About 72 hours ago, Devils fans were feeling pretty good about themselves. The Devils were coming off a convincing win over the Flyers, the team reported that their star center Jack Hughes was set to return from injury, and, just hours later, news broke that the very same Jack Hughes was signing a deal to lock him into New Jersey at $8M a season until 2030. The vibes were soaring in New Jersey. The team had their top two centers locked down for the foreseeable future, the Devils had largely weathered the absence of Hughes for about 20% of the season, and they were in position to seize on the return of their most dynamic playmaker to vault into the heart of the 2021-22 schedule on their best foot.
Here we are, though, 72 hours later and the team suddenly feels like it’s spiraling on the heels of two listless 5-2 defeats, which puts the team now in the midst of a troubling stretch of seven losses in nine games. How could the team look so poor with perhaps their very best forward returning to the lineup? Well, one might start with the decision to pair up their two top centers on a single line, with the returning Jack Hughes being placed on Nico Hischier’s wing.
Apart from one another, Hughes and Hischier are the two forwards this team leans most heavily on to push play forward. Both have above 50% shares of the expected goals when apart from one another over the past three seasons, each successfully driving lines for the Devils when they are on the ice. Together, though, they have largely been a non-factor at best and a disaster at worst. It’s easy to see the thinking behind the decision: [Nico good] + [Jack good] = [Nico and Jack great!]. That is absolutely not how it has played out in practice, though, and carrying on as if it is going to suddenly start working risks deepening the slide the Devils find themselves in.
With Hischier and Hughes on the ice together over the past three seasons, the Devils have seen a dismal 41% of the shot attempts and 42% of the expected goals across around 10 games worth of 5v5 ice time together. In the small sample so far this season, the results have been markedly worse with the two games of Hughes/Hischier together resulting in 38% of the attempts and 33% of the expected goals. It should require no more than two games of your two best forwards populating a line that is cover-your-eyes awful (honestly, it should have been abandoned after one) to understand that it is probably not an optimal deployment of your lineup.
Instead of two effective lines powered by Hughes and Hischier individually, the Devils instead have one line with both players performing poorly and another line with neither pieced together with the players left over. What that amounts to is having a woefully ineffective top line and the unnecessary stretching of the team’s center depth to try and piece together a third line. By deploying the lineup in the way they’ve chosen this week, they’ve reduced what should be a team three scoring lines deep to effectively a one-line team with the Bratt-Mercer-Johnsson line being the only substantial threat.
I understand the impulses behind putting Hughes next to Hischier as he returns from injury. Hischier is an effective play-driver and it should theoretically be a soft landing spot for a guy returning to the lineup to be on his wing. Further, Hischier and Hughes are both very good players and theoretically they should be able to sort themselves into an effective and cohesive duo based on skill alone. Additionally, and many have posited this, Hughes not playing center avoids the potential of aggravating his shoulder injury taking faceoffs.
It just does not work in practice, though, and I think we’ve seen enough floundering from the guys who should be powering the offense to understand that Hughes being on Hischier’s wing (and, honestly, on the wing at all) is not the way to optimize this lineup. They play the game in two different ways and both tend to have the puck on their stick with the offense running through them on the ice. Maybe part of the issue is Hughes’ rust, which has been apparent as he works to get back into the swing of things, but I think the bigger issue is just that there is a substantial stylistic clash that seems to neutralize both players’ effectiveness.
This based solely on observation, but my hypothesis is this: Nico Hischier plays the game in much straighter lines than Jack Hughes does, and he is often most effective down low near the goal line, whether it’s behind the net or in the net-front area. Jack Hughes, on the other hand, plays a much more fluid game that involves a lot of east-west motion as he navigates opposing defenses carrying the puck. Put them together and the cadence of the offense is all off. Pucks are in skates, passes are being picked off, and one never seems to be in the exact spot the other is hoping they will be.
Given enough time, Hischier and Hughes are good enough that they could probably sort out some of these issues and figure out a flow that works for them. There isn’t such a glut of other high-end centers on this roster, though, that waiting for that to happen makes any sort of sense, especially for a team that is now 9-8-4 and sitting three points out of the final wild card in the east. Whether it’s borne out of some strange adherence to a top-six/bottom-six framework or it’s truly about reinjury concerns on faceoffs it doesn’t make any sense to carry on this way with the team looking lost with an increasingly alarming frequency.
If the Devils want to be competitive, they need capitalize on their depth at center, one of the relative strengths of their roster. By mashing two of their best centers into a single inoperable line, they completely torpedo any advantage gained by that depth and somehow turn it into a weakness. They have three talented and effective centers with Hughes, Hischier, and Dawson Mercer, and should be leaning into the kind of luxury that creates for taking advantage of matchups.
If they are so concerned with the danger of taking faceoffs for Jack’s shoulder, there is nothing stopping them from having a player on his wing taking the faceoffs for him and returning to their position immediately after the faceoffs. The Devils even go so far as to put Mike McLeod on the ice for a faceoff and nothing else in overtime, so I don’t see why they couldn’t have Yegor Sharangovich, Pavel Zacha, or whichever other winger is next to Hughes just take them for the time being. It’s not like faceoffs have ever been a strength in Hughes’ game, so if you have a winger who can win a faceoff 35% of the time, it’s essentially a wash, anyway.
So, my plea to the Devils’ coaching staff is to discard the notion that putting Jack Hughes on any wing, let along Nico Hischier’s wing, is going to yield positive results for this team. Jack Hughes is a center and that is the position he should be playing. Both because that is clearly where he is most effective and because this roster was constructed within the framework of the depth created by the Hughes-Hischier one-two punch. Putting him on the wing seems to be hurting the team in multiple ways so they should really abandon the experiment before it goes on any longer and before the Devils dig themselves a hole too deep to climb out of.