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Jack Hughes and the Possibility of a Breakout Season

The 2019-20 campaign was rough for young New Jersey Devils center Jack Hughes, but with his natural skill set, there should be optimism surrounding him for 2020-21.

Vancouver Canucks v New Jersey Devils
More of this celebrating next season please.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

April 9, 2019 is a day that still stands out in many New Jersey Devils fans’ heads; the team struck their second #1 overall pick in Devils franchise history, and had the privilege to select highly touted prospect Jack Hughes. That is exactly what they would do come night one of the 2019 NHL draft, adding Hughes to a roster that was still growing, but showed promise. He would have the ability to be eased in by the team, as previous #1 overall pick Nico Hischier and longtime Devil Travis Zajac would get the tougher minutes.

With the amount of raw skill he possessed, many (including myself) expected Hughes to make an impact at the NHL level within his first season. While there would need to be an adjustment period, many thought that 50-60 points wouldn’t be out of the question for the rookie. Well everyone, this is why pencils have erasers; while Hughes did not have a bad rookie season (and it was cut short due to the pandemic), it did not live up to the hype that was generated prior to the campaign’s start.

Hughes recorded 7 goals and 14 assists for a total 21 points in 61 contests during his first season. These numbers would come with mostly middle six minutes (he would have a short stint on the top line at wing prior to the season pause) and with at times, questionable linemates. We could also toss in the coaching upheaval, personnel moves, and a bunch of other factors, but the bottom line still stands that Hughes had a rough rookie year. However, I contend that there’s a number of reasons to believe that this upcoming season will be better; let’s look at why.

Encouraging On-Ice Factors

I think the most encouraging factor that I can think of just from watching games and highlights on Hughes from 2019-20 is that the kid had absolutely no luck last season. Whether it was pucks off posts, goalies absolutely robbing him, or passing to open teammates that couldn’t buy a goal, Hughes’ point production was adversely affected by his lack of puck luck. His 5.7% all situations shooting percentage gives us a tangible number for exactly how unlucky he was. Said number is well below the usual average NHL shooting percentage, so with a bit more luck, Hughes should improve upon his shooting percentage, and therefore his point totals next season.

Additionally, as mentioned above, Hughes had a rough go with linemates for some sections of the seasons. Whether it was being with players who are cooked as point contributors (such as Wayne Simmonds), guys who have not been point producers so far in their career (such as Pavel Zacha) or guys that he just didn’t seem to click with (his time with Nico Hischier sticks out like a sore thumb), Hughes didn’t always have the best situation. With the Devils continuing to rebuild their roster, and a number of open slots that the team will look to fill with promising prospects, the team will have an opportunity to find two players who gel with Jack.

Back end additions could be helpful in Jack breaking out this season as well; the less time the Devils spend hemmed into their own end, the more they will be moving forward and hopefully putting the puck into the opposing net.

Encouraging Off-Ice Factors

Hughes has also been spending time improving himself off ice. As the team has had an extended break since they last played, Hughes has had the ability to spend time improving off the ice. One of the biggest criticisms of having him in the NHL this past season was his size; at 5’11” and 170 pounds (which is probably a generous listing), Hughes was a smaller forward not used to the NHL game. As a result, he got pushed around a bit at times, and wasn’t always able to put his skills to full use.

In seeing clips of Jack from the NHL, I fully expect him to come in with more muscle on his frame for this upcoming season. A year of NHL experience under his belt will help also, as now he will be better prepared for opposing players, their tendencies/play styles, and the general flow of the pro game.

Adding it All Up

Maybe 2020-21 won’t be a Jack Hughes breakout; there’s still a lot of unknowns facing the league as a whole, and let’s face it, the Devils roster still isn’t spectacular. However, I think that we will at the very least see an improved, more productive Jack Hughes and if the stars align, 2020-21 will be the breakout that we all want to see. There were too many instances where Hughes did the right thing, but wasn’t rewarded with the results. Hopefully, the above factors all come together to see Jack get the results and outcomes he deserves this season, as he continues to grow into one of the most important young Devils going forward.

Your Take

Do you think 2020-21 will be the Season of Hughes, at least for the Devils? What do you expect of him production-wise moving forward? Who do you see him playing with and where in the lineup this year? Leave any and all comments below and thanks as always for reading!