Jack Hughes is a goal scorer.
This may seem like an obvious statement to most. Then again, I have been reading and hearing for the past three or so years about how the New Jersey Devils need to get a goal scorer to play with Hughes. Hughes needs a sniper with him. Hughes needs someone to finish his passes. Hughes needs a shoot-first player. Hughes needs a natural goal scorer. And so forth. I may have even offered that thought. If I had a dollar every time I heard this point, then I would be able to go to a fancy restaurant with that money alone. Especially in recent weeks as the Devils have struggled to score after putting up 3+ goals regularly for the better part of a month and a half.
I get the argument. The perception is that Jack Hughes is an excellent passer of the puck. A distributor who can make great reads and execute on them. A playmaker with impeccable edge work to find spaces for himself to find others in spaces for shots. This has been pointed out of Hughes’ skillset ever since he was a prospective player with the United States National Team Development Program. This perception comes with a lot of reality. Anyone who actually watches #86 on the Devils for a few games will quickly learn how successful he is at gaining the zone, keeping shifts going in the other team’s zone, and handling and skating with the puck while looking for options from his teammates. That is what Hughes is excellent, even elite, at the NHL level. His awesome 5-on-5 on-ice rate stats and the offense generated when he is on the ice comes from those skills.
However, Jack Hughes is more than that. Jack Hughes is a goal scorer. This is the season where we really need to consider the possibility that Jack Hughes does not need a “scorer” to get the most out of him. Mostly because Jack Hughes is the scorer.
As of the early evening of December 29, 2022, Jack Hughes has 18 goals in 35 games. This is quite a lot of goals compared to the rest of the NHL, which consists of 817 players at this point of the season.
- Hughes is tied for 16th in the entire NHL in goals scored. His 18 puts him in a tie with Andrei Svechnikov, Roope Hintz, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
- Hughes has more goals than Auston Matthews (17), Jeff Skinner (17), Steven Stamkos (16), Elias Pettersson (16), Chris Kreider (16), Matthew Tkachuk (16), John Tavares (15), Jake Guentzel (15), and Nikita Kucherov (13) among others with reputations for being goal scorers or scoring players.
- Hughes’ goal scoring has largely been at even strength. His 14 even strength goals puts him in a tie for the 11th most in the NHL along with David Pastrnak while being ahead of many others like Tage Thompson, Tkachuk, Matthews, and pretty much everyone else in the previous bullet except for Svechnikov and Pettersson. (This also means any improvement to the Devils power play may possibly yield more production for Jack Hughes.)
- Those we call scorers could be expected to shoot the puck a lot. You want a shooter on the Devils? They have him and his name is Jack Hughes. He sits 7th in the entire NHL in shots on goal with 147. Hughes has more shots on net than even Connor McDavid. As well as Mikko Rantanen, Leon Draisaitl, Kirill Kaprizov, and Cole Caufield among the few in the NHL with more goals than Hughes.
- If we expand to shot attempts, then Hughes still is among the most prolific in the NHL. According to Natural Stat Trick, he sits 11th in individual attempts with 237. Which, again, is more than McDavid, Draisaitl, and Caufield among many, many others.
- While imperfect, the expected goals model at Natural Stat Trick can tell us whether the shot attempts from Hughes would yield goals. And whether the player is beating the model. Hughes’ individual expected goals count is 16.34, the 12th highest in the NHL. Nestled right in between Matthew Tkachuk and, yes, Joel Eriksson Ek. It is higher than Kaprizov, Jason Robertson, and more. It is less than a goal away from McDavid. More importantly, with 18 actual goals scored, Hughes is currently beating the model.
Jack Hughes is ranked among the best of the best in the NHL when it comes to scoring goals and taking shots. Even with the the Devils basically cratering in December, Hughes is up there with the most productive players in the whole NHL. He has more goals than players that have earned the reputation of being goal scorers or just scorers. Jack Hughes is a scorer. A goal scorer, in fact. (Aside: And certainly not the problem with the downturn in scoring by the Devils. Do not fault the top-20 goal scorer in the NHL. Fault the remainder of the team.)
Let me go back to the Devils for a bit. What Hughes is doing this season will put him in some rare company. If Hughes maintains his current rate of scoring goals for 82 games, then he would have 42.17 goals. Whether you round up or round down from that number, Hughes would have the 10th ever season by a Devil to score 40 or more goals in a season. He would be the seventh Devil to do it, joining Patrik Elias, Brian Gionta, Claude Lemieux, John MacLean, Alexander Mogilny, Zach Parise, and Pat Verbeek in that rare category. Hughes scoring 40 or more in 2022-23 would be the first time it happened for the Devils since 2008-09 when Parise put up 45 in 82. Jack Hughes would be the first to do it in 14 years. Jack Hughes is a goal scorer.
