Pretend for a moment that you’re not a Devils fan. You don’t pay close attention to the stories surrounding the team or its players. Okay, now go look at Nico Hischier’s career stats.
Season 1 (2017-18): 52 points in 82 games
Season 2 (2018-19): 47 points in 69 games
Season 3 (2019-20): 36 points in 58 games
Season 4 (2020-21): 11 points in 21 games
Okay now pretend that you’re not a Devils fan, but you’re a hockey fan enough to know a couple key things about the recent Devils teams. For instance, maybe you know that Taylor Hall was an MVP in 2017-18 and Nico Hischier centered his line. And maybe you know that Taylor Hall was traded in the middle of 2019-20.
It’s not hard to see how such an observer would come to the conclusion that Nico Hischier rode Taylor Hall’s coattails, and once he was forced to swim on his own he ended up floundering, when he was even healthy enough to do so.
Devils fans have, of course, been paying a little closer attention than that. The balance of the 2019-20 season was an absolute trainwreck that swallowed up all players good any bad for the most part. Meanwhile, the 2021 season as a whole comes with a giant COVID asterisk, but Nico’s season in particular was marred by an offseason injury, a positive COVID test, and a puck to the face — all of which are fairly unusual “injuries”.
So, to Devils fans, the last time we saw Nico in a normal-ish season was 2018-19. If we consider that fact, then some of the analytical descriptions of his performance become a little less concerning. But without that context, this looks pretty rough. After adjusting for linemates, opponents, and usage, Nico’s impact has plummeted the past two seasons.
Nico went from an elite offensive impact player and a below-average-but-improving defensive one, to a net-negative impact player over the past two years. The Evolving-Hockey RAPM metric comes to essentially the same conclusion as well which makes it even more troubling.
The reason these are key measurements is because they are supposed to control for the guys Nico was on the ice with. So, if it was simply a matter of losing Taylor Hall, these figures should’ve stayed largely the same. But they didn’t — they got worse. Or, to put it bluntly, Nico got worse.
Here’s where the nuance comes in. I’m a Nico defender and so I will tell you that I think he’s going to be fine. I think he’ll resume something close to his sophomore trajectory and be an legitimate top-line-caliber center. But we do have to acknowledge that, even when he’s been healthy, he’s not been that the last two seasons.
This year is a little easier to write off with all the injuries, the condensed schedule, the roster turnover, and the global pandemic. He missed most of what little camp/practice there was, he took a while to get back to game speed — longer than normal because of the lack of rest between games. There are plenty of ways to explain away his struggles, and, even so, he eventually found a line (centering Bratt and Zacha) that allowed him to outscore opponents 7 to 5 (58.3 GF%) and and out-xG them 6.8 to 5.9 (53.5 xGF%) making it one of the most effective lines the Devils played all year.
But what exactly is our explanation for last year supposed to be? Are we blaming his injuries again (missed 2 games for upper body, and 6 for his knee)? If so, is he “injury-prone”? Are we blaming the fact that the season spiraled? If so, it’s not a great look for the team captain if he couldn’t persevere through that situation. Is it the trading of Hall? Shouldn’t a true 1C be able to drive a line all on his own?
I wrote a piece in the beginning of the year about how the Devils needed a Plan B if Jack Hughes didn’t pan out. In that piece, I stopped way short of saying that Jack Hughes wasn’t going to be good, but I did say this:
It can take some time to figure out the game at the NHL level and I, by no means, want to express skepticism that Jack can ultimately become a highly productive NHLer, or even a star. My gripe is with the assumption that he will do so given what data we currently have.
As it turns out, Hughes was a revelation this year. I say this, by the way, despite the fact that he put up just 31 points in 56 games — hardly earth-shattering for a 1st overall’s Sophomore campaign. I say this because 1) I have eyes, 2) I have a brain. My eyes see a player who dominates possession almost every shift, and my brain knows that his on-ice impacts reflect that perception.
The article you’re currently reading is intended in a similar light to that one about Hughes, and I hope that a similar result occurs. It is intended to point out that, while I think and hope Nico will resume his previous trajectory, we now have two years and 79 games of not-top-line performance out of him and, were that to continue next season, we’d probably call it a continuation of a downward trend rather than a sudden, surprising collapse. My educated guess is that a normal season, preceded by a normal offseason/preseason will return Nico to his status as an elite-impact skater. But I’ll be paying close attention to his performance and, after two seasons of benefit-of-the-doubt, it’s now on the captain to earn his letter, because, as far as I see it, it’s very much a question “What Nico Hischier will the Devils get next season?”