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A Closer Look at New Jersey Devils Rookie Sensation Nico Hischier

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The New Jersey Devils drafted Nico Hischier first overall in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft. As the 2017-18 winds to a close, Nico Hischier has been an offensive contributor in 5-on-5 play and put up one of the best rookie seasons in Devils franchise history. This post takes a closer look at Nico Hischier and his season so far.

New Jersey Devils v Vegas Golden Knights
The rookie sensation celebrates yet another point on the board.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

On April 29, 2017, the New Jersey Devils won the 2017 NHL Draft Lottery for the team’s first-ever first overall draft pick. After nearly two months of “Nico vs. Nolan,” the Devils selected Nico Hischier on June 23, 2017. Nico Hischier has been a mainstay on the New Jersey Devils’ top line in 2017-18. After playing a pivotal role in the team’s recent set of back-to-back wins over Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, the love for Nico has only grown. As it should. It is a good time as any to take a closer look at the marvelous season from the team’s rookie sensation.

Nico Hischier’s Season So Far - The Good

According to NHL.com, Nico Hischier has played 75 games and has put up 18 goals, 31 assists, and 169 shots with a per-game average ice time of 16:09. Hischier is the only Devil to have appeared in every game this season. His 18 goals are the third most on the team; his 31 assists are the third most on the team; his 49 points are the second most on the team; and his 169 shots are the second most on the team. As you may expect, Taylor Hall is the team leader in all of the aforementioned categories.

In 5-on-5 play, Hischier has been a positive factor. According to Natural Stat Trick, his Corsi For% (shot attempts for out of all shooting attempts) is below 50% at 49.24%. However, it ranks ninth on the team (min. 200 TOI in 5-on-5 play) and his relative CF% is a +1.21%. What that means is that when Hischier is on the ice, the proportion of attempts by the Devils improves. Related to that, his relative CF/60 (shot attempts for per 60 minutes) is +7.08, currently the third highest on the team. What that means is that when Hischier steps on the ice, the Devils are attacking more. That’s exactly what you want from someone who has been on the top line.

Other 5-on-5 stats follow a similar path. For just shots alone, while Hischier has a SF% of 50.42% - which is at least above breakeven. Again, Hischier’s relative shots for stats are positive: his relative SF% is a +1.27% and his relative SF/60 is +5.02, which is currently the highest on the team. For scoring chances, here it is again. Hischier’s SCF% is 48.75%; but his relative SCF% is +0.47% and his relative SCF/60 is one of the higher ones on the team at +4.22 (third to be exact). When Hischier takes a shift, the Devils are creating more offense than when he is not on the ice in 5-on-5 play, the most common situation in hockey.

So he’s present for creating offense in 5-on-5 play. What about the goals? Of course, there are goals. Hischier’s GF/60 is the highest on the team at 3.98. His GF% is the third best on the team at 56.48%. The relative stats are also quite positive. His relative GF% is a fantastic +11.46% and his relative GF/60 is a whopping 1.96. If you need goals in 5-on-5 play, then the numbers say it loudly: get Nico on the ice.

Of course, when Nico is taking a shift, so is Superstar Left Winger and team leader of offense, Taylor Hall. Nico and Hall have had a lot of time together. 795:10 and counting in all situations according to Natural Stat Trick (all numbers in this paragraph come from Natural Stat Trick). 703:31 of that has been in 5-on-5 play. Hischier has played with the Superstar more than anyone else this season. Has that led to a lot of production? Yes. Has it led to a lot of good things on the ice in 5-on-5 play? Yes. Combined, they have a CF% of 49.3%, a SF% of 50.57%, a SCF% of 48.56%, and a GF% of 58.33% which came from 49 goals for and 35 against. Other than the goals, those numbers don’t exactly scream dominance. And Hall has had better percentages away from Hischier. But consider the situations they are usually in. These two often draw the opponent’s best defenders and forwards. To end up close to 50% across the board with a great level of production is rather good. Plus, the relative stats are all positive. Hall and Nico have a relative CF% of +1.81%, a relative SF% of +2.75%, a relative SCF% of +2.42%, and a relative GF% of +12.06%. Again, when Hall and Hischier are both on the ice this season, the Devils have seen gains in attempts, shots, scoring chances, and goals in 5-on-5 play. Hischier isn’t dragging Hall down; he’s been hanging with him and that has led to many beautiful things on the ice.

There’s even more to gush about Hischier. Assuming the count at Natural Stat Trick is correct, Hischier leads the team with 32 penalties drawn. While Hall has a massive lead on Hischier in total points, Hischier (39) has only five fewer 5-on-5 points than Hall (44). There is also in how Hischier plays that is just impressive. The 19-year old is officially listed at 6’1” and 175 pounds. I don’t know how much he actually weighs now, but he’s definitely not a beefy player. He could absolutely stand to put on some muscle. Yet, he has shown no fear in dealing with pressure, taking contact, and getting into high-traffic areas to make plays. Just look at the two highlights from the recent wins over Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay:

In overtime, Hischier manages to get past a beefy Phil Kessel, keep the puck away from him while taking a hit, and fire a stretch pass right to Hall with Kris Letang bearing down on him.

