NBC’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with the Sunday matchup between the New Jersey Devils and Washington Capitals. Coverage begins at 2 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
Something looked a little different about Nico Hischier and the Devils during their 3-2 loss to the Sabres on Saturday. From Sunday’s Devils – Capitals game and onward, there’s a strong chance that it will like more and more a natural fit.
At just 22 years old, Nico Hischier became captain of the Devils, becoming the youngest active player to don the “C” for any NHL team this season.
Hischier becomes Devils captain at age 22
Kyle Palmieri and other Devils players sure seemed to approve the decision to name Hischier their latest captain.
“So happy for him,” Palmieri said. “He’s a such a genuine, hard-working kid. Getting to know him these last three years, you knew he was ready for it. He’s going to learn along the way, but we’re all here as teammates and to support him, and I was so happy for him. I found out last night and he didn’t find out until this morning. But it was genuine excitement. He’s a guy that leads by example and has all the respect in the world from his teammates and the people that surround him.”
Along with Predators captain Roman Josi, Hischier is one of two Swiss-born NHL players who serve as team captains.
Consider this the latest example of the Devils passing the torch from the remaining remnants of the Lou Lamoriello era to new (fresh) faces of their franchise. Hischier, 22, takes over from former captain Andy Greene. Greene, now 38, was traded from the Devils to the Islanders as New Jersey’s 37-year-old captain.
As Palmieri mentioned, Hischier is learning along the way. In that case, the conversation was leadership, but it also applies to his all-around game. Hischier ideally climbing from star to superstar could be crucial in the Devils making gains in their rebuild.
As is, Hischier is already a remarkably polished player. Consider that he’s a positive contributor on both ends of the ice, as seen by Hockey Viz’s graphs:
That’s all very promising. Still, the Devils are going to want more. Hischier’s reached exactly 20 goals once, during his rookie year in 2017-18, when he also set a career-high with 52 points. He’s been a solid scorer, yet some of his strengths revolve around observing his all-around game.
During his first season carrying a $7.25 million cap hit, and that “C” on his sweater, people are going to want more from Hischier. He’s already handled the pressure of being the top pick of a draft (2017), but expectations should only escalate going forward.
Other young Devils show promise
Luckily, Hischier’s not alone. Not even as a recent No. 1 overall pick.
To an extent, some of the pressure eased off of Hischier when Jack Hughes ended up being an even-more-hyped top pick of the 2019 NHL Draft. (And some of Hughes’ rookie year struggles might have kept some eyes off of Hischier, too.)
No doubt, the Devils must be delighted to see Jack Hughes looking more like, well, a top overall pick so far during his sophomore season. Consider, for instance, how ugly Hughes’ underlying stats were for 2019-20:
Then compare them to more promising RAPM charts from Evolving Wild so far for 2020-21:
Now, sure, there’s again that urge to blurt out the word “More!”
But that’s the sort of trajectory you hope to see from a young player. At 19, Hughes is becoming more comfortable with the speed of opponents, and how to make his own elite skating work in his favor.
Even with his offense drying up a bit lately (zero goals, three assists in his past seven games), Hughes has 10 points in 12 games this season. That’s the most of any Devils player so far in 2020-21.
Now, to really get cooking with a rebuild, you need to find talent beyond the most abundantly obvious choices.
While defenseman Ty Smith isn’t some Pavel Datsyuk-style deep draft steal, you’re not always getting a sure thing even at 17th overall (Smith’s draft position in 2018). It’s extremely early in 20-year-old Ty Smith’s career, but through 12 games, he’s looking promising. So far, Smith is tied for second in team scoring with eight points.
His shooting percentage won’t remain at 10.5 percent over the long haul, but if Smith can round out into being a quality top-four defenseman for the Devils, that could be big.
And again, it’s a rising young player for the Devils.
No one on the Devils' top power play unit is old enough to rent a car
— Chris Ryan (@ChrisRyan_NJ) February 20, 2021
It’s also important for the Devils to develop properly. As their next coach, the Devils turned to experience instead of youth. Early on, there are some positive signs that Lindy Ruff is pushing some of the right buttons.
— CJ Turtoro (@CJTDevil) February 20, 2021
With Mackenzie Blackwood quietly building a case as one of the most promising young NHL goalies at 24, there’s quite a bit for the Devils to be happy about.
Granted, the most promising feelings are still about the future more than the present. But we’re seeing some signs of improvement today, along with dreams of tomorrow.