We live in a world where we want to make assessments of hockey players the second they take their first shift. That is a terrible idea for New Jersey Devils first-overall pick Jack Hughes.
The New Jersey Devils have a long list of problems this season. They were just plain awful up until recently were one of the easiest wins for teams across the league. It led to a fired coach, a fired GM, six different trades including one that involved a former MVP, and a flow of call ups just to fill out the roster. P.K. Subban just wasn’t what we hoped he could be. Nikita Gusev took some time to get used to the NHL ice, but he seems to be on the right track now. Jesper Boqvist couldn’t even crack the lineup. However, the one issue that has everyone chewing their nails is Jack Hughes.
The number-one overall pick is not having a very good season. It’s so bad, he’s likely going to end the season with zero votes for the Calder Trophy. That’s something none of us thought would happen, but with players like Cale Makar, his brother Quinn Hughes, Ilya Samsonov, John Marino and his teammate Mackenzie Blackwood dominating the headlines, he’s not even going to come close to a 5th-place vote.
It’s been a rough year for Hughes, who has just seven goals and 21 points on the season. He’s had moments where he looks like he’s one of the most skilled players on the ice, but a mixture of weird line combinations and inability to finish plays led to some really bad looks on the scoresheet.
His advanced stats aren’t much better than his counting stats. According to Natural Stat Trick, his 46.14 CF% ranks 18th on players who’ve played for the Devils this season. He’s been on the ice for one more high-danger chance against that he’s had for him. Obviously, rough goalie play has led to more goals going in against him that his lines have scored, thus the rough -24 he’s sporting (but +/- doesn’t matter, so who cares).
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The real problem is the inconsistency. He’s scored one goal in all of 2020. He was even placed on the top line with Nico Hischier and Kyle Palmieri, but it hasn’t worked. In fact, we haven’t seen many goals from that line at 5v5 the past couple games.
None of this matters. Hughes was never going to have an out-of-this-world rookie season. He’s not Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid or even Nico Hischier. He’s not built like those players, even if he has a similar skill set. Kaapo Kakko was supposed to be the player built for the NHL, so judging him this year makes a little more sense.
We heard it all along that Hughes never played “against men”. It was a stupid argument then, but it does lead one to believe it was going to take him a little longer to get used to the NHL. Still, this seemed like a lot longer than we expected. We never thought he’d go a full month without a goal.
There is no reason to really worry about Hughes year in the NHL. This whole team is a tire fire, and it’s hard for an 18 year old to deal with that. They put him next to Taylor Hall, who just didn’t seem to want to go through the motions this season. Then, Hall was traded. Beyond that, he had to start his year with a desperate John Hynes as head coach. Hynes literally changed the lines on a nightly basis, and nobody was able to create any chemistry. That includes Hughes, who would spend one night with Jesper Bratt and Nikita Gusev on his wing, and the next period with Wayne Simmonds and Miles Wood.
We need to be somewhat patient with Hughes. We could go through past number-one overall picks that struggled, and get worried or excited depending on who you decide to choose. Hughes will likely end his season with around 30 points, and he’ll have to learn from his mistakes. There are too many turnovers. He needs to stop trying to run through bigger players and go around them with his skillset. Hughes needs to learn the best places to shoot and to pass. The power play instincts aren’t there yet. The good news is these are all things the right coach can fix. Especially for a player this skilled at just 18 years old.