New Jersey Devils: Can Jack Hughes Break Top-Five Centers This Year?

New Jersey Devils center Jack Hughes (86): Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports
New Jersey Devils center Jack Hughes (86): Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports /

Jack Hughes was one of the best players in hockey last season. It’s been a while since a New Jersey Devils player could say that. Connor McDavid was in a tier of his own, but outside that, Hughes could argue he’s in the next tier down with Matthew Tkachuk, David Pastrňák, and Nathan MacKinnon. He came within inches of his first 100-point season. He stayed mostly healthy, missing only four games. He also jumped up an insane level, going from 26 goals in 49 games to 43 goals in 78.

That goal-scoring was not what we expected from Hughes. While he could score, he came into the league as one of the best playmakers in the NHL Draft. Everyone expected him to become a 100-point player, but they thought it would be through his assists.

Adding the goal-scoring to his game sends him into that upper echelon. He was just ranked sixth on NHL Network’s center rankings earlier this month. At 22 years old, one would assume the only way is up for Hughes. However, it’s not easy to become a top-five center, the most desired position in the NHL.

Ahead of Hughes are McDavid, MacKinnon, Leon Draisaitl, Auston Matthews, and Sidney Crosby. The easiest way to get into the top five is for Crosby to fall off just slightly while Hughes finally hits 100 points. The injury factor could also put question marks on anyone on this list.

The issue with this is that players in the rankings will fight Hughes for that top-five ranking. Jack Eichel, Brayden Point, Aleksander Barkov, and Elias Pettersson round out the top ten. All four of those players could compete with Hughes for that fifth spot even if Hughes has another stellar season. We’re talking about the best of the best here.

Other young centers looking to make a jump include the Ottawa Senators’ Tim Stutzle, Dallas Stars’ Roope Hintz, Buffalo Sabres’ Tage Thompson, and Chicago Blackhawks’ Connor Bedard. Any one of them could have a monster season and jump ahead of everyone.

Hockey writers tend to be hard to change. They have a thought in mind, and it usually stays that way. We don’t see much debate on the best player in the NHL. It’s Sidney Crosby until we all decide it’s Connor McDavid, and the debate ends there. The top five rarely change, which is why Crosby is holding onto his ranking while a crop of young players are banging at the door.

Hughes has a real chance to make a jump thanks to his linemates alone. He will play with some combination of Tyler Toffoli, Timo Meier, Jesper Bratt, and Dawson Mercer. He has skill for days on his wings. He will find players more often than ever. 100 might not be the ceiling. Could he hit 120 points?

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If that happens, Hughes will definitely be in the top five. That’s not even considering a major jump in power-play production. His 31 PP points were tied for 22nd in the league with Tyson Barrie and Dylan Larkin. Those are not the names Hughes should be tied to with the man advantage. Hughes should get much closer to the top ten, which would net him a few extra points.

Hughes has the tools, the talent, and the trajectory to turn into a top-five center next season. It’s going to be a fun fight for the next ten years, as Hughes hopes to get there and stay there like Crosby and McDavid before him.