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Nico Should Be the First Line Center

We’ve experimented a bit in the preseason on who the first line center should be. To me, Nico is the best choice to take over for Zajac in that role.

Washington Capitals v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images


It’s been about 6 weeks since the Devils announced top center Travis Zajac would be out for 4-6 months. In the article, John commented:

When I wrote about Adam Henrique becoming more expendable earlier this Summer, the stats suggested that Zajac was the better center and a superior option as a first-line center for this team. Now, Henrique could very well be the first-line center by default.

(Aside: Coincidentally, there have been similar circumstances in the past. The last time Zajac had a significant offseason injury was in 2011. This opened the door for a rookie named Adam Henrique to make the Devils roster. He got a shot at the top line and held it for the most part until Zajac returned. Granted, that was on a way better Devils team than this one. Better coaching, better defense, better depth, and that first line featured two amazing wingers to help “carry” any center: Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk.) When I wrote about Adam Henrique becoming more expendable earlier this Summer, the stats suggested that Zajac was the better center and a superior option as a first-line center for this team. Now, Henrique could very well be the first-line center by default.

It’s true. In his first season, Henrique was thrown into a huge responsibility. He was to center our top line with two all-star wingers. He was excellent. He registered what is still a career-high 51 points while playing 18:10 minutes a game (same as this past season). You may say that was buoyed by these amazing linemates. Well, first of all, his possession numbers were pretty much the same whether or not he was with them and his scoring chances numbers actually went up without them. Second, according to WAR, which takes great pains to adjust for teammate quality, Henrique was independently worth 6.99 goals. To put that in perspective, firstly, Patrick Laine’s incredible rookie season this past year in which he registered 36 goals and 28 assisted got him a GAR of 6.7. And secondly, Henrique only just worked back to that rookie year level of value this past year.

Henrique thrived when he was put in a position to succeed and given a lot of responsibility early. He wasn’t just with better players, he actually played better himself.

Now this could be an argument for Henrique at 1C, but I now view Henrique as a self-sufficient player, capable of carrying a lower line. He may thrive in the 1C, but we don’t need him there. The guy that goes in that spot should be this year’s Henrique. A guy with the skill to succeed, whose poise and maturity won’t drag down a top line, and whose development can be expedited by playing alongside the elite players with whom he belongs.

Nico’s Preseason

Nico’s preseason has been electric. Whether he’s tipping in a pass from Hall in the first line role I’m advocating, creating scoring chances for others, or generating goals all by himself, he’s been thrilling to watch. He nabbed a goal and an assist playing with Johansson and Stafford in PEI. He played okay with Bratt and Noesen in Montreal (50% Corsi) but then lit it up with Hall and Palmieri registering a 6:1 scoring chance ratio and putting that video feed from Hall in the back of the net. And he seemed a bit buried in that Washington line with Jimmy Hayes and John Quenneville.

It’s clear that playing with guys like Hall, Palmieri, and Johansson will help him to be in situations where his offensive skills are most likely to be utilized to their fullest. Furthermore, those guys are at their best when they play with him. We saw this very explicitly with Johansson in PEI where Mojo had, clearly, his best game of the preseason (1G, 3A), as did Drew Stafford (2G, 1A). But, Hall and Palmieri also seem to excel with Hischier centering them. Take a look at the WOWY for Taylor Hall in the preseason below (stats from NaturalStatTrick—PEI game not recorded).

First off, I’d like to establish the caveats with this data. First of all it’s a very small sample size — 6 minutes, actually. Second, it’s preseason so these games don’t matter. Third Nico’s stats may be inflated because of those zone start numbers. Fourth, they played at different times of the game with different score effects.

THAT SAID: What this tells us is that Nico was put in situations where he was in sheltered zone positions with Hall and Palimeri and excelled in them. This isn’t a high bar to clear, but he cleared it. Hall’s Corsi went up by 14.35% when Marcus Johansson was out, and down by 15.59% when Hischier was out. Now Hischier’s stats may be slightly inflated ... but Johansson’s should be better. Playing in even zone-start scenarios with the best two skaters on the team who have established chemistry should get you more than 48% of the shot attempts. In fact, Nico has had a positive effect on most of his linemates.

You can debate whether or not we have sufficient evidence to convince doubters that he deserves the 1C position, but he certainly hasn’t done much of anything to disprove he belongs. The only chink in the armor is his faceoff percentage of 41.7%. So bearing in mind both his strengths and his weaknesses, let’s compare him to his competition for the slot.

Other Options at 1C

The way the preseason has played out, Zacha Johansson, Henrique, and Hischier are the possible candidates for 1C.

Marcus Johansson: This seemed like Hynes’s Plan A. He threw them together most of the game against Washington (6.5 minutes Mojo, vs. 1.5 for Nico). Then the weight slid towards Hischier in the next game (5.75 Mojo, 3.6 Nico). Mojo got one assist in those two games and it was actually while playing with Noesen and Bratt as Hischier got the top C slot. Mojo was not as good at Nico in the same position and his faceoff ratio (41.4%) was actually just under Nico’s. I would find justification for Mojo over Nico difficult to understand at this point. Mojo belongs on the wing IMO.

Adam Henrique: For whatever reason, they don’t seem to be trying this at all right now. Henrique has played exactly zero even strength minutes with Palmieri and Hall this preseason. However, as mentioned above, his best season came when he was put between other top talent. His history playing with top liners, history playing with Taylor Hall, and his preseason faceoff success (60.6%) make him a decent candidate. As I said before though, we know who Henrique is , and he can anchor a 2nd line effectively. He put up 30 goals in a season where Lee Stempniak was his main linemate. Stemper was on a 53-point pace with the Devils which would have been a career high for the 32-year-old. Henrique was certainly not irrelevant to that renaissance. Even on a 3rd line, he could be the finisher that capitalizes on the possession driven by guys like Stefan Noesen.

Pavel Zacha: This is the interesting one. After it looked like Nico was picking up ground on Mojo for the 1C job, outta nowhere, Zacha gets placed with Hall and Palmieri for the majority of the 8-1 drubbing of Ottawa in Hockeyville. And, as he has been all preseason, he was great. He added 2 goals and an assist to his total bringing him up to 5 points in the preseason. Both goals were assisted by Hall and Palmieri indicating real chemistry. His pedigree as the 6th overall pick makes his ceiling appealing as well. That said, his faceoff numbers are almost as poor as Nico’s, and Zacha played really well with other units earlier in the preseason. His improvement when placed on the top line was not as evident as Nico’s.

Concluding Thoughts

My first choice (for now ... I’ve waffled a bunch already) is Hischier on the top line, Henrique centering Mojo and someone else (Stafford?) on the 2nd line, and Zacha on a third line that has Noesen, with whom he worked well last year, and someone else (Bratt?).

My second choice would be Zacha on the top line, but I don’t know which of Hischier and Henrique gets buried on a third line. And I’m not sure if I’m okay with either. If preseason is indicative of anything ... which it may not be ... Henrique would go to the third. FWIW, The Hockey Writers project this scenario exactly.

The way I see it, getting Nico going would just be such an exciting event for the fanbase and the team. Our improbable 1st overall pick landing big time is a faith-inducing adrenaline shot to what could be a very frustrating season otherwise.

Your Thoughts

What do you guys think? Has Zacha earned it? Are they playing coy and really Henrique’s had it all along? Should Mojo get a second shot? Do you think Nico can succeed no matter where he’s put? Let me know what you think in the comments.