Nico Hischier is one of the New Jersey Devils’ key building blocks in their rebuild. Along with Jack Hughes, who they selected with the first overall pick at the Entry Draft in June, they have two young centers to build around for close to a decade. Hischier was the first overall pick in 2017 and made the team right away as an 18-year-old. His counting totals aren’t eye-popping, but there is more to his game. So what should expectations be for the 20-year-old as he enters his third season?
Why Hischier’s a Candidate to Break Out
For starters, he has 99 points over 151 games and has been the team’s first-line center, although, that could change down the road with Hughes in the fold. He stood out as a rookie, with 52 points in 82 games in 2017-18, the second-most on the team.
The Devils were not picked to make the playoffs by much of anyone. But behind Taylor Hall’s MVP season and Hischier’s rookie performance, the team snuck in as the second wild card for their first postseason berth since 2011-12. He left his mark on the team and showed the potential to be a star player.
His 2018-19 campaign doesn’t look spectacular on paper (47 points in 69 games), but his underlying numbers say otherwise on what was one of the league’s worst teams. He finished with a goals above replacement (GAR) of 14.3, ranked 33rd among NHL forwards. GAR isn’t the be-all, end-all for player evaluation, but it says something when you finish in the top third of the league on that poor of a team.
Over the last two seasons combined, his underlying stats have been among the team’s best. He has an expected goals for percentage (xGF%) of 51.95%, ranked fifth on the team, while his Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 49.6% is second to Hall among Devils’ forwards. His impact on offense has been noticeably positive, too.
He’s not much of a threat on the power play, but his ability to score goals (Off_GF) at even strength is so good it almost tops the chart. He’s out-performing his offensive expected goals (Off_xG) a bit, but not by an overwhelming margin. Where he needs to improve is on defense. He has a negative impact on shot attempts against (Def_CF) and defensive xG.
His offensive prowess, however, is what’s needed more than anything else. He’s averaged 2.11 points per 60 minutes (P/60) at five-on-five, and if his positive impact on offensive shot attempts and xG continues, his counting totals will eventually see a bump.
Playing for a Payday
With him having one year left on his entry-level contract (ELC), he’s been eligible for an extension since July 1. The Devils would be smart to try and get him locked up as soon as possible. However, he’d be smart to wait and let things play out.
The 2019-20 season will be important for him in more ways than one. How he performs could have a big say on his next deal, especially if he helps the team return to the playoffs. And he needs to be playing at his highest level to do so.
If he manages to finish with 60-70 points for the first time in his career, which a healthy Hall can make happen, he could be looking at a big-time raise. The market for pending restricted free agents (RFAs) like him has changed quite a bit over recent years. Players coming off their ELCs are taking less term, which gets them to unrestricted free agency (UFA) quicker, and they’re getting more money.
So what could his next contract entail? The Devils can offer him a max of eight years, the most he’s allowed under the CBA. That’d make him a UFA after his age 28-29 season. A five or six-year deal brings him to UFA status by the time he’s 26 or 27, which seems to be the more likely route (this scenario would also buy the Devils a couple of his UFA years).
His cap hit is another important factor to consider, too. Nothing is set in stone, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the final number end up north of $7 million, especially if his production bursts through the roof. The good news is the organization’s cap situation is in good shape, so they should be able to fit him in without much issue.
Expectations Should Be High
It’s hard to say what his 2019-20 will look like for certain, but the Devils are an improved team. They acquired P.K. Subban through a trade and added Wayne Simmonds through free agency. There’s also Hughes, while top prospects like Jesper Boqvist and Ty Smith are knocking on the door for NHL roster spots. And a healthy Hall can’t hurt, either.
Those additions should help, but it’s Hischier’s individual performance that that sets a high bar. He’s very productive at five-on-five and has a significant positive impact on offense. It also helps he’s in a contract year playing for a big raise. He’ll be performing at his best, and it’d be reasonable to bank on 60-plus points from him. And if his underlying stats are of any suggestion, he’s a good bet to meet those expectations.
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