Since having an extended pause around Christmas, the Devils have looked like a little bit of a different team than the one that went spiraling into that break. The offense has awoken and the team has found some of the resilient spirit that they had shown earlier in the season. They’ve even overcome pretty questionable goaltending (save a strong performance from Blackwood last night) to push their way to four wins in five games coming out of the break. The team as a whole has looked better in general, including a miraculously semi-competent-looking power play over these past couple of weeks. One player has stood above all others for the Devils, though, and that player is their 2019 first-overall pick, Jack Hughes.
Since the return, Hughes has been a force of nature, putting up 12 points in the five games the Devils have played since the return. He is now over a point-per-game on the season and looks every bit the game-changing impact player Devils fans were hoping he’d become. Since the break, Hughes has posted a 62.7% on-ice expected goals rate at 5v5 and he has been an engine powering the suddenly decently-performing power play unit, with primary points on all three of the goals the team has scored since the return.
Hughes hasn’t just been lucking into the points he’s gotten, either. He has been the primary setup man or the scorer for nine of those 12 points he has. He has 21 shots on goal, the most individual expected goals on the team, and the most individual scoring chances by a moderately wide margin (19, with Jesper Bratt being second at 14). Simply put, Hughes has been a destructive force on the ice against opposing teams in pretty much every way he could be expected to be. He even has primary points on both of the Devils’ overtime winners in the past week, scoring against Edmonton and setting up Nico Hischier for the win against Washington.
Beyond the numbers, Hughes has looked the part of the gamebreaker as the Devils constantly look dangerous when he is on the ice. He is clicking at a high level with Jesper Bratt, who has also been playing great hockey, on his wing. The two together have found a level of chemistry that is causing huge problems for opponents, as they deal with two speedy shot creators who have the creativity and skills to get teams to be constantly chasing the play. Hughes in particular has been impossible to handle for opponents, with his ability to evade defenders and constantly intercept pucks creating second and third chances for the Devils to capitalize on plays in the opposing team’s end.
When he first returned from injury, there were murmurs whether the early season Hughes we saw in the opening couple games was really the one we should be expecting. Hughes was not as involved as you would hope he’d be and his on-ice numbers were lagging heavily in the weeks following his return. On the heels of a huge contract extension signed immediately before his return, Hughes had five points in 11 games, he had a 46.2% on-ice expected goals rate (above just a handful of forwards, mostly 4th liners), and the Devils were in a nosedive. It was fair to wonder if the injury was still bothering him a bit or if he just wasn’t quite ready for game speed, but it was a concerning reintroduction to the team after getting a $64M deal.
Hughes has quickly disposed of any of those fears since the Devils returned from their hiatus. The question now is can he keep it up? I don’t think anyone is expecting him to score at a [opens calculator app] 197-point pace over a full season, but can he be this type of dominant gamebreaker on a regular basis? I think the fact that him and Bratt are together and both playing their very best hockey simultaneously means that his play will likely ebb, at least a little bit. Players get banged up, timing can get thrown off, and confidence can wane (though that last one seems like it’s rarely going to be a problem for Hughes). Any player who can shred teams the way that Jack has been for the past couple weeks, though, is in possession of a gear that most other players just cannot reach, and that gives me some confidence that this Hughes, or some version close to this one, really is here to stay.
Add in the fact that Jack Hughes is still just 20 years old and capable of playing at this level, and you can talk yourself into a fairly bonkers level of dominance once he reaches his actual prime. I’m not ready to go there (yet) but my confidence is starting to grow that he really is going to be a special player for this team. Whether or not this leads to team-level success for the Devils teams around him remains to be seen but if there’s one positive to take away from this somewhat disastrous first half of the season for the Devils, it’s that their two top centers are each looking like cornerstone players in their own way. For Hughes’ part, he’s looking more and more like he’s going to be a highlight reel on skates for many years going forward.