- Nico Hischier may not post the same gaudy numbers as other recent No. 1 draft picks, but the rookie is a big part of the Devils' earlier-than-expected arrival.
NEWARK, N.J. — A reporter approaches Nico Hischier in the Devils’ locker room on a recent windy afternoon, and immediately, his teammates start to razz him. “Ooh,” says Jesper Bratt, the Devils’ 19-year-old rookie forward. An equipment manager steps in to offer his story, but then decides he would rather wait until he’s retired to write a tell-all book. Through it all, Hischier sits quietly in his stall, still just an 18-year-old in a new country. He is silent and stoic, still just a pimply-faced teenager taking in his surroundings.
The Devils, surprise contenders at 19-9-5, are led by a group of youngsters. There’s Bratt, the sixth-round pick in 2016, who made the team out of training camp and has ten goals. There’s Will Butcher, the Hobey Baker winner, who signed with the team in the summer, and has established himself as a power play savant,with 12 of his 21 points coming on the man-advantage. Miles Wood, 22, and Stefan Noesen, 24, have combined for 25 points. Taylor Hall, still only 26 but already in the midst of his eighth NHL season, leads the way with 31 points.
And then there’s Hischier, now the first-line center, living up to his No. 1 pick status, but doing it in his own, quiet way.
It’s a good thing young kids change their minds often, because otherwise we might be looking at Nico Hischier the soccer player. And why not? He enjoyed playing the sport more growing up in Valais, Switzerland, and it’s more popular there than hockey, anyway. Plus, his dad Rino was a pro soccer player. But then Nico saw his friends playing puck in the winter and he decided to lace up the skates one more time.
Hischier burst onto the scene at the World Juniors in 2016, where he had four goals and three assists in five games, scoring twice in a near-upset of the U.S. team. The Americans’ coach Bob Motzko said the “ice was tilted” when Hischier was on it. With the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL in 2016-17, Hischier scored 86 points in 57 games and battled with Nolan Patrick for the right to be selected No. 1 in the NHL draft. Upon hearing his name called by the Devils in Chicago, he became the first Swiss-born player to be the top pick with New Jersey GM Ray Shero proclaiming Hischer “will make a difference.”
The hype was there, but Hischier was more concerned with simply making the team. “I just wanted to play each night,” he says. “I didn’t have a lot of expectations, just wanted to have team success.”
Then the start happened. Most experts had the Devils continuing their rebuild, working to mesh youngsters with new veterans like Drew Stafford, Marcus Johansson and Brian Boyle. Instead, they gelled quickly, starting 9-2 out of the gate before a four-game losing streak. But they didn’t falter, and are second in the Metropolitan Division.
John Hynes, New Jersey’s third-year coach, talks a lot about identity, and the Devils have one: hard-working, not flashy. They’ve gotten contributions from journeymen forwards like Brian Gibbons (20 points) and Boyle (14 points), and have just one real established star in Hall.
“It started in camp,” says Stafford, who signed in the offseason and has tallied eight points in 29 games. “It was our responsibility to right the ship. We got rewarded for it. We worked. It proves that if we play a certain way, we’re going to have a chance to win. We surprised a few people, but we’re not surprising people anymore.”
It took Hischier six games to score his first goal, but once he did, he arrived in style. The nominal score was a beauty under the crossbar against Ottawa Senators goalie Craig Anderson just 2:30 into the game, and he followed it with his second goal just under two minutes later. Consider the lesson embraced. “It’s hard to score in this league,” Hischier says. “But it’s a really high compete level each night. I like that. It’s really fun.”
Hischier embodies the workman-like style of the Devils, and, at least for now, he will not follow in the footsteps of recent top picks Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews by putting up eye-popping statistics. Hischier’s game is more well-rounded. Stafford says his ability to get under sticks reminds him of Pavel Datsyuk, the former Detroit Red Wings' offensive wizard the Swiss rookie grew up idolizing. Wayne Gretzky texted former Devils defenseman and current TV analyst Ken Daneyko: “Hey tell that No. 13 I love watching him play. He’s so enjoyable.”
When asked to recall his thoughts upon hearing of the text, Hischier is unsure. “Somebody says that like he did…” Hischier pauses. “What are you going to say? It’s awesome.”
The outward humbleness belies an inner toughness. During a December 8 game against Columbus, Hischier had four teeth chipped by a high stick. The next day, he suited up against the Rangers. “He had the chipmunk teeth,” says Stafford, with a laugh. “I thought he got his wisdom teeth pulled out because he’s 14 years old. He’s a tough kid.”
The Devils are still in contention heading into the New Year, and a late November trade for defenseman Sami Vatanen improves a mostly no-name defensive corps. And Hischier, who will turn 19 in early January, is excited for the rest of the season—and, in particular, seeing some new cities.
And what would you expect? For this quiet, unassuming rookie, fitting in and enjoying the ride has worked out well so far for him and the team. And he—and the team—are going to keep it up as long as they can.