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Appreciating the Decision to Name Nico Hischier Captain of the New Jersey Devils

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Nico Hischier was named as the captain of the New Jersey Devils on Saturday. This post goes into why it was the right choice, how Tom Fitzgerald handled the situation was smart, and why it should not add too many more expectations on New Jersey’s top center.

Buffalo Sabres v New Jersey Devils
NiCo Hischier
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

While the game on Saturday did not go as well as one would have hoped, it was an important day for the New Jersey Devils in the 2021 season and perhaps for years to come. For the season, Nico Hischier returned to the team and played in his first game since the NHL paused and ended the 2019-20 season back in March. Fans have been clamoring for his return since training camp began and the news came out that he was injured. Hischier proved his existence and took to the ice in Saturday’s game. For the franchise, the Devils announced that Nico Hischier as the team’s captain - the twelfth in New Jersey’s history. To use the team’s phrasing: NiCo.

This news was greeted with near unanimous approval among the Devils fans all over the world. (It would be unanimous but, you know, Internet). Hischier has been a darling among the Devils faithful ever since he was drafted first overall in 2017. The man who coined the phrase “I Like To Hockey” jumped right into the NHL and established himself as a legitimate #1 center within his first season. The following seasons saw Hischier prove his qualities without Taylor Hall and amid some crummy Devils seasons. He was on the cusp of being an all-situations player prior to the Coronavirus shutdown. While the Devils have performed very well without him, fans - myself included - still wanted to see Hischier return to strengthen the team. The Devils have been very good in 5-on-5 in this season so far; imagine the 5-on-5 performances with Hischier playing prime minutes. Imagine special teams, which may not be able to get much worse, with the added talents of #13. Hischier will take some time to become sharp in games again, but that will come soon given the compacted schedule. Hischier returning on Saturday was great news in of itself. That Hischier’s return also came with the captaincy announcement was a juicy cherry on top of a delicious sundae.

The Right Choice

While you and I are not in the locker room and do not know what the dynamics are, I think it is fair to say that naming Nico Hischier as the team’s captain was the right choice. Given that the Devils did not announce one and did not really address it until Hischier’s return makes it obvious in retrospect that the organization planned to give it to #13 to begin with. There are still a lot of public positives to giving Hischier the vaunted ‘C’ on his jersey:

  • Potential Longevity: The New Jersey Devils (and Colorado Rockies and Kansas City Scouts) have had 18 different captains in the history of the franchise. Only two players have been the team’s captain for longer than five seasons: Andy Greene, who was dealt away last February so he did not complete that fifth season; and the legendary Scott Stevens, who wore it from 1992-93 to partway through the 2003-04 season when concussions ended his career. Hischier has a real opportunity to be the third player to last as Devils captain for a long time as he is signed through 2026-27. Provided there are no issues with leadership, Hischier will be the team’s captain for at least seven seasons including this one. This is not something the Devils will need to be concerned about again for a long time.
  • Commitment to the Youth: Any team in sports can claim that they are committed to their younger players. The Devils took another action to show that is true. From ownership to the head coach, the Devils have made it clear that they are building around two players: Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes. Naming Hischier the team’s captain for this season is further proof of that.
  • Validation of the Talent: While wearing the ‘C’ does not mean the player has to be the best or most important on the team, it does essentially guarantee that the player will play as much as possible. Hischier is absolutely good enough to play a lot for the Devils night-in and night-out. Again, he was playing on a top line right after getting drafted and receiving prime power play time. He has shown to handle tough minutes and matchups at a young age. Players like him should be treated as important players to coaches and management. Giving him the ‘C’ validates his importance within the organization.
  • Consistency with Past Captains: Related to the last point, past captains for the team have been significant contributors at the time. Even short lived captains such as Wilf Paiement (1977-78), Bruce Driver (1991-92), Scott Neidermayer (part of 2003-04), Patrik Elias (2007-08), Zach Parise (2011-12) were important producers and nightly performers for the team in their seasons of being captain. Even Bryce Salvador (2012-13 to 2014-15) played regular minutes until the end (which was also the end of his career). This selection is in line with past selections of captains across different GMs and ownerships and even franchise locations.
  • Increases the Public Profile: When the Devils came out with their 2019-20 season tickets, four players were featured on it. You could call them the “faces of the franchise.” They featured P.K. Subban (the team’s celebrity and most connected player), Jack Hughes (a #1 pick that is showing why I call him The Big Deal), Taylor Hall (former Hart Trophy winner, top scorer on the team), and Nico Hischier. He was popular then. Giving him the ‘C’ adds to his appeal to the larger world. It tells them that this player is important to know. While there is no rule that the team’s captain has to be the team’s most recognizable player, Hischier is among them in New Jersey and he should be further featured to the fans now that he is the captain.

Again, you and I are not privy to what goes on behind the closed doors of the locker room. But there are multiple positives that we can see from naming Hischier captain. I think it is enough to think it was the right choice.

The Right Way in Preparing the News

I do want to give a special mention to something smart the team did in naming Hischier captain. As Corey Masisak of The Athletic tweeted on Saturday, GM Tom Fitzgerald discussed the matter with Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri. Given how young the team is, it would have been justifiable to give the captain’s role to one of the few veterans on the team. Especially Zajac, who just played his 1,000th game with the franchise and becoming only the fourth Devil to represent the red, white, and black for that long in team history. While both Zajac and Palmieri are pending free agents after this season, I do not think there would have been much consternation and uproar had it been Zajac given his tenure with the team. However, doing so would go against a number of the positives previously listed as well as the Devils needing to fill the captaincy role again in 2021-22. I do not think a stop-gap in a leadership position was necessary, especially with Hischier both being the preferred choice and signed until 2027.

