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Heading into the 2017 NHL draft, there was a lot of debate about whether Nico Hischier or Nolan Patrick would become the better player.
Hischier has erased any doubt through two seasons, piling up 38 more points than Patrick while showcasing more dynamic offensive ability and a better two-way game.
The question I'm seeing a lot now: is Hischier better than Elias Pettersson, the 5th overall pick from that class and odds-on favorite to win the Calder Trophy?
A quick glance at their counting totals – 66 points in 71 games from Pettersson, 47 in 69 from Hischier – would probably have you leaning 'no' but there's a case to be made, especially at 5v5.
With not much else happening right now, I thought it'd be fun to take a closer look.
I should note the New Jersey Devils and Vancouver Canucks were comparably bad in almost every key 5v5 metric. The Canucks fared ~1% better in terms of Corsi For% and Goals For%, whereas the Devils were ~2% better in Expected Goals For% and Scoring Chance For%. All in all, there wasn't much separating the two. They were both awful. Put another way, Hischier and Pettersson had similar bars to clear.
Two things stand out here:
1) The Devils and Canucks were better in terms of shots, chances, expected goals, and goals with Hischier and Pettersson on the ice than without. Not surprising, but still impressive for such young players.
2) Hischier bested Pettersson in each category and, in some cases, by significant margins.
This despite 53.45% of Hischier's on-ice faceoffs coming in the offensive zone, compared to 69.35% of Pettersson's. EP40 had the easier deployment and still didn't drive play the way Hischier did.
Generally speaking, I think both players had similar caliber of linemates to work with. Hischier primarily played alongside Kyle Palmieri. Thanks to Taylor Hall's absence from Christmas on, the 3rd wheel was constantly changing.
Like Hischier, Pettersson's primary linemate was a quality goal scorer (Brock Boeser) and there was a laundry list of secondary wingers joining them.
Now that some context has been added, let's take a look at the offense each player generated at 5v5.
Pettersson found the back of the net, and scoresheet, at a noticeably higher rate than Hischier. His numbers were elite, while Hischier's were just strong.
It is worth noting Hischier was a much better chance generator around the net – there's a reason his expected goal rate was significantly higher – but Pettersson has a more powerful shot and is a natural finisher. Even if the percentages inflated his numbers a bit, I don't think it's unreasonable that he out-produced his expected goal numbers.
Hischier's relative on-ice impact was better than Pettersson's but the latter was a more adept point producer.
On we go.
Goals Above Replacement
One of my favorite metrics to look at when quickly comparing or evaluating players is Evolving-Hockey's GAR. While not perfect, it's a good way to measure the total value a player brings to the table factoring in even-strength play, special teams, penalties drawn/taken, and more.
Before examining how Hischier and Pettersson stacked up against each other, I think it's worth noting both players graded out as top-33 forwards in their 19-year-olds seasons despite missing 11-13 games. That's insane – and helps put into perspective how special each player is.
As you can see, Hischier has Pettersson bested at even-strength but power play prowess, and penalty differential (+28 as opposed to +20), sways GAR into Pettersson's favor.
The 1.6 gap in PP GAR is more than the total difference between the two, and I think there is reason to believe Hischier can eat into a lot of that as early as next season.
Hischier played 60 fewer minutes on the PP, which works against him, while doing so in less than ideal circumstances. Hischier shared the ice for 50+ minutes with eight different players, and the forward he spent the 2nd largest amount of time with, Hall, did not suit up for a single game in 2019.
The extra ice time helped Pettersson, of course, as did Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, and Alex Edler serving as constants on PP1. The 5th piece often changed but Pettersson had the luxury of the same PP quarterback, the same sniper to feed, and the same net-front presence for almost all of the season. That matters.
Is Hischier as good on the PP as Pettersson? Probably not, but he's never been put in a fair situation to really find out (he played PP2 as a rookie, and dealt with constant linemate changes as a sophomore). I'm willing to bet the sizeable gap in PP GAR has more to do with the situation than talent.
If you believe it's reasonable to tack on a little extra to Hischier's PP number, Evolving-Hockey suggests you're essentially splitting hairs with the total value brought to the table.
It is difficult to say which way, if any, the pendulum will swing moving forward. What I am comfortable saying is Hischier will be the better two-way player, while Pettersson will be the more prolific scorer. Their areas of expertise may differ, but the greatness does not.
You can debate which player would go No. 1 in a redraft until the cows come home but I think it's fair to say both teams are thrilled it is centered around their guy.
Numbers via NaturalStatTrick.com and Evolving-Hockey.com.
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