There are some subsections of the fanbase these days who are getting jittery as it relates to first-overall pick Jack Hughes. Hughes has had a month to forget since the New Year, missing some games due to injury and then putting up just two points in nine games since his return to go along with ending up on the wrong side or the scoring ledger quite a bit. Now over halfway into his rookie season, Hughes has just 18 points in 45 games after this latest cold stretch and has only so-so on-ice impacts to go along with it. At times lately, he looks like he is forcing plays instead of letting his instincts guide him. Naturally, people have begun to worry about what is wrong with Hughes. So what’s the deal with the Devils’ rookie? Let’s answer some of the burning questions our there right now.
Question #1: Are Jack Hughes and Brett Seney basically the same?
I generally don’t like to cherry pick or single out any particular comment or forum post for analysis. We’re all entitled to our bad takes, lord knows I have more than a few of them. I enjoyed this one for its direct (and theoretically favorable) framing of Brett Seney against Jack Hughes, though. I’ll spare this anonymous user a direct link but it’s a forum post as follows:
Can’t miss prospect Jack Hughes: in his first NHL season in 694:32 total ice time has put up 6 goals and 12 assists.
Diamond in the rough Brett Seney: in his first NHL season in 526:44 total ice time put up 5 goals and 13 points.
Seney played zero special teams and primarily 4th line minutes in the NHL No one presently in New Jersey in a similar role has come close to Seney’s production.
Not saying Seney is Jack Hughes but he’s definitely worthy of an offer sheet.
I’ll grant you that this is a post that is more in support of Brett Seney than it is critical of Hughes but the fact that the comparison is even being drawn is reflective of a fanbase that is perhaps a little worried about how things are developing for young Mr. Hughes (and also perhaps in the throes of a psychological breakdown). Breezing past the changing of the second number from assists to points to make the comparison seem closer (as well as the idea that someone would offer sheet Seney), should we be concerned that Hughes is putting up first-season numbers at least reasonably comparable to someone probably destined to be a fringe NHLer?
Well, as I’m sure most of you know, the difference between a first pro season for an 18-year-old fresh out of the USNTDP and a first pro season for a 22-year-old who just finished four years of college is substantial. My suspicion is that Hughes’ 22-year old season will be slightly more impactful than Seney’s was. But the chasm you might have expected in the numbers for those two players’ rookie seasons is certainly not as wide as we hoped it might be back at the start of the season.
Hughes 5v5 production numbers are rather underwhelming overall, for sure. Hughes ranks 10th on the team (among players with 200+ min) in 5v5 scoring rate (via Natural Stat Trick). That puts him ahead of just Wayne Simmonds, John Hayden, Jesper Boqvist, and Kevin Rooney among regular/semi-regular Devils forwards this season. I think we’d all be lying if we said we weren’t hoping/expecting a little more from Jack to start this season, but I also think I’d hold off on being too concerned. Hughes has been shooting the puck enough (5th on the team in shots, 4th in ixG) and hasn’t really been rewarded much for it as he’s shooting just 6.3% and has been notably robbed on a number of occasions. He also owns the third-worst team on-ice shooting percentage, so puck-luck just hasn’t been going his way, especially of late.
Question(s) #2: Is Hughes a defeinsive liability right now? Is he playing worse than other past top picks? Should I be freaking out?
One of the main concerns with Hughes coming into the season was how he would deal with the rigors of playing the center position in the NHL. Among the general responsibilities of a center is providing defensive support down low in your own end. Given Hughes size and the general style of his game (as well as the dreaded refrain that he hadn’t played against men), there were concerns that he’d have trouble holding up on defense most of all. To this point, the numbers do bear that out to an extent. Hughes is comfortably in the lower half of Devils players in xGA rate even despite fairly cushy zone starts. As you can see below, his defensive RAPMs agree that he’s had a fairly negative defensive impact.
His defensive impact numbers from Evolving Hockey, most notably again his xGA/60, are not so good. The team is definitely allowing more with Hughes on the ice. I don’t think this is a terribly out of the ordinary thing for a skater of Hughes’ age, though. If you go back though other teenage rookies who jumped right out of the draft, many, if not most, of them have poor defensive impacts entering the league. Nico was a strong negative his rookie year in xGA impact, as were others like Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Taylor Hall, and Tyler Seguin. Some of those, like Matthews and Hischier, had substantial positive offensive impacts to offset the defensive numbers, while Eichel and Seguin trended negative or maybe modestly positive in their offensive impacts. For an example of a player who is doing just fine, despite having impacts similar to Hughes in his rookie season out of the draft, look no further than Jack Eichel, who is among the league’s scoring leaders now despite very similar (worse, really) impacts from his rookie season. Eichel did notably have significantly more points, though.
Overall, I think it is encouraging that Hughes is still having some decently positive impacts, given his age. The points are obviously not there right now, but he has been solid as a power play contributor, and despite having bad puck luck, he has had positive xGF impacts for the team. And if you need proof that things could be going much worse for Hughes, feast your eyes on his top-2 draft counterpart from last summer, who is having a markedly bad time this season.
So I think Hughes is understandably having some troubles on defense at times, but overall, his impacts (unlike Kakko) aren’t really out of the ordinary for what we’ve seen from highly drafted teenage rookies in the past.
Offer sheet candidate Brett Seney showed negative across the board in RAPMs last season, for what it’s worth.
Question #3: Is Hughes trying to do too much?
I’ve seen this become a relatively common refrain of late. This is one of those things that is impossible to measure because it requires getting inside Hughes’ head, but just watching his game, he does seem to be trying to force plays a lot of the time. It doesn’t take long watching him to understand the level of vision that he has, but as some frustration has crept in, I think some of the patience that allows Hughes to attack lanes as they open up has diminished. This is understandable for a rookie, and he wouldn’t be the first rookie to hit a wall at some point their first season.
I think the coaching staff needs to work on getting Hughes to slow his game down a little bit and allow his instincts to dictate where the puck goes. I think continuing to put him with better linemates, even after the return of Nico Hischier to the lineup would be a good idea. As has been pointed out by many (including me previously), I think putting Hughes on a line with Gusev and Coleman to see what they can do together would be worthwhile. I certainly don’t necessarily think continuing to run him out there between Wayne Simmonds and Miles Wood will yield great results.
In the end, this is the type of thing that will sort itself out, though. Hughes is an immensely talented player and he’s probably not used to having the cold streaks he has endured this season. If he can pot a goal or two and clear his head a little bit, I think the points will pick back up.
Question #4: Can I panic about Hughes? Please let me panic.
No. I will not allow it. Not now, at least. We have enough problems. I think Hughes is going through the growing pains that a lot of people thought that he might in his rookie season. It’s pretty clear that he is already a viable NHL player, though, and, not unlike Nico Hischier, as he fills out a little bit, you’ll stop seeing him get knocked around in the way that he has at times this season. And while Hughes’ first season is certainly behind where Hischier’s was two years ago, Hischier also had the benefit of playing alongside Taylor Hall for much of that rookie season. Hughes did play a stretch with Hall, where his on-ice numbers were fantastic (60% xGF in 140 minutes), but has bounced around the lineup otherwise and played the most 5v5 minutes with a well-past-his-prime Wayne Simmonds.
I think with some adjustments to his game and maybe some tweaking of his linemates, Hughes’ scoring will pick back up again. Even if nothing changes, some better luck should result in a significant uptick in his output. Hughes has clearly not been dominant in his rookie season, but I think there has been plenty to be encouraged by in his game to this point. So while this has not been the season that we might have hoped for from Hughes, I think there’s little reason to start worrying.