As the first player ever to jump straight from the U.S. National Team Development Program to the NHL, Jack Hughes was always going to face a challenge as a rookie. The first overall pick in the 2019 draft went to the New Jersey Devils, a franchise that ended up struggling mightily, despite the presence of big names such as P.K. Subban, Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier.
Hughes himself had to grind it out in 2019-20, but with an extra-long off-season to contemplate and build upon his rookie campaign, the dynamic pivot is hoping to build off his experience.
"My positives are that I got 61 games of NHL experience in," Hughes said. "I'm no longer a rookie, I'm a second-year guy - it's out of the way. This will be a good off-season in terms of me knowing and understanding what it's like at the NHL level and to have all this time to prepare. Hopefully going into next season, I'll be ready to go."
While size has become less and less a factor in the NHL recently, one aspect of Hughes' progression has been strengthening his 5-foot-11, 170-pound frame. The 19-year-old didn't have a certain number in mind when it came to weight/muscle gain, but he did want to take the unique opportunity presented by the pandemic seriously. To that end, Hughes worked with NTDP director of sports science Brian Galivan.
"The biggest thing is obviously getting stronger and putting more weight on," Hughes said. "That's been the main focus so far, especially when there were no rinks open for the first part of the quarantine. It was a big summer in terms of getting my body right, feeling really good and being able to lift. This is really the first time in my life where I've had a period like this to lift like this without any games. I haven't played a game in seven or eight months and that has never happened before."
Hughes tallied 21 points in 61 games this past season, which probably wasn't the haul Devils fans may have wanted, but the youngster didn't have the best of luck, either: the kid who scored 34 goals in 50 games with the NTDP in 2018-19 was held to just seven goals as an NHL rookie. But his shooting percentage was only 5.7 percent, a number that is sure to improve in the future. Hughes said nothing surprised him about his rookie campaign and he's confident in the evolution of his development and his body. He is, as he noted, still just 19.
The future is already looking brighter in New Jersey and no doubt the moves made by new GM Tom Fitzgerald in the off-season will help: Andreas Johnsson gives the team another scoring threat on the wing (possibly as a linemate for the playmaking Hughes), defenseman Ryan Murray will help shut down the opposition while also transitioning the puck up the ice to the forwards, while Corey Crawford will stop more pucks, so fewer shifts will end with the red light wailing behind the Devils' net. There's also the fact Hischier, himself just 21, is still on the rise and as a fellow center, provides a great foil for Hughes to practise against. That idea of steel sharpening steel had Hughes reminiscing about his NTDP days.
"I remember when I was at The Program - every day I was practising against Trevor Zegras, Matt Boldy, Alex Turcotte and Cole Caufield," he said. "The mindset would be that to be the best you have to practise against the best - that's the only way you'll get better, to push yourself against great players. It's good to have that competitive aspect with Nico on the team."
With two highly-skilled centers in the organization, New Jersey's rebuild gets a lot easier. Fitzgerald added more pieces in the off-season and while the Devils likely can't hang for a whole season with the rest of their division just yet, the team should be a lot more competitive when the 2020-21 season gets rolling in the New Year. At the least, seeing Hughes dance around defensemen from the rival Rangers or Islanders would be a nice snack for the Devils' faithful.