Hischier:
#NJDevils coach John Hynes was asked to comment about those nights when Nico looks like he doesn't seem to have it going. Great response. pic.twitter.com/4wHXSKIFxN— Mike Morreale (@mikemorrealeNHL) November 3, 2017
It’s a great quote that shows a coach who is supporting his talented rookie forward. I also raised my eyebrow at the middle of it. Apparently, Hynes thinks he can use him on the penalty kill. According to NHL.com, Hischier has played all of 6:09 shorthanded this season. I guess that meets “can use.” It doesn’t mean he is regularly using him. He has not. The penalty killing forwards have largely been Brian Gibbons, Henrique, Bratt, and Blake Coleman. The Devils have found quite a bit of success with an aggressive penalty kill. Why not add a young forward who is very good at stickhandling the puck and demonstrated that he can play some defense?
This is not to say that Hischier should replace any of those four forwards. However, the Devils have been on the penalty kill quite a lot so far this season. There have been and are opportunities for some other forwards to spell them for a shift of two. Why not add a young forward who can stick handle the puck well and has already demonstrated an understanding of what defense is? While this may not get Hischier’s offensive game going, it is another way where he can contribute in a positive way. Success is not only putting more points and shots. As Hynes said in the quote, killing penalties is a way someone can help a team win a game. So why not use him on the PK more often than just chance shifts? I think it is something the Devils should try to incorporate more and more, especially when they have those nights where they’re killing four or more calls. (And it appears it has been given in the Calgary game.)
What Do You Think
Nico Hischier is very talented and he has a long future in this game and hopefully it will all be with the Devils. There is something to be said about patience. The young man just played his 13th game in the NHL. However, the Devils could make some changes to how he is used in 5-on-5, penalty kill, and power play situations that could have him succeed more than he has been. This was largely written prior to the game in Calgary, where Hischier created two goals from rebounds off his shots. Still, the more he can succeed on offense or on defense, the more he will grow as a player and the more he helps New Jersey right now. I’m confident he will grow even if the Devils do nothing; again, it’s not like Hischier has been bad. But some adjustments could really help all involved and make him stand out like Bratt and Butcher has done already.
What do you think the Devils should do with Nico Hischier? Should they put him with a different line in 5-on-5? What do you want to see him doing on the power play? Should he be utilized more on the penalty kill? What other adjustments could the Devils make with the young man? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Hischier in the comments. Thank you for reading.