You’d be lying if you said you believed Victor Olofsson, Sam Lafferty, Ilya Mikheyev and Trevor Moore would be the forwards dominating the rookie scoring race early on over the likes of New Jersey Devils center Jack Hughes and New York Rangers winger Kaapo Kakko.
The first two picks in the 2019 draft have struggled out of the gate, with Kakko recording just one goal through three games for the Rangers. Hughes? He’s been snakebitten, failing to register a point in six games with a Devils team still chasing their first victory. If you’re Hughes, a young 18-year-old adjusting to the pro game, there’s good reason to be frustrated. He couldn’t have come much closer to scoring than his double-post escapade against Florida on Monday, with Hughes slamming his stick in irritation after what should have been a sure goal.
Should the Devils be worried? An 0-4-2 record through six games would suggest there are bigger underlying issues with the team itself, but when it comes to Hughes, it’s far too early to hit the panic button. In reality, he’s far from the only No. 1 prospect to struggle out of the gate.
Take Hughes’ star teammate, Taylor Hall, for example. The No. 1 pick by the Edmonton Oilers in 2010, Hall needed eight games for his first goal and had just four through 20 games in 2010-11. Seven seasons later, Hall took home the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s top player with the Devils, cementing himself as one of the best players in New Jersey during the post-Dynasty era. Now, the challenge is keeping him in New Jersey and avoiding the open market this summer, something the team hopes having Hughes in the fray can help with.
Two seasons before Hall hit the scene, Steven Stamkos had a rough start of his own. With 396 goals in 751 games, only Alex Ovechkin (500) has more tallies than Stamkos since his rookie season in 2008-09. Given his natural goal-scoring ability, it’s easy to gloss over the fact that it took Stamkos eight games to put up his first assist and nine games to score his first goal. In fact, Stamkos had just four goals in 2008 while playing less than 10 minutes a night on many occasions. Part of that was due to disagreements with Lightning coach Barry Melrose at the time, but Stamkos went on to post 19 points in his final 20 games (Melrose was gone by then) and became the second-youngest player to score a hat-trick when he did so 10 days after turning 19.
When Hughes was just a year old, 2002 No. 1 pick Rick Nash scored in Columbus’ opening game before going on an 11-game goal-less drought to kick off 2002-03. He’d score two goals in Game 13, but would go on to score just seven goals in his first 36 games. The next season? He led the NHL with 41, giving the Blue Jackets its first star player in the early days of the franchise. Nash never won the Stanley Cup before retiring in 2015, but he finished with five seasons of 60-plus points and was a three-time 40-goal scorer.
But perhaps the most famous example of a young star failing to find their footing early on is Joe Thornton, who needed 22 games to record his first goal, and 32 to record his second point of the season in 1997-98 after Boston made him the No. 1 pick a few months prior to the campaign. Thornton had just three goals and seven points that season before becoming one of the best playmakers in the NHL, highlighted by a 96-assist, 125-point Hart Trophy season in 2005-06, split between Boston and San Jose. Since coming into the league, Thornton is the only player to record 90-plus assists in a season, doing it a second time in 2006-07 as a member of the Sharks.
The argument that Hughes wasn’t ready for the NHL as an undersized forward has been discussed at length and, initially, that’s understandable. There’s a real possibility that Hughes would have benefited from some time in the AHL to adjust to the pro game after years of slaughtering inferior talent with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. Hughes is just 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds and while he doesn’t totally shy away from physical play, he doesn’t exactly meet the criteria of a power forward.
Things can’t get worse in New Jersey. The club is still chasing its first power-play goal, and only Nikita Gusev, Kyle Palmieri and Blake Coleman are repeat goal-scorers this season. This isn’t a Hughes issue, this is a systematical issue, one where the overall foundation of the roster is flawed. Gusev’s demotion to the fourth line isn’t what the Devils were planning on this season, and playing Hughes with Jesper Boqvist and Wayne Simmonds on the third line isn’t ideal, either. At this point, Hughes is a set-up man without a finisher.
So no, don’t be worried about an 18-year-old struggling to produce in his first few games. He didn’t become a No. 1 pick by accident. As the Devils improve, so will Hughes, and his opportunities will come. His slow start is not due to a lack of trying: Hughes has 12 shots in six games and has seen his ice time bumped up to 17 minutes a night in the past few games. Not everyone can be like Auston Matthews and score four goals in their first game; Hughes’ time will come.
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