Nico Hischier Stood Out on a Bad Devils’ Team

It isn’t all that uncommon for second-year players to suffer from the sophomore slump. On the surface, it may seem like that’s the case with New Jersey Devils’ center Nico Hischier, who finished 2018-19 with 47 points in 69 games played. That’s five fewer points than a season ago, but he also played in 13 fewer games.

There are a number of reasons why it may seem like Hischier took a step back; the most notable being the absence of Taylor Hall, who only played in 33 games this season because of an injury. Hischier also dealt with various injuries of his own that caused him to miss some time. And it doesn’t help that the Devils were just not a good team. But even through the team’s struggles, Hischier played like a former first-overall pick.

Why Hischier is a Top-Line Talent

Hischier had a phenomenal rookie season, finishing with 52 points in 82 games, ranked second on the team to Hall’s 94. He immediately stepped into action and was their first-line center from game one all the way through the playoffs. He also had a significant impact at five-on-five, and that was no different in 2018-19.

Nico Hischier #13, New Jersey Devils
Nico Hischier stood in his second season with the New Jersey Devils (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Devils were not a great team at five-on-five. But Hischier still finished first on the team in Corsi-For percentage (CF%), scoring chances for percentage (SCF%), high-danger chances for percentage (HDCF%), and finished second to Kyle Palmieri in expected goals for percentage (xGF%).

Hischier’s numbers also stacked up against some of the NHL’s top forwards. Here’s where his CF%, SCF%, HDCF%, and xGF% ranked among 197 NHL forwards with at least 900 minutes played:

  • CF%: 49.38 percent (127th)
  • SCF%: 52.49 percent (65th)
  • HDCF%: 56.74 percent (21st)
  • xGF%: 53.03 percent (64th)

Those rankings may not seem that high, but he was still among some of the league’s other star players. For example, his xGF% was better than Jamie Benn, Mitch Marner, and Nikita Kucherov’s, while his SCF% was better than Tyler Seguin, Nathan MacKinnon, and Steven Stamkos’.

Related: How Good Was Nico Hischier?

Another way to evaluate Hischier’s performance is by looking at goals above replacement (GAR), which measures how many goals a player adds to his team relative to a replacement-level player. He finished the season with a GAR of 14.4 at all strengths, putting him ahead of forwards like Jonathan Huberdeau, Tyler Seguin, and Auston Matthews.

Visual by Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey), data from Evolving Hockey

The points might not be there, yet, but Hischier’s underlying numbers suggest they’ll come in time. He was one of the Devils’ best players this season, if not the best, which is something for general manager Ray Shero to build around this offseason.

Devils Need to Give Hischier More Talent

The talk of this offseason has been to surround Hall with more talent, but Hischier would benefit from it, too. Luckily, the Devils have the first overall pick at the Entry Draft, meaning they’ll add Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko to their roster. If they select Kakko, he’d be a pretty good bet to play on the top line with Hall and Hischier.

If the Devils select Hughes, it’ll give them a second-line center (at least for 2019-20) behind Hischier they haven’t had in his two seasons in New Jersey. Hughes would be a huge boost for the Devils’ second line and would allow them to rely on more than one line for offense, which they’ve haven’t been able to do the last two seasons.

Related: Devils’ Ideal Offseason Trade Targets

Adding Hughes or Kakko is one piece of the puzzle. And either one will go a long way, but the Devils need to add more than just one player this summer. If Hughes is the Devils’ choice with the first pick, they could use another top-six winger, one who could potentially play alongside Hischier.

One option they could look to is Jordan Eberle. The New York Islanders have a few decisions to make on their unrestricted free agents, with Eberle being one of them. He’s coming off a down season, where he finished with 19 goals and 37 points, but he could be a fit for the Devils. He’s a top-six right wing and played with Hall during their time with the Edmonton Oilers. That could make for a productive first line with Hischier next season.

Jordan Eberle
Jordan Eberle could reunite with former teammate Taylor Hall if he signs with the New Jersey Devils (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Another free agent that makes sense is Gustav Nyquist. The 29-year-old forward finished the regular season with 60 points in 81 games between the Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks. He’s played first-line minutes with Logan Couture and Timo Meier during the Sharks’ playoff run as a right wing. That’s not his natural position, but he can play it and could be an option as Hischier’s right wing, too.

The Devils have a budding star center in Hischier, and they can’t let his capabilities go to waste. Getting more talent is a must to help him take the next step in his development. And once they get him the pieces he needs, the sky is the limit for a player already performing at a high level.

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey