Devils’ Best Bet Is to Make Hischier Next Captain

The New Jersey Devils’ Blake Coleman trade may be getting all the attention. However, the deal that sent ex-captain Andy Greene to the New York Islanders is the one that has truly ushered in a new era.

Coleman Deal Outshines Greene One

Granted, the haul interim general manager Tom Fitzgerald got in exchange for Coleman is pretty impressive: a conditional 2020 first-round pick and prospect Nolan Foote (a former first-rounder in his own right). Either asset could conceivably become franchise-defining eventually.

In the here and now though, the Devils have to address the elephant in the room and name a new captain, with Greene vacating the position he’s held since 2015. Maybe not immediately, according to Fitzgerald, but soon. Thankfully, they have several decent candidates… but only one who undeniably stands up above the rest in Nico Hischier.

Palmieri vs. Zajac

Ideally, you’d want your captain to both be a veteran in the locker room and someone who will be around for the long haul. That effectively disqualifies two thirds of the Devils’ current leadership core.

There’s a case to be made that Kyle Palmieri should wear the “C,” but his contract comes due in 2021, at which point he’ll likely draw a lot of attention on the open market as a perennial 20-goal scorer (and one-time 30-goal scorer). Palmieri may not even last that long as a Devil, as rumors swirl that he could the next Devils player to be traded.

Kyle Palmieri, New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils forward Kyle Palmieri – (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Even if Palmieri has one more year left on his deal, so does Coleman. They’re also both on cost-effective deals, with Palmieri earning a cap hit of $4.65 million (Coleman at $1.8 million). So, there is precedent. Seeing as Palmieri currently leads the team in scoring, with 41 points, it’s a good bet at least a few teams will come calling for him in the coming days.

Similarly, Travis Zajac’s contract also expires in 2021. He’s been a career-long Devil since being drafted in 2004 and would otherwise be a decent fit as captain. Just “decent” though, because, from a production standpoint, he’s no longer the top-six forward he was. Even if the Devils were to extend Zajac, it would be preferable to keep him in a supporting leadership role while elevating someone who’s capable of elevating their game in turn.

Hischier is that player.

Hischier’s All-Star Season

There’s little denying that Hischier has somewhat disappointed, even during what has technically been his first all-star season. After a solid 52-point rookie season, Hischier scored just 47 the following 2018-19 campaign (albeit in 13 fewer games, leading to a higher point-per-game average).

Hischier admittedly stumbled out of the starting block this season, with just 16 points (five goals) in his first 27 games. Had he continued at that 0.59 point-per-game pace, it would have been the lowest in his career. Then a funny thing happened: The Devils decided to trade Taylor Hall.

To his credit – and Hischier doesn’t get enough for the record – the top-line center answered the bell. Hischier picked up the pace. Since the Dec. 16 Hall trade, Hischier has 17 points (eight goals) in 20 games. He may have been named to the All-Star Game as an injury replacement for Palmieri, but it’s hard to debate that he earned the nod all on his own. For all intents and purposes, Hischier is the Devils’ best player right now.

New Jersey Devils, Nico Hischier
Nico Hischier – (Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports)

Hischier’s at least the most valuable anyway. Even if Palmieri has actually outscored him over that same span (21 points in 22 games), is there any legitimate debate over who the Devils would prefer to build their team around, because, officially speaking, there isn’t in the Devils’ front office. Fitzgerald literally just told writer Mike Morreale as much.

It shouldn’t come as a shock that the Devils would want to build around Hischier and Jack Hughes. After all, the Devils drafted Hischier at No. 1 in 2017 for a reason. They signed him to a seven-year $50.75 million extension for another. They named him an assistant captain earlier this season for yet another. You see, Hischier’s already part of the team’s leadership core. The next step is just as obvious as the choice facing the Devils as we speak. There is no other one.