Additionally, Masisak reported on Sunday that Fitzgerald also discussed the matter with Jack Hughes. I find that to be curious. Hughes is only in his second season. I understand that the organization has made it clear that he is cornerstone for the future. Perhaps that is why Fitzgerald wanted to have the conversation with Hughes to let him know that he may not actually be captain. Hughes did wear a ‘C’ for the United States National Team Development Program at both the U-17 and U-18 levels. He was also the captain of the American teams at the World U-17 Challenge and World U-18 Championships. I could understand that he had both leadership skills and an ambition to be a team captain. Since Hischier is signed for the next six seasons after this one, Hughes may not get a chance at a ‘C’ until much later. To that end, it made sense for Fitzgerald to inform Hughes and make sure he is OK with that possibility.

That Fitzgerald talked with those three suggests to me that they are influential players in the locker room - which makes sense for Zajac and Palmieri given their experience; Hughes for his future - and wanted to make sure that naming Hischier would not upset them or the locker room. This is not to say this was not done in the past in the Devils organization or in others. I do appreciate knowing that it did. Given how well the Devils started this season, upsetting the locker room would have been one of the worst things to do. Speaking with Zajac and Palmieri to get their blessing was a good move. That they gave it also suggests Hischier’s influence within the locker room. Making sure Hughes was OK with it means a cornerstone player for the future is not likely to be bothered by it.

The Expectations

One of the concerns one would have over the captaincy are the expectations. I recall this back when Patrik Elias had the ‘C’ in the 2007-08 season and he only put up 20 goals and 35 assists. The apparent pressure of being the leader hurt his on ice results. While Elias was fine with giving up the ‘C’ to Jamie Langenbrunner and never sought after it again, that was a silly argument in retrospect.

For starters, Elias’ 55 points was still the second most on the team so it was not like Elias cratered to the Devils’ offensive detriment. There were many more Devils who were not nearly as productive. Moreover, Elias shot the puck at 7.6% in that season, which was the lowest in his whole career. Yes, even lower than the 9.6% he shot in his final season in 2015-16. His shooting percentage reverted back to something closer to what he was doing in his career and the point production blossomed for the next five seasons. Thirdly, Elias was still a beast in 5-on-5 situations. Per Natural Stat Trick, Elias had a ridiculous on-ice CF% of 59.68%, a SF% of 59.23%, and a xGF% of 60.26%. The Devils in those days were remarkably good at controlling the run of play and Elias was the best among them. With the benefit of these on-ice rates, we know Elias was more than fine in terms of what he was doing. It just did not always lead to points, which was one of the main issues for the Devils as a whole back in those days as well. I was wrong to think the ‘C’ was hampering him. It was more bad luck than anything else.

Additionally, Hischier is following Andy Greene and Bryce Salvador as captains. Those two were not expected to produce a lot because, well, they did not really produce a lot before receiving the vaunted consonant. Salvador was always a defense-first, defense-second, and any-offense-is-a-bonus defenseman in his career. Greene had more skill in his game, but by the time he got the ‘C,’ he was more or less about playing a lot of heavy minutes in 5-on-5 and penalty kill situations. Like Salvador before him, any points were just added surprises. Hischier is not going to have his offensive contributions be compared to recent captains to show how much better things were before should Hischier hit some struggles.

That stated, there will be higher expectations for Nico Hischier as opposed to, say, Pavel Zacha just because of Hischier’s role on the team. He was a #1 center and, with Hughes’ currently ascending before our eyes, he will need to continue to justify that kind of role even if he ends up being the #2 center in ice time and usage. He will receive prime minutes and so fans already expect him to provide some level of consistent production, at least to be among the top scorers on the team. As he was among the better 5-on-5 players last season - which is not saying a lot - Hischier needs to show that he can add to a team that is now performing respectably in the game’s most common situation. And if Hischier’s skills can help sort out the team’s currently-sorry special teams, then that would be more than satisfactory. Hischier has been seen as one of the team’s most talented forwards and so that already carries some heavy expectations. Being a top center on any team will have that. I do not think wearing the ‘C’ really does (or should) add any more on the ice.

If there is any added pressure, then you and I will not get to see it as it would be in the locker room. When the game is a struggle or the team needs a lift or someone has an issue, that is when Hischier being captain will matter. Other players on the team will see him as one of the team leaders and expect him to handle the situation. You do not need to have a letter on your jersey to be a leader among the players. But wearing one carries the expectation that you are at least one of them. This is something Hischier will have to demonstrate repeatedly - assuming he has not already. Maybe he has and this letter is just a public declaration of it. Either way, if there’s any new expectation from this annoucement, then I think this is it.

Your Take

Ultimately, I am very happy to see Hischier wear the ‘C.’ I think it is not only good for Hischier but also the team. I think the team has to build the team around Hischier and Saturday’s announcement cements that. I am happy that Fitzgerald did discuss the issue among players that I can understand are important in the locker room to ensure that it would not become an issue. And I do not think the letter should weigh too heavily on Hischier’s game, which has to be at a high level just because of the role he has played on the team.

I think most of you are also happy to see Hischier wear the ‘C’ as well. What are your thoughts about the news? Do you think it was well-handled? Do you have any higher expectations for Hischier now that he is the captain? If so, what are they and why? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about Hischier being captain in the comments. Thank you for reading.