Late last week, the New Jersey Devils announced they had signed Nico Hischier to a seven-year deal worth $7.25 million against the cap.
The broad consensus about this deal, from what people had to say on Twitter at least, was a, “Huh, really? Him?”
After all, Hischier has just two points in six games this season, and missed 13 games last season en route to a campaign in which he put up just 47 points. He doesn’t score a lot of goals (37 in 157 career games, including none this year) and doesn’t get a ton of minutes (last season he only played 20-plus minutes 18 times). So it seemed that the broad impression was, “What’s he done to earn it?”
Well for one thing, people need to understand that Hischier is only in his third season in the league, and won’t even turn 21 until early January. He made the NHL as a teenager and put up a pretty good amount of points (52) despite the fact that he wasn’t exactly swimming in power-play time and had little help besides Taylor Hall’s god-mode run that entire year.
If you want to be cynical about that, which I get, you can correctly say it’s easy to ride shotgun when a guy’s doing as much as Hall did that season. But what that ignores is that Hischier — who played more than 800 minutes at 5-on-5 with Hall that year — was almost exclusively seeing the best defenses other teams had to offer. No opponent all year had to worry about anyone but Hall scoring, so Hischier faced the best guys opponents could throw at him and succeed as a teenaged rookie. Not easy to do.
Then last season, he put up even better per-game numbers despite playing way fewer minutes with Hall (from 800-plus to about 325), though to be fair that’s because Hall was limited to 33 games. Nonetheless, Hischier scored at a high rate himself even without the reigning MVP.
This year, well, the numbers haven’t been there even if the opportunity continues to be. But he’s on the Devils, whose problems so far are well-documented, so welcome to the club on that one.
Simply put, there aren’t too many players to play at least three seasons — all before the age of 21 — since Hischier came into the league and everyone but Patrik Laine is scoring at a very similar rate. Most of his per-game numbers, minutes and even seasons at a given age are in line with Pierre-Luc Dubois, except Dubois didn’t get hurt last year. Would anyone bat an eye at Dubois, who’s about 5.5 months older, pulling $7.25 million through 2028 at some point in this, his final ELC year? Probably not.
That’s not a knock on Dubois, who has been really good since coming into the league at age 19 and will continue to improve for years. But when factoring in other considerations, including the fact that most of Hischier’s contributions come at 5-on-5, you have to say Hischier has contributed more to New Jersey’s success (such as it has been) than Dubois has to Columbus’s.
Despite playing 13 fewer games over the last two seasons, Hischier has a notably higher WAR than Dubois, but that isn’t a knock on Dubois either. Why? Because Evolving Hockey has Hischier sitting with the 20th-highest skater WAR in the league from 2017-19. That’s in the entire league. Right between Mitch Marner (insanely rich now) and Ryan O’Reilly (MVP candidate last year).
This isn’t the kind of thing one should necessarily accept at face value, except to say that Hischier seems to be an elite driver of shot quality. Among players with at least 2,000 minutes at 5-on-5 since Hischier came into the league, he’s 40th in the league in on-ice xGF per 60. Again, you can say part of that is Hall, but it’s hardly a Crosby-and-Kunitz situation. Hall never enjoyed as much offensive success as he did when Hischier got dropped onto his (top) line (as a teenager).
Moreover, you gotta look at the big picture here. Look at all the big RFA problems over the summer; a few of those guys (Tkachuk, Point) got similar money, but only for three years. And while they have certainly produced more offense — and Point in particular looks like an All-World player — the guys like Clayton Keller, who signed for similar term and money, are also less proven.
In a world in which RFAs are waiting all summer to sign, and then only doing it for short money, to get a guy who has proved time and again he’s a clear No. 1 center locked up for the better part of a decade and his entire prime is an incredible coup. Especially for a team that doesn’t typically retain its top players.
And even if it were a bit of an overpay (which it isn’t), the Devils have plenty of cap room to mess around with, still retain Taylor Hall this summer if they can, and continue to develop the Jack Hugheses and Jesper Boqvists in the system over the next two or three years.
If nothing else, having a locked-in Hischier behind a potentially locked-in Hughes a few years from now is going to make the Devils formidable down the middle, which is where all great teams start.
He does a lot of things very well and he’s not even 21, meaning he’ll keep doing things better and better for the next five or six years. For which the Devils just got him at a very affordable AAV. It’s incredible to me how anyone could mock or even question a contract like this if they’ve seen Hischier play.
I mean, watch the games, man.
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