There haven’t been many positives to take away from the New Jersey Devils season. Since starting 4-0-0, they’re 18-28-8 and sit among the bottom of the NHL with 52 points. After beginning the season with such promise, it looks like they’ll be engaged in a full battle of the tank for the first-overall pick at the entry draft in June.
The Devils were in the same position just two seasons ago, when they ended up with the first pick in 2017, thanks to some luck at the draft lottery. That pick turned into Nico Hischier, who has been one of a few bright spots this season. He has 42 points in 54 games, putting him on-pace for 61, and provides the Devils with something to build on moving forward.
Hischier’s Big Step Forward
Hischier had a stellar rookie season for the Devils, finishing with 20 goals and 52 points in 82 games. He was one of their best players at five-on-five and produced at a rate similar to other recent first overall picks. All of this while playing with a hand injury throughout the season.
There’s always the worry that a young player may be hit by the sophomore slump, but that hasn’t been the case for Hischier. He’s been the team’s first-line center a majority of the season, and he has the results to back it up. He has an expected goals for of 53.01 percent when on the ice, ranked third-best on the Devils behind Taylor Hall and Kyle Palmieri.
A part of Hischier’s game that goes unnoticed is his ability to draw penalties. He’s drawn 22 penalties at all strengths as opposed to having taken only five this season. That plus-17 penalty differential is the same as Connor McDavid and ahead of names such as Nathan MacKinnon and Mark Scheifele.
Another stat telling of Hischier’s performance is goals above replacement (GAR). GAR tells you how many goals a player adds to his team compared to a replacement level player. For the season, Hischier has a GAR of 15.5 (via evolving-hockey.com) at all strengths, ranked third in the NHL for forwards. The only forwards with a higher GAR are Mark Stone and Sidney Crosby.
The most impressive part of Hischier’s play is he’s been producing without Hall, who remains on injured reserve, on his wing. Over the last 24 games without Hall, Hischier has totaled eight goals and 19 points, a 65-point pace over 82 games. It hasn’t resulted in many wins, but Hischier is showing he can pick up the slack in the absence of the Devils’ star player.
Related: No Sophomore Slump for Nico Hischier
Hischier’s performance without Hall is notable. It may not happen this season, but the Devils will benefit from having two forwards who can carry their own lines. They don’t have much scoring depth, so if they find a way to have Hall and Hischier on separate lines, it’ll help give them more depth and a better balanced top-six.
The Nico Versus Nolan Debate
Nico or Nolan Patrick? That was the question many were asking around the first-overall pick in 2017. The Devils had a difficult choice facing them. They were in the midst of a rebuild and were in a position to acquire a building block for the future, so it had to be the right choice.
The Devils selecting Hischier with the first pick seems to have paid off. Patrick has 50 points in 123 career games, compared to Hischier’s 94 in 136 games. Patrick has also had trouble cracking a top-six role with the Flyers, while Hischier has been the Devils’ go-to first-line center.
Hischier has also had a much more significant impact on the Devils than Patrick has on the Flyers. Since the start of 2017-18, Hischier has a GAR of 29.2 at all strengths, compared to Patrick’s 4.1. That’s a substantial difference and shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise based on their production.
This isn’t meant to be a knock on Patrick because he’s still young and not all players develop at the same rate. That said, the Devils’ rebuild would be in a lot of trouble if they missed on that selection. Just ask the Edmonton Oilers, who have missed on high picks such as Nail Yakupov and perhaps Jesse Pujuljarvi. A scenario similar to the Oilers, and the Devils would be rebuilding much longer than they want to.
It may not seem like Hischier is having a significant impact, given the team is at the bottom of the standings, but let’s look at it this way. The Devils are not a good team, and they’re going to be in contention for a top pick. Let’s say they get lucky in the lottery and end up with a top-two selection. That’ll give them a chance to select Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko. Hischier has already shown he’s giving the Devils something to build on. Add Kakko or Hughes, and things will be looking up in short order.
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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