This season so far, Luke Hughes has spent the majority of his 5 on 5 ice time playing on the New Jersey Devils’ third defensive pairing. The top pairing has mostly been Dougie Hamilton and Jonas Siegenthaler, while John Marino and Kevin Bahl have stayed together as a second pairing. Now, as a rookie, being on the third pairing is nothing to be ashamed of, and he has certainly shown that he can grow into a bigger role, and probably will as he progresses. He has also been given quality power play time and has really made a positive impact there, a bigger impact than at 5 on 5 for sure.
The issue for Luke for most of the season, however, is that being on the third defensive pairing has meant playing alongside Brendan Smith. And in terms of production, numbers, and just overall quality of play, that has been nothing short of a disaster for the younger Hughes brother. This has been evident for anyone who has simply sat down and watched some Devils hockey this season, but the numbers also really showcase this. First, check out Luke’s WOWY numbers with Smith from Natural Stat Trick. Again, these are all at 5 on 5, as the power play is a different group altogether:
These numbers are honestly pretty damning for both Brendan Smith and for the coaching staff that kept them together for over 128 minutes at 5 on 5. Luke Hughes was clearly propping up Smith and doing the best he could to make that pairing work, and while I also believe that Smith was working just as hard to make the pairing work, the fact of the matter is that he was just pulling Luke down with him. Luke’s numbers without Smith are incredible, while when with Smith, they are really subpar. His Corsi jumps over 13.5% without Smith, his Goals For jumps over 50% (!!!!) without Smith, and this is solidified by his expected Goals For jumping over 40%. And if you want to look even a little closer, his high danger attempts jump almost 30% when playing without Smith. It’s almost like Luke is a completely different player when playing without Smith.
And to further solidify all of this, this all proved itself on Thursday night against Pittsburgh, when instead of playing the game with Smith, he got to play alongside Colin Miller. The difference was staggering. Check out the game scores from that game thanks to CJ:
Luke was hands down the best Devil on the ice against Pittsburgh when looking at these numbers, never mind the fact that he also had 2 assists. His offensive impact was as good as anyone not named Hamilton, and his defensive impact was the best on the team. He did not have a negative impact at all. Plus, his partner, Colin Miller, was quite good himself, but you can tell Hughes was the driver of the two given the production score. Miller had strong offensive and defensive impacts, but no individual production to go along with it, while Hughes had a large individual production impact. This is what we wanted to see from the first round pick, and without Smith, he was able to shine.
Just given this production from Thursday alone, there is no reason for the coaching staff to go back to what was. Luke should get more time with Miller, and barring a total collapse of their game together, they should probably be paired together for the foreseeable future. One game alone is not enough to denote a trend, but considering how well they played, it’s enough to give them a shot together for at least the next few games. And given how successful Luke has been playing without Smith so far this year, all signs point to him taking off and playing much better at 5 on 5 moving forward. He might not consistently be the best player on the ice for New Jersey each game, but he should not be putting out sub-40% xGF% numbers like he was with Smith either. I am interested to see what Luke does moving forward with Miller, and I think we have a chance to see some real growth and quality play from #43. And that is exactly what we want to see out of him, so it would really be a positive sign for this team during these tough times without Jack and Nico. When they both come back, if Luke is playing improved hockey and the third pairing is playing much better, that will be a huge boon for this team that should pay dividends.