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Nico Might be Able to Play With Anyone, but Should He?

Nico Hischier has played with different guys each of the last couple of games, and has been dominant regardless of who he is with. But is it a good idea to stick with this tactic?

NHL: JAN 02 Devils at Capitals Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Over the last two games that Nico Hischier has played, Thursday night against Columbus and Sunday against Washington, he has made it clear that it really doesn’t matter who he plays with on his line, he is going to produce and make his linemates better. Some players have shown they really do well in certain lines and with certain people, but for Nico, he will do well no matter what.

Thursday, he played on a line with Jimmy Vesey and Nathan Bastian, two players that were not even officially on the New Jersey Devils roster heading into training camp this season. Look at what their line was able to accomplish at 5v5 thanks to Natural Stat Trick:

They were hands down the best line on the team against Columbus, with 14 attempts for versus only four against. That is phenomenal, to say the least. The Hughes and Mercer lines were not bad either by any means, but Nico’s line was the clear winner. And again, he did that not with top 6 guys, but with perennial fourth liner Nathan Bastian and Jimmy Vesey, who was signed off of a PTO.

If you think it was a fluke, back on Sunday against Washington, Nico played with completely different guys. He was with Pavel Zacha and Jesper Boqvist. Here, at least one of those guys has been a consistent top 6 player this year and last, but Boqvist, despite loads of expectations and hype, has not been that guy at all. However, how did they do?

Once again, they were the best Devils line on the ice, and once again, it really wasn’t even close. 15 attempts for to only 8 against was dominant, and this time it was against a really quality opponent, much better than Columbus. But for Nico and his line, it made no difference. His was the only line with consistent 5v5 minutes that ended positive in possession.

So clearly, it really doesn’t matter who Nico gets placed with, he is going to perform, and he is going to make those wingers around him better. However, when you look at his WOWY numbers, across the entire season, there are two skaters who he definitely plays worse without over the long haul: Pavel Zacha and Tomas Tatar. Check out the numbers:

You can ignore Tyce Thompson as the time is so minimal with that it makes no difference. But those are the only players that Nico has a CF% under 50% when he is not playing with them. In almost 72 minutes away from Zacha, Hischier has a CF% of only 48.91%, and in 241 minutes away from Tatar, he has a CF% just under break even 50%. With everyone else, that number away from them is over 50%. This goes to his overall CF% of 54.81% at 5v5, good for 2nd among those on the team with at least 200 5v5 minutes. Only the aforementioned Tomas Tatar has a better number.

So really the question becomes: is it better to play Nico with whoever each night, giving him whoever else is left after injuries and covid displacements? Or is it better to stick him consistently with Zacha and/or Tatar, guys who he has proven that he plays better with as opposed to without over a longer period of time. Yes, he was great Thursday without either of those guys, but consistently, that might not end up being the case, as these numbers show. Oh and by the way, those two guys also have way better numbers with Hischier than without, as you might expect. So it isn’t like it would be a downgrade for them to stay with Nico. Quite the opposite actually.

To me, barring those nights where numerous guys are missing for injuries and covid, it makes sense to stick him with those guys, players he clearly is great with, and players that he makes great. Zacha is a way better forward, much closer to that draft pick expectation than ever before, when playing with Nico. And Tatar was a big free agent signing, he could realize that expectation playing with Nico for loads of minutes. Yes, he might be able to succeed with the likes of Vesey and Bastian, and he definitely makes their games better, but for the long term health of this team, and for Nico especially, it might not be a good idea to consistently give him random linemates.