Prior to the beginning of this COVID-19-hijacked NHL regular season, some analysts had high hopes for the New Jersey Devils.
Unfortunately, the Devils were brutal out of the gate this year, posting a 10-15-5 record before the league paused the season because of COVID. That said, in the three games New Jersey has played since the shutdown, they’ve went 3-0-0, and currently sit in a tie for sixth place in the Metropolitan Division.
It’s going to be mighty difficult for them to solidify a playoff berth for them, but one thing has become very clear as they move ahead: this is Jack Hughes’ team, and as he goes, so go the Devils.
Hughes has generated three goals and eight points in New Jersey’s past three games, all of which were won by New Jersey. Yes, one of those goals and three of those points came against the lowly Buffalo Sabres, but the other goals and points came against Edmonton and Washington, two teams that presently sit in a playoff position. And that three-game winning stretch saw Hughes consistently generating offense, so that, in the past 13 games since he returned from a dislocated shoulder injury that limited him to only one game-played in November, he amassed six goals and 13 points.
It’s no coincidence the Devils’ resurgence is in large part because of Hughes’ success with the puck. It’s true the 20-year-old has needed an acclimation to the NHL level in his two-and-a-half years since New Jersey selected him first overall in the 2019 entry draft, but he is ratcheting up his game. Playing in the No. 1 center spot, Hughes is averaging 18:12 of ice time – second only to center Nico Hischier among Devils forwards – and he gives New Jersey the cornerstone franchise player they’ve lacked since their glory years.
Yes, New Jersey doesn’t have enough quality depth down the middle just yet. GM Tom Fitzgerald has much more roster work to do to get the Devils into a top spot in the Metro. But in Hughes, he has a dynamic force who can shred an opponent’s defense with his creativity and pinpoint precision. New Jersey thinks so much of him, they’ve already signed a contract extension that begins next season; that ends in the 2029-30 campaign; and that will pay him an average of $8 million per year. That could wind up being a huge bargain for the Devils.
All of this isn’t to suggest New Jersey is bereft of true talent other than Hughes. Hischier and defenseman Dougie Hamilton are key components of their group. Winger and current leading point-getter for the Devils Jesper Bratt is only 23 years old, and his cap hit of $2.75-million per year makes him especially valuable. That also goes for 23-year-old winger Yegor Sharangovich; the Russian forward has recorded seven goals and 14 points in 30 games this season, and his game still has room for growth. Starting goalie Mackenzie Blackwood also has to hold up his end of the deal, and be prepared to bail out a defense corps that is a major work-in-progress. Fitzgerald knows full well the hill New Jersey has to climb is a steep one.
But Hughes’ blossoming as a legitimate franchise cornerstone is something to behold. He’s far from physically intimidating, but his vision for the game and deftness with the puck absolutely are intimidating. Until the team develops more depth in all positions around Hughes, they’re only going to go as far as Hughes carries them. But he’s certainly looking like he’s capable of and ready to deliver on what is asked of him.