On the next night, after playing a tight game in Pittsburgh, Hischier goes around the offensive zone to find an option for a pass and then weaves his way to get in front of a big defenseman named Braydon Coburn. At the crease, he’s able to bang home a rebound.

Both are plays that even larger players may shy away from or end up faltering against for one reason or another. Taking on pressure is hard. Skating around bodies to get up close and personal with a defender and a goalie is hard. Going into the corners to fish out pucks and win battles is hard. Hischier is often giving up size in doing so and yet he’s not only been able to do it for 75 games, but he’s been successful. Skill guys often get stereotyped as players who can shoot the puck well, pass the puck well, and handle the puck well - but often wilt in physical situations or do not usually get involved. Hischier is very much a skill player who can thrive in these spots. Hall is a similar player in that regard. No wonder the two have meshed together.

All told, Hischier has been exactly what I’ve hoped the Devils drafted. I was hoping the Devils drafted an offensive player and they have that player right now. At age 19, he’s making significant contributions to the team while playing relatively well with the team’s best player. I am looking forward to what is next for Nico Hischier.

Nico Hischier’s Season So Far - What Needs Improvement

Not everything for Nico Hischier has been so hot. There are two aspects of his game that do need some improvement beyond putting on some muscle. Namely because they do not look good by the numbers or by eye sight.

First, faceoffs. Faceoffs aren’t that meaningful in the larger scheme of hockey seasons. But they can be useful in specialized situations, such as a power play, a penalty kill, or after taking an icing. Hischier has not been winning many faceoffs. According to NHL.com, he’s taken 873 draws and won 376 of them for a winning percentage of 43.1%. His even strength faceoff winning rate is worse at 42.5%. That Hischier has respectable on-ice rates and positive relative rates in 5-on-5 play despite losing most of his draws should show how little they matter in the overall run of play. Still, he will not be replacing Travis Zajac (51%) or Brian Boyle (50.6%) for those important draws anytime soon.

Second, Hischier has been a non-factor on the power play. Granted, this is mostly outside of the player’s control. The issues with Geoff Ward’s system involve everyone, including the rookie sensation. He’s also been utilized more on the second unit than the first one. As a result, it’s not a surprise that Hischier only has one power play goal (which off a rush instead of an actual power play set-up) and five assists. Hischier’s relative SF/60 rate in power play situations is a massive -13.58, the worst among skaters with at least 100 power play minutes. His on-ice SF/60 rate is 44.38, the worst among skaters with at least 100 power play minutes. That means when he’s out there, the Devils’ power play is generating even fewer shots than when he’s not out there. Being on that lesser second unit does not help him at all. I suspect that he’s not being utilized correctly either. For the Devils to get more out of Hischier, they’ll have to figure out better ways to use his skillset in man advantage situations. He’s done so much in 5-on-5 play that he’s surely able to provide something on that end of special teams.

Sort of related, I think the Devils would utilize him more on the PK if they didn’t already have Blake Coleman, Brian Gibbons, Travis Zajac, Michael Grabner, Jesper Bratt, and Pavel Zacha ahead of him. I think that will increase in the future as Hischier has been shown he can defend in tough situations.

How Does Nico Compare with Other Rookies in 2017-18?

Hischier is having a great season. However, he’s not going to win the Calder Trophy. Mathew Barzal is one of the top scorers in the whole league with 76 points in 75 games right now. Rookies like that do not come along very often. In my view, the trophy is his to lose. Additionally, Brock Boeser on Vancouver was piling up the points at a high rate before his season was cut short due to injury. There’s also Kyle Connor, who is about to reach 30 goals; Charlie McAvoy, who is one of Boston’s top defensemen right now; and we could see 60-point seasons out of 26-year old rookie out-of-nowhere Yanni Gourde and Arizona’s own rookie sensation, Clayton Keller. Nico has done quite well for himself, but he hasn’t necessarily out performed these players. I do think the production will get him more notice than, say, Danton Heinan, Pierre-Luc DuBois, or Alex DeBrincat. As such, expect some Calder votes to go his way, but I wouldn’t expect him to be a finalist in this season.

Still, reaching 50 points as a rookie is an achievement. Since the salary cap era began with the 2005-06 season, Hischier needs only one point to join a group of only 40 players who have earned at least 50 points in their rookie seasons according to Hockey-Reference. Of those 40, only 16 were under the age of 20 by February 1 of that particular season. The only name in that group who has not went on (or is expected to) have an excellent career is Peter Mueller. Hischier is set to join some select company with just one more point - something he should surely earn in the next seven games.

