Whatever else you want to say about the New Jersey Devils and watching them this season, from frustrating to disappointing or whatever else, it has definitely been a lot of fun to watch Jack Hughes. The forward is visible on the ice most shifts; he works hard out there to generate offense, usually looking to control the puck on his stick for a long time to create openings for himself or for teammates.
This style of play that he has shown has been effective at times, and it has led him to produce points. His 16 points so far this year in all situations ranks second on the team behind only Pavel Zacha, who is really having a breakout year (let’s pray that continues when he comes back, as seeing production out of him to warrant the pick is truly exciting). 16 points in 27 games on the surface is not overly exciting, but the 0.59 points per game that represents is a definitive improvement over his rookie season, and that is the real gem here. He might not have played like a #1 overall pick in his rookie season, but he has shown this year that he has that ability, and as he continues to improve, he can absolutely grow into that.
However, today I don’t want to focus simply on points, but on something else that has become apparent. The way Jack has played, looking to control the puck on his stick for long stretches while he tries to deke out the defense and generate space, has led to a ton of giveaways. As of yesterday, here were the top 10 skaters in the NHL in giveaways at 5 on 5, thanks to Natural Stat Trick:
As you can see, Hughes is the top forward on that list, as 8 of the 10 skaters are defensemen, so he ranks as the top forward in the NHL right now in giveaways. He also, by far, has the lowest TOI of any of those top 10 skaters at 5 on 5, so his Giveaways per 60 would actually be the worst on that list. This is particularly poor, and arguably is the worst part of his game. The way he plays can generate offense in the right circumstances, but it leaves him highly vulnerable to giving the puck away, and depending on where he is on the ice, those giveaways can lead to odd man rushes against, which is a major problem. This is undoubtedly a part of his game that he will need to work on extensively as he continues to develop and improve.
However, not all is negative here, and I need to point that out. Despite the fact that Hughes loves to giveth away, he also loves to taketh. He is not absent defensively, and he plays hard all across the ice, which is absolutely to his benefit. He has turned into one of the better stealers in the NHL, taking away pucks at a quality rate. As the opposite of the previous chart, here is the list of the top 10 skaters in the NHL in terms of takeaways:
So whereas Hughes is tied for 5th most in giveaways at 5 on 5 in the NHL, in takeaways he is 6th best. That is a crazy comparison. The only other player who manages to get on both lists is Mitch Marner, who has really turned into a stud, and if Hughes can manage to also attain that level of production by the age of 23, Devils fans will definitely be happy. Jack might sometimes hold onto the puck for too long when he is on offense, which makes him liable to give the puck away, but he is also adept at taking it away on defense, generating odd man rushes or even breakaways from those steals. These chances can change the momentum of hockey games if done at the right time.
As he progresses and develops, the hope obviously is that Hughes will manage to control the puck better when it is on his stick, allowing fewer giveaways, but that he also maintains his strong ability to take that puck away from the opposition. The Devils certainly need his takeaway abilities, as he is head and shoulders better than anyone else. On the Devils, Travis Zajac and Damon Severson each have 13, and they are tied for 2nd best, 9 takeaways behind Hughes. However, hopefully Hughes can mirror the likes of Zajac to a degree, as he has a strong ratio of 13 takeaways to only 6 giveaways. Hughes’ 22 takeaways to 34 giveaways is just not nearly as good, as those negatives really outweigh the positive there.
He might always be liable to turn the puck over on occasion given his game of controlling the puck on his stick as much as possible, but if Jack Hughes can just manage to lessen his giveaways while maintaining his strong takeaway abilities, and perhaps eventually get to the point where he has more takeaways than giveaways, that will do wonders for his game and wonders for the Devils.