When Nico Hischier returned from the illegal check to the head delivered by Connor Clifton on October 27, it looked as if he might be able to avoid missing time due to absorbing yet another huge hit. But after taking another high hit from Dylan Cozens, Nico Hischier finished the second period and did not come out for the third. Since then? He’s been “day-by-day” according to Lindy Ruff and “on his timeline” according to Tom Fitzgerald. And while this post was originally going to be about how concerning his timeline had become, it is now, with the news just released at around 10:50 AM, about Nico’s return to the New Jersey Devils practice.
Nico Hischier is on the ice for practice.— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) November 20, 2023
Nico Hischier’s On-Ice Importance
With Nico Hischier, the Devils were 4-2-1 this season. It was not amazing, but was a solid start to the season. Without Nico Hischier, the team has gone 4-5-0, falling to sixth in the Metropolitan Division by total points and 11th in the Eastern Conference by points percentage. The Eastern Conference only has three teams under NHL .500. The West? Seven teams. (When will Detroit switch conferences with Nashville???) Now that the Devils are out of a playoff spot, without a legitimate NHL goaltender in terms of actual on-ice performance, they are really hurting without their captain.
Nico Hischier has a reputation as a defensively strong forward, but he is one of the top offensive producers and play-drivers on the team. In terms of all-around ability, only Jack Hughes has more of an impact on the Devils. When you take a guy like Nico Hischier out of the top six, and off the line getting the toughest matchups, it puts a lot of pressure on less talented players to survive against opposing top lines. While Michael McLeod has done well in his minutes this year, he is not a top-line center.
Without Hischier, opposing teams have the opportunity to zero in on the remaining scorers on the team. Since Jesper Bratt lit the Minnesota Wild up in the two games after Hischier’s injury, he has had five points in seven games. Compared to his pace with the team at full-health, there is a considerable drop-off without Hischier. To make up for the increased pressure, the players have been taking chances left and right, trying to produce and return the pressure to other teams. But without Nico, the turnovers happen more and more often, and the odd-man rushes follow. And do the Devils have any goaltenders that are making big saves right now? No. Once anyone on another team has a step on the defense, it feels like an automatic goal.
The Devils currently have a -0.96 5v5 goal ratio per 60 minutes, with 2.16 for and 3.12 against. This is a woeful underperformance of their 3.00 xGF and 2.54 xGA/60. But is it really a surprise when a team is running lineups with Curtis Lazar, Nathan Bastian, Max Willman, Tomas Nosek, Chris Tierney, and Michael McLeod? When the team is running out two fourth lines because of injuries, they are going to have problems with scoring. This is the exact reason I have been advocating for trading for another impact forward close to the deadline — especially one that can play center. The threat of losing one of the top guys is simply too great.
The Risk of Taking So Many High Hits
Now that Nico Hischier has officially returned to practice, it should be mentioned that his exact injury has not been revealed yet. Maybe that information will come out later, maybe it won’t. We will see. But I was checking his injury history earlier, and noticed that he spent about six weeks out of the lineup in 2021 with a concussion and sinus fracture after a P.K. Subban slap shot came up into his face. He even said, “I got a little bit lucky. That’s a big part, especially after an impact like that, to not have the brain damaged.”
Maybe it was a shoulder injury. Maybe it was a concussion. It feels wrong on some level to speculate, but these are the worries every fan goes through when they see one of their favorite players go out “day-by-day” and end up not traveling or practicing for over three weeks. Nico Hischier, of course, is no stranger to taking big hits. His style of driving the puck to the net sometimes means driving the puck forward at all costs. He will take a big hit to keep the play moving. He will take crosschecks, slashes, trips, and hits in his pursuit of the goal. His tenacity is what makes him the right man for the captaincy, but it is also the reason that these Devils need to be ready to fight.
It’s not just fighting in the moment of seeing a teammate and a leader get hurt, but fighting each of the 60 minutes of the game. The Devils need to overcome distraction and fight to win. Would the Devils have lost on Saturday if Nico Hischier was on the ice, up one goal in the third? Would the Devils have collapsed against the Jets, or fallen flat against the Capitals? Opposing teams have clearly developed a strategy for targeting the Devils’ top centers in Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, and the Devils let themselves fall to this spot, with no momentum at 16 games in, because they were challenged and had only inconsistent answers. I appreciate that they look to Nico for guidance and leadership, but they also need to take matters into their own hands every now and then.
The Team Moving Forward
With Nico Hischier returning to the lineup, we can assume that Michael McLeod will bump down to the fourth line, centering Nathan Bastian and Max Willman (who is in due to Tomas Nosek’s apparent concussion after a hit from Jacob Trouba). I think the Palat-Mercer-Holtz and Haula-Hughes-Lazar lines will stay the same, leaving Hischier centering Toffoli and Bratt. If Jack Hughes is fine creating goals with Erik Haula and a grinder in Lazar (at least until Meier returns), I would really like to see a true triple-threat line develop with Hischier. And perhaps, with his return to the team, Jesper Bratt will have more ice to work with, and Tyler Toffoli can get back to the scoring pace he was at for the first couple weeks of the season.
And with a relatively easy schedule coming up (and a Sabres rematch on Saturday) before the Devils go to Vancouver on December 5, I think this is a great time for the Devils to work on their defensive structure and get their top forwards going again at even strength. At 8-7-1, they are not where they want to be, but they are still in striking distance of second place in the Metro (just four points down from the Flyers with two games on hand — and the Devils play the Flyers next Thursday). Now that the top centers are back, let there be no excuses.
As for us, I think we can all take a breath. Until I saw the news at 10:50, this article was going to be about my increasing concern for Nico Hischier, but it was relieving to rewrite it a bit. How did you feel watching this team without Nico? How do you think they looked? What do you think will happen now that Nico is back? Do you think he will come out of the gate firing, or will it take him a bit? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.