Despite staking themselves to a 3-1-1 start, the Devils clearly remain a team in transition this season — a fact made clear by two multi-goal losses to the Flyers that dropped them to 3-3-1. The goals for this season aren’t necessarily team-results-based, though. Rather, much of the focus this season is on the development of something resembling a young core that can serve as the foundation for the team over the next five to ten seasons. Players like Ty Smith, Jesper Bratt, Yegor Sharangovich, and others figure into that calculus, but the real story of this season comes down to Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier. They are the necessary engine down the middle for the Devils hopes over the next few seasons to have any chance at becoming reality.
Obviously, anyone with a passing interest in the Devils knows that only one of those two players is on the ice right now. To his credit, Jack Hughes has come out of the gate firing and looks like a player benefiting from the much-trumpeted 14 pounds of muscle he put on during the long pandemic hiatus. He has been entrusted with the top line role on a team with lot of holes in the early going, and he has played very well over the opening seven games, leading the team in scoring with seven points (3g, 4a) over that stretch. The underlying numbers to back that up are a slightly mixed bag, with good CF% but middling xGF%. HockeyViz’s heat maps/xG isolated impacts are not overly enamored with his work at 5v5, but Evolving-Hockey’s RAPM and GAR measures look pretty solid for him (see both below). Add in that he may be one of the few things that could be construed as marginally functional right now on the Devils’ power play and the full picture amounts to a great start for a 19-year-old that leads his team in 5v5 minutes among forwards by a wide margin.
The flip side of that dynamic is that even with Hughes playing at a high level for a teenager, the Devils are a roster with some severe limitations without their other cornerstone center, Nico Hischier. So where is Nico Hischier? Well, Hischier picked up an ankle injury of some sort prior to his return to the United States from Switzerland back in December. With the team playing coy with the situation, rumors have bubbled about the exact nature of the injury, with the consensus probably landing around something like a high ankle sprain and/or fractured fibula. Whatever the exact diagnosis may be, we know it is/was severe enough to keep Hischier off the ice for at least 6-7 weeks, with reports only recently starting to mention him doing any skating on his own. The fanbase is understandably scarred from Taylor Hall’s 9-month-long “day-to-day” knee injury from a couple years ago, so the tight-lipped treatment of Hischier’s injury will continue to garner a lot of concern until his return seems imminent.
Assuming Nico is on track to return in, say, sometime in the next few weeks, this team may be able to weather his absence (though recent news on Travis Zajac entering the COVID protocol makes that a much steeper climb), but it is obvious that this team badly needs Nico back and playing the type of hockey he is capable of. Truly, the Devils probably even want him to be taking a step forward this year in a similar way that Hughes has. Hischier has had a solid three seasons to open his career, but he has leveled off a bit in the past couple years before reaching the level of an elite center. Whatever form Hischier does return in, though, he is a sorely needed part of what the Devils are trying to do.
Take last night’s lineup, for instance. With Pavel Zacha’s line failing to generate much success, the Devils tried another option down the middle, with Sharangovich centering the third line behind Zajac and Zacha moving to the wing. That didn’t necessarily go great and is probably an experiment that will be abandoned (though again, given the Zajac news, who knows). But what other options do the Devils have beyond Zacha and Sharangovich? Will they try Boqvist at center? Will Mike McLeod move up the lineup? Does someone like Mikhail Maltsev get a turn? None of those seem particularly attractive options on their face for a third line (and with Zajac out and Zacha likely moving back to 2C, it’s now essentially required to ice a lineup).
That’s the problem for the Devils without Nico Hischier. Figuring out a stable lineup that works is a difficult task and any further injuries or disruptions, even with Jesper Bratt now back, make the whole unit look very AHL-y in a hurry (as we will soon see with no Zajac, the current ostensible 2C). Once Nico returns, given Hughes’ performance over the first couple weeks, the Devils will have two centers that they know can manage top-six responsibilities and relegate some of the remaining mess exclusively to the bottom six. They will have two players who can be relied on to carry play and boost the performance of others. It will also have the compounding effect of reducing pressure and focus on both Hughes and Hischier and force teams into more difficult matchup choices. As it currently stands, a hot start from Miles Wood is the only thing representing a marginal offensive threat away from Hughes for the Devils.
Once Hischier returns, whenever that does happen, it will also push players into roles more suited for them at this point in their careers. Zajac has acquitted himself well thus far in Hischier’s absence, but is also is too offensively limited in 2021 for him to serve as anything more than a checking line center at evens for a team with any ambition. It’s a similar story for Pavel Zacha, who can perhaps play a role in a top nine but is also very clearly not an answer at 2C. Stability down the middle will also aid wingers like rookie Sharangovich, whose hype train has derailed a bit after that thrilling OT winner in game 2, and Nikita Gusev, who has had a horrid start not unlike last season and needs someone to get him on track and back to the playmaking menace he was later on.
Put short, the Devils have been a scrappy team and have performed decently —even honorably — in Hischier’s absence, but they need Hischier back healthy soon or things may start heading south in a big hurry, especially without MacKenzie Blackwood and Travis Zajac for now with COVID-19 issues rearing. A rising tide lifts all boats and the Devils need Nico’s ankle to heal and bring the tide in very soon.