Of the 36 forwards who were taken first overall in the NHL draft from its modern-day inception in 1969 through 2019, only five of them had worse statistical seasons in terms of points per game than Jack Hughes did in his first campaign. On the bright side, three of those guys were Joe Thornton, Vincent Lecavalier and Owen Nolan.
So perhaps there was no need for hand-wringing when Hughes put up a paltry seven goals and 21 points in 61 games last season for the New Jersey Devils. But, geez, in terms of points per game, you had to take notice that he was even behind such notorious draft busts as Brian Lawton, Patrik Stefan and Nail Yakupov. In fact, he wasn’t even the best rookie in his family in 2019-20. That designation, of course, went to older brother Quinn, who finished second in Calder Trophy voting after his outstanding season with the Vancouver Canucks.
It’s almost as though a 5-foot-11, 170-pounder with no major junior, U.S. college or European pro experience wouldn’t be able to thrive in the best league in the world. Hughes could do nothing about the latter, but he did have control over the former. So rather than spend the unprecedented 10 months off working on a skill set that really didn’t need much augmentation, Hughes focused on gaining muscle, strength and weight. He worked out harder and he ate more and, subsequently, came to camp about 15 pounds heavier this season.
And if you were watching by far the best of Hughes’ 64 games so far as an NHL player, a 4-3 win over the New York Rangers Tuesday night, the new product was on full display. Not only did he score two goals and add an assist, Hughes was fast, he was dangerous, he was on the puck and he carried himself with a sense of confidence we haven’t seen from him before. His first goal of the game, and of the season, came when Hughes darted past Rangers defenseman Ryan Lindgren as the puck lay in the crease. He tapped it in just as he was being tripped up by Lindgren and falling over Rangers goalie Alexandar Georgiev.
It’s a goal Hughes probably doesn’t score last year. His second of the night was much more Jack Hughes-like, springing himself for a breakaway after blocking a Jacob Trouba shot, then scoring on a backhand deke. With Nico Hischier out with an injury, Hughes has taken it upon himself to fill the breach and with six points in three games, finds himself tied with six other players for the NHL scoring lead. “It’s obviously high,” Hughes said of his confidence level. “It’s always been high, but we’re building and I’m building personally. Lindy (Devils coach Ruff) has a lot of faith in me so I’ve got to deliver and we’ve been able to do that so far. I feel good right now.”
Hughes talked a lot about the puck bouncing the right way for him, but it’s funny how the puck bounces the right when (a) it’s not compromised by being imbedded with tracking technology; and, (b) you play the right way. “I was really disappointed I couldn’t get him out there more often,” Ruff said after the game. “I thought he was quick, he was deliberate, he was making plays. Every time he was on the ice, something good was happening. I really, really like the way he’s playing, I like the way he’s competing, I like his play away from the puck. He’s done a lot of work to get to this point and he’s getting rewarded for it.”
And so are the Devils. You would have expected an uptick in Hughes’ play after last season, but after failing to meet expectations in Year 1, he might exceed them in Year 2. The Devils are young and hungry and goalie Mackenzie Blackwood is a pillar. Maybe, just maybe, these Devils are onto something, with a much-improved Hughes leading the way. As much as having 10 months off was hell for a team that didn’t make the bubble tournament, it might have been the best thing for Hughes.
“I had a lot of conversations with Jack about, ‘Really if you put the work in in the (off-season), I was going to give him a heck of an opportunity,” Ruff said. “I told him, ‘You’re going to have learn to trust me. I’m going to trust you and I’m going to put you in situations you might not be comfortable with, some D-zone faceoffs to penalty-killing time.' I want to see his game grow and what I’ve seen in the first three games is way ahead of where I thought he could be.”