Remember when Nico Hischier had no goals and one assist in his first four NHL games? It wasn’t a big deal when he did. It was important to temper expectations for 2017’s No. 1 overall pick on the heels of two generational-talent draft years, which yielded Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews. Hischier’s ceiling if everything broke right would make him a Claude Giroux type, which would mean a star but not a superstar. Considering Hischier was fast-tracking to the NHL at 18 on a supposedly bad New Jersey Devils team, it would’ve been a shock, really, to see him light up the scoresheet in October.
But, well, it’s started happening already. Hischier sniped his first two NHL goals Thursday night in the Devils’ 5-4 win over the Ottawa Senators. The first was a top-cheese one-timer off a perfect pass from right winger Drew Stafford. The second came in the blue paint as Hischier crashed the net to stuff home an unfrozen puck. Have a look:
Hischier suddenly has six points in his past three games, giving him seven in seven games on the year. He’s earned those numbers, as he’s obviously a talented, smart young player, but there’s more to the surge than that. The burst of offense coincides with coach John Hynes placing Hischier on a line with Stafford and Taylor Hall. The chemistry with Hall is particularly interesting giving Hall’s skill, speed and all-around pedigree as the No. 1 overall draft pick seven years before Hischier. Hall picked up four assists in the win over Ottawa Thursday.
The hope when New Jersey picked Hischier was he’d form a dynamic duo with Hall…someday. It wasn’t necessarily supposed to happen this year. But Travis Zajac’s torn pectoral muscle ripped open the depth chart at center in August, paving the way for Hischier to climb toward the No. 1 line.
He’s obviously not perfect so far. Hischier has struggled on faceoffs, winning just 41.3 percent of them. That’s normal for rookies, of course. Since the NHL began tracking faceoff data in 1997-98, 130 rookies have taken 500 or more draws in a season, and just 27, or 20.8 percent, have won more than half their faceoffs. He’ll get better. His overall possession numbers are pedestrian so far, too, with a Corsi For percentage of 49.40 at 5-on-5, per naturalstattrick.com. Hall also has far better possession numbers without Hischier (57.0 percent) than with him (48.42), but maybe there’s something to that. Perhaps Hynes has split up Hall from veterans like Kyle Palmieri, Marcus Johansson and Adam Henrique to better distribute the experience and two-way responsibility throughout the lineup. Hischier, Hall and Stafford have also been especially strong over their past two games since being fused as what looks like a full-time line, all posting CF percentages well above 50, making a positive impact on the shot-attempt game. It appears this trio has found its groove and has started driving the play.
So maybe the Hischier-Hall bond is ahead of schedule. If that’s the case, it will go a long way toward helping the Devils sustain their 6-1-0 start to the season. Hey, as my colleague Ryan Kennedy points out, no one thought the Toronto Maple Leafs would make the playoffs entering the 2016-17 season, either, so why write off the Devils so fast? If GM Ray Shero has struck gold with his first overall pick, and Hischier goes boom over bust, maybe the Devils continue exceeding expectations.