A lot has changed for the New Jersey Devils over the last month. John Hynes is no longer their head coach after being fired on Dec. 3, and their best player, Taylor Hall, was traded to the Arizona Coyotes on Dec. 16. There’s been a noticeable change in the Devils’ style of play since Alain Nasreddine took over as the interim coach, as they’re playing at a much faster pace.
There have been a few players who have stepped up in the wake of Hall’s departure, too. But it’s Nico Hischier who’s beginning to emerge as a star player and as one of the team’s leaders. He got off to a slow start, but his play had been coming along before Hall’s trade, and even before Hynes’ firing. After a recent stretch of stellar performances, it’s clear the 21-year-old center has become the centerpiece of a Devils’ team looking to retool for next season.
Hischier Playing His Best Hockey After Rocky Beginning
There was a lot of preseason hype around the Devils. They acquired Nikita Gusev and P.K. Subban in trades and drafted Jack Hughes first overall at the Entry Draft. But some of that hype was also due to a returning player like Hischier, who was going to play a significant role in helping the team take the next step forward. Unfortunately, he didn’t get off to a great start this season. He had just two assists in his first seven games, all of this while coming off the heels of signing a mega seven-year extension worth over $7 million annually.
But it didn’t take long for Hischier to turn things around. Since Nov. 13, he has 19 points in 23 games, which equates to a 68-point pace over 82 games. His underlying numbers may not be what we’re used to from him, as his five-on-five on-ice rates are hovering between 45-50%. With that said, his offensive production has taken a noticeable step forward.
Since Nov. 13, he’s tied with Nikita Gusev for the team lead in points. He has 55 shots on goal, and an individual expected goals (ixG) of 6.82, which is about level with the eight actual goals he’s scored. He’s also second on the team to Gusev in points per 60 minutes (points/60). But what’s most noticeable about Hischier is the way he’s creating chances. This phenomenal individual effort against the New York Islanders two nights ago would be one example.
There was some question to how Hischier would perform after Hall’s trade. The two had great chemistry together, and it’s close to impossible to replace Hall’s production overnight. But the Devils have found something that works by placing Jesper Bratt on the top line with Hischier and Kyle Palmieri.
Bratt, Hischier, and Palmieri have played just over 81 minutes together at five-on-five since Hall’s trade. And their numbers as a trio are pretty encouraging — the Devils have controlled 51.5% of the shot attempts and 59.33% of the expected goals. It’s a small sample size, but there’s no reason to break them up any time soon. Hischier’s stated he’s comfortable playing alongside Bratt, and they have positive results together since both players broke into the league in 2017 — the Devils have controlled over 53% of the expected goals with them on the ice.
For the second offseason in a row, significant changes are likely coming to the Devils’ roster. And that should be expected given their current record of 15-20-8. The Devils have a couple of notable pending unrestricted free agents (UFA) this summer, including captain Andy Greene. If he plans on playing another season, it’s hard to imagine it’s with a team other than the Devils.
But if Greene does decide to hang up the skates, that could pave the way for Hischier to be the Devils’ next captain. General manager Ray Shero wouldn’t have signed Hischier to a massive extension if he wasn’t a building block for this team. His on-ice performance was one reason to get him locked up long-term, but his budding leadership qualities are beginning to stand out as another.
“He’s been more outspoken and you can really hear the confidence in his voice,” Wayne Simmonds said to Abbey Mastracco of northjersey.com. “The guys really listen and when you have a young leader like that on a young team, it resonates with the younger guys. They’re not listening to older guys like myself bark all the time, so to have someone in kind of your age group that has that leadership mentality, it’s a great thing for the team.” (From ‘Monday morning (power play) QB: NJ Devils’ Nico Hischier transforms into a leader,’ northjersey.com – 1/6/2020)
It wasn’t long ago where it seemed like a Devils’ future built around Hischier, Hall, and Hughes was the plan. But things change in the blink of an eye in professional sports. The Devils got off to an awful start this season. And it became apparent by American Thanksgiving Hall wasn’t going to sign an extension during the season. He gets traded to the Coyotes, and so comes the end of a Devils’ era.
But there has been some good to come out of the trade. Hischier’s turning into a center whose linemates are becoming better players by playing with him. And that makes him the perfect person to help mentor and develop some of the team’s up-and-coming prospects. This is especially true given Simmonds’ comments about his voice resonating with younger players. And that seems like captain material to me, even if it doesn’t come until Greene’s time with the Devils concludes.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick
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