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Devils Going All-In on Jack Hughes, Is That Wise?

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Interim GM Tom Fitzgerald has made it clear we are building around Hughes and Hischier. The former still has a lot to prove, and that decision is a gamble.

Detroit Red Wings v New Jersey Devils Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images

Tom Fitzgerald may have an “Interim” in front of his GM title, but he’s taken the position by the reins with the full intention of being back for next season. In the wake of trading team-captain and longest-tenured Devils, Andy Greene; and moving fan-favorite top-6 forward, Blake Coleman; Fitzgerald’s comments have shown his plan in no uncertain terms.

My plan, if I am to continue at this position, is to grow around Jack and Nico and that age frame, and have a group of kids around that same type of age group to grow together.

That’s the basic premise, and he seems perfectly willing to be patient in that approach as well.

I don’t think we’re going to snap our fingers and it’s going to be next year that we’re contending for the Stanley Cup, or the year after,” Fitzgerald said. “But we have two pillars up the middle of the ice that we can build around and grow with. We have an 18-year-old young man who is going to get stronger and continue to get better. We’ve seen the growth in Nico over the last couple years and where he is at and he still has a ways to grow as well, and he’s going to.

So what Fitzgerald is telling us is that he’s committed to rebuilding around the young core of Nico and Hughes, and has no problem investing multiple years in doing that the right way. I’ll remind out readers that we’re in year 5 of the rebuilding process currently. So saying you’re committing to multiple additional years to build around young players is a hell of an endorsement for them. In the case of Hischier, that is well-earned. Over his 3 years in the NHL, among the 311 forwards with 2000+ minutes played, Nico is 39th in xGAR/60 which leads anyone who’s been with the the Devils in that span (including Taylor Hall). But in the case of Jack Hughes, is it not a bit early to go all in on a multi-year rebuild with him as the second twin pillar?

Jack Hughes, in xGAR components, has been above replacement level, but barely. At even-strength he’s been below replacement-level both offensively and defensively. His ability to draw penalties without taking many and his impact on the PP have put him over the threshold to “positive” impact, but for a pillar of a rebuild, merely “positive” is nowhere near enough. When I bring up this concern, the general response is “he’s 18 and we suck.” The latter should already be accounted for in the GAR metrics. This isn’t like points, controlling for the quality of the team is a feature squarely within our capabilities to achieve. With regards to his age, below is a graph of the xGAR/60 produced by every 18-year-old in the analytics era that played at least 500+ minutes. I’ve highlighted Hughes and Hischier for perspective.

xGAR from Evolving-Hockey

For an 18-year-old forward, Hughes has performed below average in xGAR rate. Hischier, while not generational, was still clearly on the upper end of an already impressive sample of 18-year-old seasons in efficiency. Nico was a young 18 and on the smallish side just like Hughes, but his impact didn’t seem to suffer to the same degree. Now, this isn’t entirely fair to Jack — Hischier’s rookie season was better than those of Kane (Chi), Hall, Mackinnon, Stamkos, Tavares, Svechnikov, and Eichel — but nonetheless, Hughes’s closest comparable is Sam Gagner. Don’t get me wrong, Sam Gagner has been a perfectly good NHLer, but he’s not someone you’d invest multiple additional years of an already-5-year-deep rebuild to structure a plan around. We need a little more information.

Let’s peak under the hood and see what’s producing this uninspiring result. The following images are through Evolving-Hockey’s RAPMs and Hockeyviz’s threat isolate — both are regression-based methods for determining a player’s impact on metrics like shots, chances, or goals by controlling for circumstance (linemates/opponents, score,/venue, etc.).

Because of the +1 z-score bar in the xGF/60 RAPM and the +11.7 threat term in the heatmap, we can tell that Hughes’s on-ice impact on the scoring chances his team produces is significantly positive. However, the -1.5 red z-score bar in the GF/60 RAPM tells us that those opportunities have not been converted. Sometimes this is due to something the player is fundamentally better/worse than league average at, but often it is simply indicative of poor shooting luck. Case in point: of the 16 Devils skaters with 500+ minutes this season, Hughes has the highest 5v5 xGF/60 (2.52) and the lowest 5v5 GF/60 (1.64) on the team. The team is simply not converting on the ample opportunities he’s providing, as indicated by his team-low 5.5 on-ice Sh%. Hughes isn’t without blame, though, as he’s been the worst 5v5 shooter on the team so far this season according to MoneyPuck. He shot 13% in the USDP and is shooting 6.5% so far this season, so we can hope he turns things around on his end as he adjusts to the NHL game. But even accounting for his role in this, it seems unlikely for this drastic discrepancy to continue, especially since his PP GF/60 (7.27) is right in line with expectation (7.85).

So this indicates that his offensive value is likely at least somewhat undervalued due to randomness. However, the red bars on the right in the RAPMs, and the +3.0% threat impact isolate against indicate he’s, in fact, had a impact defensively so far. Contrary to what many likely believe, defensive impact likely does not take a long time to develop (though it can be maintained late into careers —see: Zajac) so this is not something we should immediately write off as inconsequential. He may continue to struggle in that respect.

How do we put this all into context? Here’s my take. I think Jack Hughes’s “production” (ex: point totals) are not indicative of how good an offensive talent he is. I think the offense will likely come, and I still expect him to be a top-6 forward. I do not think it should be assumed that he’ll produce as an above average top 6 center, though. And even if he does, his defensive game is a concern, which impacts his overall play-driving ability.

I think the expectation for many was for Hischier/Hughes to be something like Toews/Kane — an all-situation minute-hogging centreman and an elite scoring forward. As of right now, in addition to Hischier’s defensive game being somewhat overrated, Hughes’s ability to produce is now in question as well. Again, I’m not saying he’s a bust, or that he won’t improve (quite the contrary). I’m saying this season has not given us a clear answer on if he’s an appropriate pillar of rebuild. Yet, here we are, tearing it all down and building around him in the hopes that, one day, he’ll prove us right.

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What do you guys think? Is Hughes the answer? Is he the best second piece to build around (as opposed to, say, Bratt)? What do you think Hughes is likely to become?

Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and thanks for reading!