By the way, I feel like I should point out that Nolan Patrick has played in 67 games, took 109 shots, scored ten goals, and had fifteen assists while averaging 13:39 of ice time per game. That’s 60 fewer shots, 16 fewer assists, and eight fewer goals in just eight fewer games. The debate has been over for a while.

How Does Nico Compare with Other Rookies in Devils History?

Even if he somehow does not, Hischier’s 2017-18 is one of the best rookie seasons in Devils history. The all-time best rookie ever in Devils history is definitely Martin Brodeur. He is also a goaltender and I cannot compare a goalie with a skater. So let’s stick to skaters.

The all-time top rookie Devil in scoring is Scott Gomez. Like Hischier, Gomez stepped into a top-six role as a center on the Devils. Unlike Hischier, that 1999-2000 team was one of the best Devils squads ever as Gomez produced a franchise-record 70 points. With 19 goals and 51 assists, Gomez was an excellent distributor right out of juniors as a 20-year old. We unfortunately do not have the benefit of the advanced stats for those seasons (could you imagine Elias’ CF%?); but it’s safe to say what Gomez did then stands out more than what Hischier is doing now.

According to Hockey-Reference, Hischier is currently seventh in rookie scoring in franchise history. The list runs Gomez (1999-2000, 19 G, 51 A, 70 Pts.), Kevin Todd (1991-92, 21 G, 42 A, 63 Pts.), defenseman Barry Beck (1977-78, 22 G, 38 A, 60 Pts.), Paul Gardner (1976-77, 30 G, 29 A, 59 Pts.), Kirk Muller (1984-85, 17 G, 31 A, 54 Pts.), and Adam Henrique (2011-12, 16 G, 35 A, 51 Pts.). Scoring in general was higher in all of those seasons except for the 1999-2000 and 2011-12 seasons. According to Hockey-Reference, the league average goals per NHL game in 2017-18 is 2.96 - which is still well behind the 3+ goal averages in 1976-77, 77-78, 84-85, and 91-92. Still, Hischier is not likely going to catch the top four in the next seven games unless he goes on a crazy streak. He could catch Henrique and Muller though and those make for some interesting comparatives.

Henrique’s 2011-12 season is similar to Hischier’s in that they both ranked about the same in 5-on-5 play in terms of on-ice rate stats and had positive relative rate stats. They both played with top talents right away; although Henrique had two in Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk whereas Hischier had Hall. They both have similar numbers in production. However, I think Hischier’s season is more impressive as he’s doing this two years younger than when Henrique did it. Also, Henrique finished fourth on a team that had Parise, Kovalchuk, and Patrik Elias still producing quite a lot. Hischier is second on the team that is driven so, so much by Taylor Hall.

Muller’s rookie season was in the mid-80s, so we do not have the benefit of comparing any on-ice stats. But the situations are even more similar. Muller was second overall in the 1984 NHL Draft, which was led by legendary player Mario Lemieux. As with Hischier, Muller jumped right into the NHL right away. As Muller’s birthdate is on February 8, he is listed as an 18-year old in 1984-85; so he wasn’t that much younger in his rookie season than Hischier is now. I never saw Muller play with the Devils (I was born in 1983) so I cannot really compare play styles. But Muller went on to have an excellent seven-season run with the Devils with 520 points in 556 games. He was one of the New Jersey’s early offensive stars; a cornerstone of a forward group on a team trying to become contenders one day. Muller was dealt in a package for Stephane Richer in 1991, so the Devils missed out on some of his prime years. Still, that Hischier could end up matching Muller’s production from his rookie season should invite more excitement about what he could become. While Todd, Beck, and Gardner had more points; neither of those three had the lengthy and successful career Muller went on to have. Hischier could be someone to match (and maybe exceed) what Muller did in over 1,300 NHL games.

All together, Hischier is joining some rare company in Devils franchise history as a rookie. It’s telling that some of the Devils’ better players in their history did not necessarily have impressive-looking rookie seasons. Zach Parise didn’t. Patrik Elias didn’t. Brendan Shanahan didn’t. Bill Guerin didn’t. Points aren’t everything, but for an offensive player, they do mean something - and it’s further evidence that Hischier’s rookie season has been one of the best in Devils history.

Your Take

Nico Hischier may not win the Calder, but that should not take away from the great season he’s had with New Jersey. He’s fun to watch, he’s been quite productive, and his on-ice rates are consistent with what I hope an offensive player does. There are some aspects to his game that need some improvement, one he can work on and one the coaches need to figure out. He also needs to get stronger, but I’m confident that will come with time. Regardless, Hischier is one of the better rookies in the NHL in this season and he’s having one of the best rookie seasons in Devils franchise history. I think he has more than met the expectations he’s had since the Devils drafted Nico Hischier first overall. I’m looking forward to yelling and chanting his name for years to come.

To that end, I want to know what you think of Nico Hischier. Did he meet your expectations for this season? What do you expect from him in the future? What do you like the most about his game? Do you think he’ll surpass Henrique and Muller in points by the end of 2017-18? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Nico in the comments. Thank you for reading.