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Don’t Sleep on Nico Hischier, Who was a Powerhouse for the Devils This Season

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The Devils were a study in misery for much of this season, but their young top-line center remained on track to be a special player amidst the injuries and other disappointments.

Nashville Predators v New Jersey Devils Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, the Devils won the NHL draft lottery, giving them the first overall pick for the second time in the past three years. As such, the discussion around the Devils following that lottery win has revolved heavily around the presumptive first overall pick, Jack Hughes. But while Jack Hughes seems poised to become the new hotness in Newark starting this June, people shouldn’t sleep on the Devils previous first overall pick, who turned in a strong sophomore campaign in an otherwise mostly brutal season in New Jersey. Yes, Nico Hischier, now at 20 years old, is still here and still very good, and while there seem to be a few pockets of the fanbase aren’t sold on Hischier as an elite center in this league, a quick dive into the numbers shows a player who made solid strides from an already impressive rookie campaign the year prior into a player who looks very much like the real deal.

A quick glance a the standard counting stats that show up on the team stat page might lead one to believe it was a somewhat disappointing sophomore effort for Hischier. I’ve certainly seen some fans posit that hypothesis. This year was a major stepping stone for Hischier, though, and from watching him on the ice and digging further into the underlying results, you can see a player taking steps towards being a true top-flight NHL center.

First, lets take a look at this basic counting stats from 2017-18 and 2018-19 (via Hockey Reference).

  • 2017-18: 82 GP, 20 G, 32 A, 52 P, 180 SOG, 16:19 ATOI
  • 2018-19: 69 GP, 17 G, 30 A, 47 P, 160 SOG, 18:06 ATOI

A passing look at those two stat lines don’t seem to indicate any obvious jump in production, so it can be tempting to wonder if things stagnated a bit for Hischier in year two. Projected out to a full season, the numbers from 2018-19 come to 20 goals and 36 assists over 82 games, just a four-point jump from his rookie season. There is a key reason that should be encouraging for Devils fans, though, and it comes down to the guy wearing #9. Yes, in Hischier’s rookie campaign, he almost all of his 82 games as the pivot on a line with a Taylor Hall in the midst of a dominant MVP season. This past season, Hischier played over half of his games without the crutch of a superstar like Taylor Hall being lined up next to him. And in that time? Well, he remained a highly effective NHL center. The output was not at the level it was with Hall next to him the first few months of the season, but it was still very good and he proved that he can carry his own line in this league, even on an otherwise crummy team

It’s true that Hischier’s production dipped post-Hall injury, but that would be expected for any player. A look at his stats pre- and post-Hall going down show that slight slip in the numbers.

So Hischier put up 24 points in the 38 games he appeared in after Hall went down in December. The projects out to 52 points over an 82-game season, which, yes, just so happens to be what Hischier put up alongside Hall while Hall was having an MVP season the year prior. His production pre-Hall injury was a stronger 61 points per 82, but the fact that he was able to maintain the production of the previous year with no Hall riding shotgun is a hugely encouraging sign. Hischier also saw a significant uptick in his shots/game rate (up 20%) with Hall out of the lineup, meaning he is capable of adjusting to a more shoot-first role without an all-world winger on his left (only volume shooters Miles Wood and Blake Coleman outpaced Hischier in 5v5 shots/60 after Hall’s injury). The kid went a long way toward proving he can stand on his own in Hall’s absence.

Venturing beyond just scoring, the underlying numbers reveal a player who moves the needle like few others as well. With Nico on the ice at 5v5 this season, the Devils outscored their opponents 45-39, a GF% of 53.5% (via Natural Stat Trick). Without Hischier, the Devils were outscored 101-145, which comes out to an abysmal 41.1%. Without Hischier on the ice this year, the Devils were largely a horror show, with a goal share that would land them comfortably in the NHL basement. With him taking a shift, they were the equivalent of a top-10 5v5 team.

He wasn’t just riding luck to that outcome either, Hischier’s xGF% numbers (again via Natural Stat Trick) largely back up how well things went on the ice. Based on the shots and chances generated with Nico on the ice at 5v5, Devils were expected to outscore their opponents 40.8-36.1, an xGF% of 53.0%. Without Hischier, things were less grim than the straight-up goals but still not very good, with the shots and chances leading to an expected score of 104.0-116.8, or an xGF% of 47.1%.

One might note that those are the full season numbers, so Halls influence will still be strongly felt. And while it’s true that Hall was the clear-cut GF% and xGF% champ before his departure, Hischier’s numbers remain strong, especially relative to his teammates after Hall’s departure. Post-Hall injury, Hischier posted an even higher GF% at 53.9% (21 GF-18 GA) and the strongest xGF% among regular forwards at 51.1% (21.7 xGF-20.8 xGA). Without Hischier, the team looked as brutal as we all remember in that stretch, being outscored 57-84 (GF% of 40.4%(!!!)) and having an expected goal breakdown of 53.3-66.5 (xGF% of 44.5%). Hischier produced these results while facing the type of competition that comes with being the top center on a team, and one of its only reliable scoring threats.

Digging beyond scoring and the raw underlying numbers into the more advanced analytics like GAR (goals above replacement; primer from Evolving Hockey here), Hischier continues to shine even more. Hischier improved upon his already very strong showing in GAR from 2017-18 by further increasing his rate of GAR/60 (GAR numbers all from Evolving Hockey). GAR is an imperfect metric (as any ambitious catch-all measure of its kind will be), but it seems to do a pretty good job of isolating impact for players, and Hischier has landed among the best forwards in the league in each of his first two seasons. After a strong 2017-18 that saw him land at 34th among forwards in total GAR/60 (minimum 1000 minutes), Hischier saw that already impressive ranking improve to 17th in the league in 2018-19. Much of that boost was powered by an improved showing on the power play, where he still only registers as okay but was considerably better than in 2017-18, and he maintained his top-tier even strength impact to go along with his ability to consistently draw penalties. Simply put, Hischier already shows out as one of the best, most impactful forwards in the league by GAR. Even if you are a skeptic of catch-all measures of its ilk, that’s tough to spin as anything but a good thing.

All of these numbers serve to report objectively on what happened this season for Hischier, but even just watching him you could see a player continuing to make strides. A more confident player is already emerging and as Hischier continued to fill out this year, his control of the puck seemed to improve and he became a bit more willing to shoot when provided the opportunity. Players are having more and more trouble bumping Hischier off pucks, and Nico remains so tenacious in his effort to keep plays going that he continues to get fouled at a rate that provides the Devils with an enormous amount of opportunities on the power play. Nico also showed a propensity for the big goal (to the extent there were big goals for the Devils this year), potting three of the four total overtime winners for New Jersey.

So while this summer, a lot of the focus will be on Jack Hughes (or, much less likely, Kaapo Kakko) and what he could potentially mean to the future of the franchise, everyone should remember that the Devils already have a center who just turned 20 a few months ago performing at a borderline-elite level. Don’t sleep on Nico Hischier, because he’s already a special player and will likely only improve in the coming seasons.