The NHL preseason, as ever, is mostly void of meaning for those not fighting for an NHL spot, but this is one of the more exciting preseasons for Devils fans in recent memory with the presence of lots of young talent that could actually become impactful NHLers in the near future. Nico Hischier, perhaps the biggest fish in that pool of young talent, has started his first preseason in a Devils uniform off with a bang, with goals in each of his first two games. Without getting ahead of ourselves, it is at least an encouraging start for the most recent first-overall pick. This got me thinking of where Hischier would have to get to be among the best rookie seasons in a Devils uniform.
To determine this, it requires a look back at what past rookies have done for the Devils. For inquiries such as this, Hockey Reference’s Play Index tool is an invaluable resource. Hischier is the first first-overall selection for the Devils in their history in New Jersey, so it would follow that he has a good shot to put up one of the better rookie seasons in team history. But what is his competition to approach that level?
Since 1982 when the Devils arrived in New Jersey, 37 different qualified rookies have put up at least 20 points in a season. The range of players in this group is wide and weirdly somehow includes Colin White (who never reached 20 points again). Legends like Patrik Elias, Scott Neidermayer, and Brendan Shanahan are included on this list. But there are also some inclusions that didn’t end up doing much in the NHL, such as Jeff “don’t call me Steve” Larmer, Janne Ojanen (who showed up at age 21, scored 30 points in 64 games, and then pretty much disappeared forever), and more recent flameouts like Mattias Tedenby.
A number that feels like a good target to look for from Hischier is around 40 points. The number of Devils rookies who have reached this milestone is a bit shorter, with 10 names making the cut:
- Scott Gomez, 70 points, 1999-00
- Kevin Todd, 63 points, 1991-92
- Kirk Muller, 54 points, 1984-85
- Adam Henrique, 51 points, 2011-12
- Pat Verbeek, 47 points, 1983-84
- Brendan Morrison, 46 points, 1998-99
- Jeff Larmer, 45 points, 1982-83
- Petr Sykora, 42 points, 1995-96
- Travis Zajac, 42 points, 2006-07
- Scott Neidermayer, 40 points, 1992-93
Overall, that’s a solid list with a couple outliers. If Hischier can get into this territory in today’s NHL with this roster, that can probably be considered a success. If he were to get to 55 points, a target that is ambitious but probably not outrageous, that would put him top-three in Devils history and at least in the conversation for best Devils rookie season. Gomez’s 70 points feel like a bridge a bit too far to expect from an 18-year-old on a roster where nobody scored over 53 points last season, but eclipsing that would probably make him a near-lock for the 3rd Calder Trophy in Devils history. Is it possible? Maybe if he and Hall end up together on the top line and really get into a groove, but it’s probably pretty unlikely if we’re being real with ourselves. Still, given that there are no Ovechkin/Crosby/Lemieux type seasons lurking in Devils history, he has a punchers chance to end up on top, even if its a little bit of a longshot.
The goals column presents a little bit of a bigger opportunity to Hischier to find his way to the top of the list. Only 22 Devils rookies have ever put up double digit goals for the season, which is a plateau you would assume Hischier can top, barring injury or being sent back to Halifax. Raise that mark to 20 goals and only 3 Devils have ever scored that many as a rookie. For Hischier to break into the top-ten rookie seasons for goal scoring, he’d have to put up 16 goals. The top ten breaks down as such:
- Jeff Larmer, 21 goals, 1982-83
- Kevin Todd, 21 goals, 1991-92
- Pat Verbeek, 20 goals, 1983-84
- Scott Gomez, 19 goals, 1999-00
- Patrik Elias, 18 goals, 1997-98
- Petr Sykora, 18 goals, 1995-96
- Kirk Muller, 17 goals, 1984-85
- Janne Ojanen, 17 goals, 1989-90
- Travis Zajac, 17 goals, 2006-07
- Adam Henrique, 16 goals, 2011-12
So the rookie record for goals by a Devil sits at just 21, which seems fairly reachable over a full season. In fact, 53 active NHLers have reached that level in their rookie season. Compare that with the 70-point mark, which just six active NHLers achieved as a rookie, and it seems like Hischier will have a much better chance at catching the top rookie goal output than he does the top point output.
Hopes and Expectations
Hischier will have plenty of pressure on him as the first overall pick this season without expectations of being the best Devils rookie ever. Expecting something like that is not particularly fair to the player or even to ourselves as fans, as it leaves a lot of room for disappointment. But there is a difference between expectations and hopes for a player in a given season. I’m certainly not saying Hischier is for sure going to set the world on fire and win the Calder Trophy handily while breaking all the Devils rookie marks. I also don’t think that is necessarily impossible.
So what are the expectations for Hischier if he plays a full season in New Jersey? His hot start to the preseason notwithstanding, I’m still setting mine somewhere around 40-45 points and 10-15 goals. Only six teenagers have ever put up 20 or more points in a Devils uniform, so apples-to-apples that would put him right near the top of the heap with Verbeek and Muller. That seems like a fair level to expect from the young Swiss forward.
I do think it’s possible for him to go beyond that, though. As has been discussed at length previously, he is the only first-overall pick in Devils history. And if he ends up in the right situation, say on a line with Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri, he certainly has the opportunity to land among the top Devils rookie seasons ever. Can he be as good as Gomez was when he was an integral part of a Cup team? Or Neidermayer when he put up 40 points as a rookie defenseman? That will be a tall order, but not impossible. He does have a chance to join Gomez and a guy by the name of Martin Brodeur as the third Devils Calder winner in history, though. His competition for that trophy this season will be fairly robust, with second-overall pick Nolan Patrick across the Delaware and a number of top players from the previous two drafts set to debut as well, so time will tell. Honestly, though, it’s nice just to be able to consider such a season a possibility.