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Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes Go from Good to Great

The New Jersey Devils broke out of the NHL's basement and lead the Metropolitan Division. Their one-two punch down the middle is a crucial reason why.
Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils

There’s no question Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier have outgrown the “future star” label.

When the New Jersey Devils – the NHL’s hottest team – came to town on Thursday, a larger-than-normal contingent of media members attended the morning skate. Aside from the team’s winning streak – which, after beating Toronto, stands at 11 games – the line of questioning regarding the Devils was mainly centered around Hughes and Hischier.

Their respective media scrums were the largest – by a landslide – of anyone in the visiting locker room, drawing the type of attention that the likes of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Nathan MacKinnon typically garner.

That’s what happens when you’re two of the best players in the game right now.

The pair of first overall selections – Hischier in 2017, Hughes went two years later – are yin and yang pillars. Sort of like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane back in the Chicago Blackhawks’ heyday. Hischier, 23, draws parallels to the former – pairing high-end offensive production with an ability to match up defensively against top opposing players.

Hughes mirrors the latter with an exceptional skill package that has put him front and center in the spotlight recently.

“He’s kinda got that swag, I think the media probably knows that,” said Devils right winger Nathan Bastian.

Hughes, who has 19 points in 17 games this year, has evolved into one of the game's most exciting talents. Part of the intrigue with Hughes, honestly, has to do with the major rockstar vibes in a sport filled with cookie-cutter cliches. This is a guy who threw his stick in the crowd after scoring the OT game-winner.

He’s a sensational skater, possessing a shiftiness that New Jersey coach Lindy Ruff said is one of his greatest weapons.

I think you’ve got to have speed, and Jack’s got speed and lateral movement, which is very tough on defense in today’s game,” Ruff said.

And once he creates that time and space for himself and his teammates, Hughes is just getting started.

“He’s a lot of fun to watch – he’s really dangerous every time he has the puck,” said Leafs forward Auston Matthews.

Hughes can pick apart opponents in a variety of ways. At his core, he’s a playmaker and one of the best pure passers in the entire league. He’s also got terrific stickhandling abilities that, combined with his wheels, allow him to weave effortlessly through traffic in transition. His 2.25 even-strength rush attempts per 60 minutes this season rank fourth among all NHL skaters with a minimum of 200 minutes played.

“When he’s really on, he has the puck on his stick a lot,” Bastian said. “You can talk about him having McDavid’s edges or Patty Kane’s hands – but he kinda has that hint of Mat Barzal where he’s going to hang on the puck and wait for a good play, and it makes him dominant. There are times when he has the puck on his stick the whole game.”

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After a bit of an adjustment period through his first two NHL seasons, Hughes has had no problem weaponizing his skillset. Dating back to the start of the 2021-22 season, Hughes’ 0.91 primary points per game is tied for 15th amongst all NHL skaters that have played a minimum of 20 games. And he's only 21 years old.

“As he gets older, he’s only going to make better decisions in tougher areas of the game,” Bastian said. “We’re seeing a really, really young version of Jack, and the sky is the limit for him.”


Now, what about Hischier?

“He’s a 200-foot guy, probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves,” Hughes said when discussing Hischier flying under the radar.

Hischier, with 18 points in 16 games, is the epitome of the “all-situations” type of coveted player.

He logs heavy minutes at even-strength and on both special teams units while also dominating in the faceoff circle (58.16 FOW%) to boot. He’s been a game-changer during 5-on-5 play this season, boasting a 68.8 expected goals-for percentage, which is second among forwards with at least 200 minutes played.

“He’s been unbelievable,” Bastian said. “I love when people ask me about him because it’s finally a chance to tell people how great he is for us.”

While his game may not be as eye-catching as a Jack Hughes – as very few are — make no mistake that Hischier has some stealthy skills complimenting his otherwise sturdy game.

He filled out his 6-foot-1 frame and shifts his center of gravity to protect the puck quite well, enabling him to go from winning a 1-on-1 battle to making a positive possession-oriented play. Sort of like what Crosby does, stylistically speaking.

Ultimately, Hischier is a player to watch in the Selke Trophy race for years to come, Hughes said, and Ruff appeared to agree.

“I actually think he should be a candidate this year,” Ruff said. “If he can stay healthy, his two-way game is right up there with a Bergeron and the likes of those types of players.”

Hischier – who said he grew up watching Pavel Datsyuk – isn’t all that interested in aiming for a Selke Trophy.

“You know what, my goal is Stanley Cup. That’s about it,” Hischier said. “You’d be honored to have won something like that, but for me, it’s always been the big picture, and the big picture for me is the Stanley Cup.”

A Cup would be another way to draw similarities to Jonathan Toews, who has three championship rings and also won a Selke Trophy. But one more comparison is their leadership.

Like Toews, Hischier was named captain in his early 20s. Ruff said Hischier is a better person than he is a player.

“He wants to take care of every single one of his teammates – maybe to a fault sometimes. He wants to lead by example,” Ruff said.

Bastian, who said Hischier is the most-liked player in the room, can attest to that firsthand.

“He takes care of us – I probably owe him a dinner,” Bastian said.

With Jack Hughes as an alternate captain, the two centers will look to help lead the New Jersey Devils to their first playoff appearance in five years. Maybe then will their morning skate scrums continue to grow in more rinks across the NHL.

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