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Nico Hischier Had a Poor Defensive Season

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Nico had an excellent overall rookie season and is one of the most exciting young players in the league. But he was BAD in basically every defensive metric.

Columbus Blue Jackets v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

In February, I wrote a piece about how underrated Nico Hischier’s season had been up until that point. Taylor Hall’s Hart-candidate season and multiple point streaks distracted Devils fans, and incredible rookie campaigns from Matt Barzal’s and others distracted the rest of the NHL from Nico’s excellent season.

There is nothing in that article that I don’t stand by. Nor anything in John’s piece roughly a month later taking a closer look at his season. John specified two areas in which Nico needs to improve and that is on the powerplay and in the faceoff circle. In browsing some of this year’s data, I’ve identified a 3rd — defense.

As a prospect Nico was billed as a very strong defensive player who killed penalties, had an active stick, and modeled his play after Pavel Datsyuk. On the puck, Nico’s skill in this regard is easily identified — he’s 2nd on the team in takeaways behind only Hall, and his rate is basically the same as Blake Coleman’s. It’s these impressive, but rare, plays that have led some people to believe he’s a future Selke contender. He is LONG way off from that. Let’s look at what happens when he’s on and off the ice.

As you can see, the Devils are significantly better offensively when he’s on the ice, which is the thing we have tended to notice. But what can possibly get lost is that we are marginally worse in both shot attempts and goals against when he’s on the ice as well. Before you go blaming his entire line, Hall had the reverse effect. And it’s not just quantity, it’s quality.

You can see the overall impact of this using Corsica’s RelT metrics. They are essentially an aggregate of a player’s entire WOWY table to assess the effect a player has on his teammates. For “Against” metrics, high (positive) numbers are bad because it indicates that the other team is creating more shots when that player is on the ice. And last I checked, allowing more shots runs somewhat counter to the objective of the sport. Of the 388 forwards with 400+ minutes played (5v5 only), this is what Nico’s performance looks like:

RelT CA/60: +3.26 (328th in the NHL)
RelT GA/60: +0.48 (333rd in the NHL)
RelT xGA/60: +0.50 (380th in the NHL)

Defensive metrics are not where the need to be to be able to make sweeping generalizations based solely off of them. But I feel reasonably comfortable in saying that if you are 9th worst forward in the entire league in on-ice defensive impact, it seems unlikely that you’re a particularly adept defensive skater.

Manny’s GAR statistic can be divided into offensive and defensive goals above replacement. Nico’s defensive GAR is -1.66 which means he has cost the Devils between 1 and 2 goals with his defensive play. For some context, that is 353rd among 399 forwards with 400+ minutes played and 3rd worst on the Devils for whom Miles Wood was the worst (-2.79) and Blake Coleman was the best by FAR (+3.69 ... Noesen was 2nd at +1.53).

So to summarize, on every single one of a wide array of statistics from multiple sources, Nico Hischier was not only NOT and elite defensive forward, he appears to have been one of the worst.

Defensive statistics in hockey right now — even the good ones — are not excellent tools for assessment, and I do think that they are doing a modest disservice to Nico whose aggresive defensive plays can sometimes cause big offensive plays which may contribute to his stellar offensive statistics. However, it’s not hard to understand how this could happen to him either — allow me to offer one possible explanation. After his electric skating and creativity with the puck, the next thing I noticed most about Nico this past season was how often he ended up on his rump. He takes a hit like a man, but like an extremely feeble one. He played 82 games and I can’t even recall him missing a shift except that one time they made him get off the ice because he was bleeding too much and while he’s a tough kid, the degree to which grown men on other squads were able to swat him away like a gnat was clear if you paid enough attention. He never shies away from a fight, a check, or a board battle, but spunk only gets you so far. At a certain point we have to acknowledge that his strength (or lack thereof) may be a liability.

I don’t want this to be true any more than you do. I believe he is going to figure it out and either bulk up a bit, or figure out how to adjust for his weakness better. But it does us no good to be delusional about our star players aptitudes. And right now, that means recognizing that Nico has long way to go defensively.

Thoughts?

Do you think Nico Hischier struggled defensively this year?

If Yes: What in particular caused those struggles? How can he fix it going into next year

If No: What is causing this catastrophically poor numbers? Will that change in the future?

Leave your comments below, and thank you all for reading as always.