The New Jersey Devils took care of a significant part of their future yesterday afternoon. They signed center Nico Hischier, who would’ve been a restricted free agent (RFA) next summer, to a seven-year contract extension with an average annual value of $7.25 million.
In signing the seven-year deal, the Devils lock up one of their top young players through his prime. If he continues to improve his game, the Devils will look quite smart down the road for giving him the contract they did.
Hischier at His Best Since Day One
Hischier had an immediate impact as a rookie. Head coach John Hynes had no problem giving him a prominent role, as he became the team’s first-line center just a few weeks into the season, and it’s a spot he never gave up. He finished 2017-18 with 52 points (20 goals, 32 assists) in 82 games played and had a big say in helping the Devils reach the playoffs for the first time since 2011-12.
Although the Devils struggled in 2018-19, Hischier was quietly one of the NHL’s most effective forwards. It may not seem that way because he only had 47 points across 69 games, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. He finished with a goals above replacement (GAR) of 15.6, ranked 32nd in the NHL among all forwards. His wins above replacement (WAR) of 2.9 also ranked him 31st among NHL forwards.
Hischier’s counting totals aren’t overly impressive — he has 101 points over 157 career games. But his impact goes far beyond just points, as he’s done a great job generating offense since coming into the league.
Hischier is well above league average scoring goals (Off_GF) and generating expected goals (Off_xG). He ranks third on the Devils in individual xG at even strength since his NHL debut, as well as second in goals scored. It doesn’t hurt to play with a winger of Taylor Hall’s caliber a majority of the time. But that doesn’t affect a RAPM chart, as it strips away outside factors like strength of teammates. So he’s having a positive impact on offense because of the way he plays.
The last thing that drives Hischier’s value is his ability to draw penalties. He drew 57 penalties over his first two seasons and took only 17. That’s one of the best differentials in the league, and when combined with the rest of his metrics, you have a pretty gifted offensive player. So it’s easy to see why the Devils went ahead and gave him the contract they did because the potential for him to break out is there.
Devils Secure Part of Their Future
A big part of how the team will look for the next 5-8 years will be determined by what happens with Hall and the Devils. Whether they re-sign or trade him by the Feb. 24 Trade Deadline depends on if they can dig themselves out of the early-season hole they’ve created for themselves. But if they manage to get back into playoff contention, having Hischier re-signed should help matters.
Related: How Good Was Nico Hischier?
Hall and Hischier have logged a lot of minutes together since 2017 (over 1100 at five-on-five). And their results together have been nothing short of superb — they have a 53.81 xGF% and a plus-25 goal differential. Hall has been fantastic as a member of the Devils, winning the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP in 2018-19. And he knows Hischier played a significant role in helping him win the award.
“I think that was a big reason why I was able to have success and why our line was able to have success,” Hall told Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts of WFAN back in 2018. “He’s a great young player, and he’s going to be a great, great player for years to come.”
It can’t hurt to have Hall’s partner in crime signed long-term, but there are other benefits, too. Hischier was not the only Devils’ player slated for restricted free agency next summer, with Jesper Bratt and Mackenzie Blackwood also looking at new deals. Neither of them will get the type of contract Hischier did, but it’s one less negotiation for general manager Ray Shero to worry about. And it’ll allow him to focus on other areas where the team needs improvement.
With Hischier having signed for seven years, the Devils also bought a few of his UFA years, which will help the team’s salary cap situation when he becomes UFA eligible as a 26-year-old. The salary cap will rise more often than not, and it could see a big jump with a potential new TV deal in the works for 2021-22. If that happens, then Hischier being under contract for $7.25 million annually could have incredible value by the time he hits his prime.
Getting Ahead of the Curve
After a summer of tumultuous RFA negotiations, the winds seem to be changing. Teams and players don’t want to get bogged down in similar situations to Mitch Marner and Patrik Laine, who didn’t sign new deals until training camp or later. Pending 2020 RFAs like Clayton Keller, Thomas Chabot, and Hischier have all signed long-term extensions, and there’ll likely be more in the coming weeks and months.
The Devils were smart to get in on the trend and get Hischier signed. They were also wise to go the long-term route rather than opting for a bridge deal. That wouldn’t have gotten them as much long-term value because they wouldn’t have been able to buy any UFA years. The result is two sides ending up with a deal that works for both, and it shows the Devils are setting up their long-term future to become consistent playoff contenders.
* * *
Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017