When Jack Hughes went down earlier this season with a dislocated shoulder, a lot of attention turned to the team’s other top center, Nico Hischier. Initially, there was some grumbling about Nico needing to step up, mostly centered around a lack of early-season scoring from the Devils captain. In the first six games of the season, Hischier had put up just two points — a goal and an assist — with only one of those coming with a goalie in the opposing net. Even with many of the underlying metrics pointing toward strong play, particularly at 5v5, if your top center is not directly contributing to goals (especially on a team that is hurting for them) they are missing an element. With the team’s other star center sidelined, it was fair to ask more of Hischier.
Hischier has quickly silenced a lot of those concerns, though as pucks have started to go in on the shots and chances created by Hischier, which are legion. According to tracking by fellow Devils blogger Todd Cordell, Hischier has more shot contributions (shots plus shot assists) than any other forward on the team to go along with the great on-ice numbers in tough deployment. Hischier now has six points (1g, 5a), five of which are primary, in his last six games. He is contributing in all sorts of ways, creating odd-man rushes, getting constantly involved in net-front scrambles, and threading passes to teammates in dangerous spots. The same thing could honestly probably be said for Hischier’s opening six games but it’s comforting to see the captain showing up on the scoreboard on a near-nightly basis.
Circling back to the underlying numbers, though, it is clear that the Devils look like a bit of a different team when Hischier is on the ice than when he is off of it. First, let’s look at the heat maps for the Devils when Hischier is off the ice:
The Devils are a net-negative in expected goals without Hischier with a differential of -0.25 per 60 minutes. It’s not necessarily terrible, but the Devils are largely a mediocre 5v5 team in the minutes Nico is not on the ice. Compare that to where they are with Hischier:
The Devils are generating 3.12 expected goals per 60 at 5v5 with Hischier and allowing 2.17 against for a differential of +0.95 per 60 minutes. The Devils are dominant when Hischier is on the ice at even strength and with the real goals and points finally starting to come for Nico, I think it’s easier to feel comfortable with that conclusion. As far as actual goals, Hischier has been on for twice as many Devils goals (8) as he’s been on for opposing goals (4) at even strength.
He’s certainly not the only forward responsible for the Devils recent success, as each of the three players on the Jesper Bratt-Dawson Mercer-Andreas Johnsson line has been excellent thus far, but the Devils are a team that, as constructed, needs Nico Hischier to power a line to great effect and he seems to be doing just that, now with the benefit his work showing up on the scoresheet each night. And even with his luck turning a little bit, he still doesn’t have much shooting luck to show for his season thus far. Even with the late surge of points, he’s only sitting on two goals for the season, shooting 7% in comparison to his career 11%.
Nico Hischier is a highly talented player but, with the benefit of 5 years of watching him under our belts, he’s unlikely to be the kind of jaw-dropping gamebreaker that Jack Hughes appears headed toward being. What he can be and the Devils need him to be, though, is the kind of quietly dominant force who keeps the ice tilted in New Jersey’s favor and generates some scoring punch while doing it. After a bit of a cold start, Hischier is now looking like exactly that player, and if he can continue performing at this level, the Devils are much more likely to make it through Jack Hughes’ absence with their record intact. If they can, with the emergence of Dawson Mercer thus far, they could be looking at having a seriously frightening set of three centers down the middle of their top nine.