While I am not currently among the anti-Lindy Ruff brigade, one line from him that continually sticks out in my head is: “That’s not enough ice time?” Ruff had said that about Jesper Bratt after a game in which he received a third liner’s share of minutes, though it has seemed over time that Ruff grew to trust Bratt with more responsibility. Unfortunately, Lindy Ruff has not been keeping Nico Hischier’s minutes up. Presently, Nico plays 18:03 per night: the lowest average ice time since his rookie season (16:19), or since he averaged 18:06 and 18:04 per night in the two years after.
For a top line center, this is not acceptable: Nico has dropped over a minute per night in comparison to his two prior seasons. Meanwhile, Nico is scoring goals at the fastest pace of his career: 1.4/60 in all situations and 1.1/60 at five-on-five. His assist numbers have not been the same as usual, but I think that can be explained through a couple things: poor lineup decisions and too few touches on the power play. If Lindy Ruff and Travis Green can amend these problems, the team will be better on the back of Nico’s performance.
Issue Number One: Turning Nico Into a Checking Line Center When McLeod is Already on the Team
With Ondrej Palat on Nico Hischier’s line, a significant number of chances that could be goals turn into not goals. Don’t get me wrong: Ondrej Palat has had a solid season, and his work off the puck and on the boards have been very strong. What has not been very strong has been his shooting ability, with just five goals in 35 games — largely on lines with the likes of Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, and other top-six forwards. Palat’s lack of scoring makes it difficult for Hischier to get rolling offensively.
Do you know who else seems to have good chemistry with Ondrej Palat? Michael McLeod, who combined with Palat for one of the highlight goals of the Devils’ 2023 postseason, would be a much more suitable center for Palat. Maybe Lindy Ruff thinks that Hischier can carry lesser linemates on a regular basis. But with how few goals his linemates are scoring, it’s time to rethink for Ruff to rethink the way he lines everyone up. When Timo Meier returns, I would like for him to be put on Hischier’s line, while Palat should go to McLeod’s upon return. McLeod should not be cutting into Hischier’s ice time. If McLeod needs more minutes, play the Smith-Lazar-Bastian line even less.
Nico Hischier ranks first on the team in individual expected goals per 60 at 1.17. Timo Meier is next at 1.03. Jack Hughes is at 0.94, and Michael McLeod is tied with Haula for fourth at 0.87. Yet, Hischier takes far fewer shots and just scores at a higher clip of those shots. Nobody on the Devils gets to the net as efficiently as Nico Hischier, and he could really bring hell to opposing goalies if he were playing with playmakers like Bratt, Meier, Holtz, and Mercer.
Issue Number Two: Underperformance From Poor Finishing Among the Toffoli-Hughes-Bratt Line
In 142 minutes together at five-on-five this season, the Toffoli-Hughes-Bratt line has six goals. They have given up six goals. They are dominating possession, shots, and chances, yes — but their on-ice shooting percentage as a line is 6.6%. Yet, Lindy Ruff continually trots them out there. Could there be an explanation for their lack of scoring though, despite their chances? From watching them, I think Toffoli is too much of a peripheral player on that line. He’s not a threat to carry the puck, and teams more or less zero in on Bratt and Hughes — but Toffoli has not been finishing his chances. Could this change? Maybe, but they have scored at a much poorer rate: Toffoli-Hughes-Bratt gets -2.31 goals per 60 compared to when Hischier is lined up with Bratt.
Issue Number Three: Touches on the Power Play
With a 28.57% power play success rate, it is difficult to find much fault with the power play. However, I think an issue the Devils struggle with is their over-reliance on puck movement at the top of the zone between Luke Hughes, Jack Hughes, and Jesper Bratt. As a result, Jack and Jesper lead the team with 21 and 20 power play points, respectively, as they have 16 and 14 assists, each. Luke Hughes has 11 points in 119:45 of power play time (Dougie had 8 in 33:37). As the Devils have telegraphed to opponents that they will never work the puck down low on the power play, those three dominate touches, and teams are starting to adjust. The Blackhawks kept a penalty killer right on Luke Hughes at the point, and their refusal to send the puck down low to Hischier continually leads to turnovers and clearances. This team works best when it works down low.
Nico’s 4.87 power play points per 60 ranks eighth on the team, but his 2.78 goals ranks third after Dougie’s 7.14/60 and Bratt’s 2.96/60 (side note: please put Dougie on PP1 in the playoffs). Nico’s 23.53% power play shot percentage ranks fourth on the team, behind Hamilton, Mercer, and Meier. But the reason Hischier’s total production here is so low is that the Devils do not practice working high-to-low. They go board-to-board and cut in for shots or passes across for one-timers, but they almost never work high-to-low. With how good of a passer and playmaker Hischier is, I would love it if they gave the puck to him on the goal line every now and then rather than just keeping him out to screen the goalie.
Final Thoughts (And Yours)
There could be reasonable explanations to Nico Hischier’s drop in ice time. Coming off an injury, it might be that they want to make sure he is ready for the long stretch of the season. But as a top-line center and the captain of the New Jersey Devils, I think Nico needs to be playing 19, 20, or more minutes a night, excluding those pesky back-to-backs when possible. At the end of the day, though, this team needs to keep winning to stay in a playoff spot. It’s not worth resting him if it makes it more difficult for the team to pull off wins.
But in my mind, there’s no excuse for saddling Hischier with guys who simply cannot put the puck in the net. I go back in my memory to when he was centering Jimmy Vesey and Nathan Bastian for a short bit a couple years back — they could move the puck well up the ice, but their shots were so awful that the teams could clamp down on Nico. Now, Palat’s shot is not a threat at all, Timo Meier has not been given much run with Nico to develop chemistry, and Jesper Bratt has been taken from Nico and put into a far less efficient line combination (even if they should be as good).
So, what do you think? Do you think I’m right that Lindy is underutilizing Nico Hischier at even strength, and that Travis Green needs to get his power play to work the puck down low more often? Or do you think this is just a part of a larger plan to keep him rested? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading.