One of the biggest struggles for the New Jersey Devils during their six-season playoff drought was the lack of having a top line center. When luck fell their way in last year’s NHL Draft Lottery, they had the opportunity to change that with the first overall selection in the NHL Entry Draft.
Unlike the previous few years, there was no consensus on who would be the first pick. That left Ray Shero with a decision to make between choosing Nolan Patrick or Nico Hischier. The Devils ended up selecting Hischier and immediately benefited from the young Swiss center’s performance, as he helped guide the team to the postseason. Here’s a review of how his first season went in the NHL.
Hischier’s Value Goes Beyond Points
For a 19-year-old, Hischier had the quite impact for the Devils. His 52 points were the most of any center on the team this season. However, his influence was about more than his point totals. To demonstrate what he meant to the team, I put together a graph that illustrates the Devils’ performance with him on the ice compared to when he was off the ice.
The Devils had better numbers when Hischier was on the ice, and it was across the board. They generated more scoring chances (SCF%) and high-danger chances (HDCF%). They also had a better Corsi For Percentage (CF%) and a better expected goals (xGF%). These are all attributes which you look for in a first line center, let alone a 19-year-old rookie.
The most notable difference in the Devils with Hischier on/off the ice was in their goals for percentage (GF%), where there was an 11.7% swing. That probably has some to do with playing alongside Taylor Hall. In 803 minutes together, Hischier and Hall had a 59.1 GF%. When he was away from Hall, it dropped to 48.2%. That’ll tend to happen when you’re not playing with a forward who totals 39 goals and 93 points.
Aside from the drop in his GF%, Hischier’s numbers didn’t suffer all that much when away from Hall. For example, his CF% dropped from 50.2% to 48.5%, while his SCF% dropped from 49.2% to 48.3%. Those aren’t dramatic dips, and his HDCF% actually rose from 54.1% to 57.3%. In the end, Hischier may have benefited from playing with Hall, but he still held his own when he wasn’t alongside him.
The most impressive thing about Hischier’s underlying numbers in the graph above is that he did it facing the opposition’s top defensive units on most nights. That also comes with playing on a line with Hall, but the two weren’t phased by it much, as they carried the Devils’ offense at five-on-five for most of the season.
With Travis Zajac’s injury forcing him to miss the first month of the season, the Devils didn’t have many options for a top line center. If Hischier hadn’t stepped into that spot and performed the way he did right away, there’s probably a pretty good chance the Devils would’ve missed out on the playoffs.
Hischier’s Offense Among League’s Best
While Hischier’s 52 points may not seem that overwhelming, he was still one of the best offensive players in the league at five-on-five. For the season, he averaged 2.40 points per 60 minutes (P/60), which was 25th in the league for a forward (min. 500 minutes played). That puts him in the same category as Evgeni Malkin, who averaged 2.40 P/60 as well. It’s also better than names such as Alex Ovechkin (2.35 P/60), Artemi Panarin (2.27 P/60) and Phil Kessel (2.17 P/60).
Hischier was also one of the best primary point producers in the league, finishing with 18 goals and 18 primary assists. For the year, he averaged 2.06 primary points per 60 minutes (P1/60), which was 14th in the league amongst forwards (min. 500 minutes played). That was better than names such as Johnny Gaudreau (1.96 P1/60), Steven Stamkos (1.88 P1/60), and Claude Giroux (1.84 P1/60).
What’s most noteworthy of Hischier’s overall production is that 46 of his 52 points came at five-on-five. Had he found himself on the Devils’ top power play unit, it’s quite possible he finishes with more points than he did. If he can produce at similar rates at five-on-five next season, there’s a good chance his point totals will increase, especially if he’s able to get better power play minutes.
Hischier Compared to Previous 1st Overalls?
Hischier’s production at five-on-five was among some of the league’s best players this season, but where does he compare to previous first overall picks? The following table lists the individual five-on-five production of the last five forwards to be taken first overall in their rookie seasons (via Corsica Hockey).
Hischier’s production was either on par or better than many of the previous first overall picks. His P/60 was higher than all the forwards listed above besides Connor McDavid’s, who averaged 2.69 P/60 in his rookie season. However, Hischier did have the highest P1/60 of any of the rookies listed above, including that of McDavid’s.
Hischier’s production most likely bodes well for the future. He seems to be following in the footsteps of those mentioned in the table, but there are outliers, of course. Nail Yakupov had a solid rookie season, posting a better P/60 than MacKinnon and Matthews, but never managed to build on it in the following seasons.
Related: Devils Need an Offseason Focus
Hischier in Prime Spot to Succeed
Every situation is different, and Hischier is fortunate enough to have found himself on a team that seems to be heading in the right direction. There’s plenty of work to be done going forward, and he still has lots of room to develop his game. Despite playing through a chronic wrist injury, he had a strong season on offense and was a reliable defensive forward, too. Any team will take the results Hischier delivered in a player’s first professional season.
Time will tell how good Hischier turns out to be. Despite falling short as a finalist for the Calder Award, he had one of the most successful rookie seasons in the NHL in 2017-18. If he can continue to build on the foundation he laid, the Devils will have a no. 1 center to anchor the team for many years to come.
* * *
Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick and Corsica Hockey