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Devils will lean heavily on Hughes and Hischier and, if healthy, they'll be rewarded
Not many teams can ice a 1-2 punch down the middle as good as the one in New Jersey.
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By CJ Turtoro (@CJTDevil)
In the NHL, averaging 20 minutes per game is a right of passage for the elite forwards.
Last year, only 13 centers in the NHL were trusted with that amount of responsibility. Being given that big of a role means that you are seen as not only a top center, but top-end top center.
After the all-star break last season, Nico Hischier averaged 19:51 and Jack Hughes averaged 20:22.
In early April, Hughes’s season had come to an end, so the last month we saw them both healthy was March.
In that month, Hischier averaged 20:46 and Hughes averaged 21:36 – that would’ve ranked them 3rd and 7th among NHL centers last season.
The only team that leaned on their top pivots more than the Devils were the Oilers, who boast two Hart Trophy winners.
And the Devils were force when one of those two were on the ice.
It’s difficult to accurately assess anything about the Devils with the trainwreck they endured in the crease. One way is to replace their goals allowed with xGA (expected goals allowed).
The whole NHL overachieved their xG totals by about 6% on NaturalStatTrick’s model. If we assume that the Devils only did allow that much then we get the blue column in the table below.
Assuming league-average goaltending, the Devils had a 53.8 xG ratio with Jack and/or Nico on the ice. Jack is obviously an electric and transformative talent, and Nico somehow managed to be a +2 at even-strength despite historically bad netminding.
As a reminder, they were also doing this with an injured and below-average defensive corps, alongside Jesper Bratt and three wingers that likely didn’t belong in an NHL top-6 yet; or at all.
If we attempt to isolate them from their circumstances, they become even more impressive.
Evolving-Hockey has projected value figures for every NHL skater available to subscribers. If we look at only the Centers, Jack and Nico both show up in the top 30.
Hughes is projected to be one of the very best players in the NHL, and Nico projects as a 1C as well. Only four teams have a better projected 1C than the Devils in Jack Hughes, and, if you thumb through the list, you’ll find only 5 have a better 2C than Nico Hischier.
The Devils leaned on their top-2 centers down the stretch last season as much as any team other than Edmonton, had success with each of them, showing up comfortably positive in differential after accounting for the goaltending; and as isolated talents they project to be one of the top 1-2 punches down the middle next year.
It is not common for a team to have two centers as good as the Devils’ and not be successful. The Oilers have done their damndest to prove it but, despite their best efforts, they’ve made the postseason three years in a row, have the 10th most wins in that span, and ended up a 104-point team that made it to the Conference Finals this past year.
When you have two centers that are this level of good, it means you can lock in a shift “win” on two different sets of 20 minutes of hockey that really only overlap on the PP. That means you expect to win two of the three periods most nights.
All you have to do is not get totally blown off the face of the planet on the last third and you’ll win games more often than you’ll lose them.
We should expect Lindy Ruff to lean heavily on his twin star centers. And if they’re healthy, that should go pretty well for him.
Now…let’s see what new and creative way the Devils can find to screw this up.