If being a goal scorer is more about aesthetics, more about how the goal is scored than how many, then Jack Hughes should meet this criteria. Here he is serving Igor Shesterkin the sauce. In a hat trick against the Caps, Hughes scored off Chrles Lindgren’s head among his three lamplighters. Here is Hughes torching Philadelphia for a PPG. Here is Hughes tucking in a backhander through Ilya Sorokin’s five-hole for a score. Want a one-timer? Here is Hughes beating Craig Anderson with one off the far post and in. Want another goal against Shesterkin? Sure, here is one similar to his goal against Sorokin but against a worse goaltender. This is just a sample but these are all lovely goals that demonstrate Hughes’ shot whether it requires a deft touch, ripping it with power, or finding a tiny pocket to score on. Seriously, a goal off a player’s head and in from the corner. If that is not a snipe, then I do not know what would be.
Ultimately, that is the larger point I want to make with this very post. I think, as hockey fans, we get caught up in using terms to describe players and end up putting them in a box instead of only being descriptive. A player that is tabbed as a “playmaker” is often seen as someone who is good at passing or racks up a bunch of assists. As if the most prolific goal scorers do not have loads of assists themselves. Yet, we tend to not call those playmakers for some reason - even when a proper playmaker knows when the right play is to take a shot themselves. A player that is tabbed as a “defensive player” may represent someone who is good off the puck or just in their own zone, but any evidence that shows they have an some offensive skills is often waved away as it gets in the way of being defensive. The sniper or the goalscorer scores “goalscorer’s goals” as if goals any other way do not count or a sniper’s justification is just their shot, having more goals than assists (or close to it), and perhaps a high shooting percentage.
Do not misunderstand me. Sometimes reputations are well-earned and justified. For some examples, Brad Marchand, Jacob Trouba, Tom Wilson, and Matthew Tkachuk have all earned their reputations for being violent jerks on the ice and have done plenty to justify them. And likely will again. These terms we use for players and the reputations they carry may be accurate. My issue is that we are not so willing to change them as a player’s game changes - even after there is evidence that it has. We are not so willing to accept that the box we put the player in no longer fits, or if the box the player should be in changes. I include myself in this criticism.
Jack Hughes absolutely is an example of a player growing outside his perceived box. Sure, it would be great for the Devils and even Hughes to find a “goal scorer” to play along side him. It would be grand for someone to finish the passes he provides and plays he creates that is better than, say, Erik Haula. However, the reality is that to get the most out of Jack Hughes, you really need two players who can attack the net and play well off of him in all three zones. Basically, what Jack Hughes actually needs to get the most out of him is another winger like Jesper Bratt to play with. Yes, I understand Bratt’s production is a lot less than it was from a month ago, but the styles and potential for scoring is a lot better from Bratt than Haula.
Fortunately, he already plays with the Bratt New Jersey does have. I think the coaches know this as Hughes has played with Bratt more than anyone else this season. What is encouraging is that the Devils may have this second player already. It could very well be Dawson Mercer, a very smart forward at the young age of 20. Or even a returning Ondrej Palat, who can probably do the “hard work” Haula does but has a more skillful stick. If Haula goes on a heater or gets some even decent luck for a change, then a lot of complaints about his presence next to Hughes will cease. And if those options do not satisfy the Devils, then all the more reason to go big to try to acquire a scoring winger prior to the NHL Trade Deadline. This is the case because Jack Hughes is a goal scorer.
I must point out that I can write all of this about Jack Hughes is part of the reason I call him The Big Deal. It is not just that he was the first overall pick in 2019, although that is part of it. It is not just that he was the best player on one of the best USNTDP groups in organizational history, although that is part of it. It is not just that, along with Nico Hischier, he has been the face of the franchise and the organization has bet on both being foundational players, although that is part of it. It is not just that Hughes is legitimately the best skater the Devils have had since Scott Niedermayer and arguably may be an even better skater than the legendary defenseman, although that is part of it. Hughes has had the expectation and pressure of being a top offensive player. He is exactly that right now. He is among the league leaders in goals and points. He creates his own shot a lot and takes them. The expected goals model has had Hughes putting up plenty of goals and he has even more than what the model called for. Hughes is the top goal scorer and point scorer on the best Devils team since 2017-18. There is not much else more that Jack Hughes can do. Make the playoffs? That’s a team effort, the Devils are on pace to doing that right now, even with this month being what it is. Even if the cratering continues and the Devils fall short of the postseason, then it is not the fault of Jack Hughes, it will be the fault of Head Coach Lindy Ruff and General Manager Tom Fitzgerald.
Of course, that is just my opinion. If you do not want to exalt him until he holds up the Stanley Cup, then that is your choice. In a world where a team can have two of the best hockey players in the world and still not contend for a Cup - this team is Edmonton, by the way - I think that is an incredibly narrow view. And it certainly is not the player’s fault regardless of what the press may say; go be mad at management for that. But it is your choice. I choose to because I think Hughes is a special player and this is all something to celebrate. Jack Hughes is who the younger Devils fans are going to grow up cheering. Jack Hughes is who the team will elevate and people will come to join the People Who Matter in supporting the Devils. Jack Hughes puts up highlights and goals and other things that excite just about all within the People Who Matter. Jack Hughes is among the league’s most prolific producers and has even put up more than those who have earned the reputation of being scorers. That is all a big deal. I say and will continue to say that Jack Hughes is The Big Deal.
And, also, that Jack Hughes is a goal scorer.