Just over a week ago, along with many other professional sports organizations around the globe, the New Jersey Devils’ 2019-20 season went head over heels. At the time of the NHL putting their season on hold, it appeared likely it would resume for all teams in the matter of weeks. Unfortunately, it is now looking like teams outside of the playoff race could be done for the season, with playoff-hopefuls getting a shot at the Stanley Cup in a more condensed format.
Unfortunately for the Devils, the season seemed to be reaching a new level of consistent play. Prior to losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins at home on March 10, the team swept a back-to-back against the St. Louis Blues and the New York Rangers. While things were taking a turn for the better, there were still players struggling. One of the most notable was 2019 first-overall pick Jack Hughes.
Prior to the suspension of the season, Hughes was reeling. The eye-test suggested it, and the advanced numbers proved it. This is largely in part to the young center, well, not playing center. The Devils coaching staff originally moved Hughes over to wing alongside center Nico Hischier and winger Kyle Palmieri on Feb. 18 for a road game in St. Louis. At the time, it did not seem like the worst idea. Hughes was getting overmatched at center and some of his usual line mates: former Devil Wayne Simmonds and winger Miles Wood were not going to be the players to jumpstart his production.
While the thinking behind the decision to shift Hughes over to the wing was flawed, it did have some potential at the time. Unless former Devil and one-time MVP Taylor Hall was on his wing, Hughes was simply not ready to take on a top-six role down the middle. However, he had shown brilliant flashes throughout the season that suggested he could hold his head above water in the top-six in some capacity.
A shift over to wing alongside two of the team’s best players in Hischier and Palmieri could provide solid suppression for Hughes to use his offensive talent without worrying as much about defense. It could also provide him a chance to go against the opposition’s best players without having to go head-to-head with elite centermen like Ryan O’Reilly, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, etc.
Fast forward to the present, the experiment has been disaster worthy. Starting with the Feb. 18 game, Hughes logged 11 games at wing. During this span, he recorded just one primary assist on the power-play with no even-strength production. His Corsi-For percentage (CF%) was 39.29. It clearly wasn’t working for him or the team. The experiment was due to end on March 12 against the Carolina Hurricanes as Hughes was expected to center Janne Kuokkanen and Michael McLeod.
While the wing-experiment may have put the nail in the coffin of Hughes’ rookie campaign, it was not exactly going well before it started. In the 10 games prior to his shift to the wing, Hughes had only recorded two assists to go along with a CF% of 41.08.
It would have been nice to see Hughes get back into a groove at his natural position. Before the season was suspended, there was still ample time for the 18-year-old centerman to turn his game around and set some building blocks for 2020-2021. However, there were obvious signs throughout the season that he was getting overmatched on a game-to-game basis.
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Not many junior-level players in the world have played as much hockey as Hughes has the past three seasons. Spanning from 2017-2018 to the present, Hughes had suited up for 253 games; 61 of them were at the NHL level this year, with the remaining split up between his time at the United States National Team Development Program (USNTDP), U-17, U-18, U-20, and men’s international tournaments.
In my book, there aren’t any excuses for being tired in the NHL, but perhaps Hughes was getting to a point where he was being overworked? It’s a possibility when you look at how much hockey he has played the past few years. In addition to the traditional hockey season which spans across the fall and winter months, some of the international tournaments that the 18 year-old had appeared in took place during the spring and summer.
There were murmurs that the Devils were not going to let Hughes play in the 2020 IIHF Men’s World Championship for the reasons I outlined in the previous few paragraphs. After his rookie season, Hughes could certainly use a full-NHL offseason without any additional tournaments, plenty of training time, and rest. With the Devils’ 2019-2020 season likely finished at this point, Hughes could have an even longer offseason, giving him more time to prepare for next year.
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This isn’t to say we should be worried about Hughes and his future. Going back to the NHL Draft in June 2019, he was always slated to be a player that was going to take time to reach his full potential considering his size and lack of experience at the professional level. While his rookie season is one to be forgotten, he got valuable experience in a few different roles throughout the lineup. Whenever next season begins, I am sure that Hughes will be able to contribute for the Devils in a more impactful way.