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FanFirst Friday: Luke Hughes Edition

Yes, he is that f%#king good. And he’s a big part of the reason the Devils have a remarkable power play.

NHL: NOV 25 Sabres at Devils
Lots of fist bumps incoming the rest of the season for rookie Luke Hughes. Book it.

Forgive me as I missed a week here. Even if you didn’t notice. I was in Arizona for my son’s hockey tournament. They placed second place in his bracket and he wound up tied for the team lead in scoring. 3 goals and 2 assists in five games. Won’t ever stop being proud of him as he just started learning to skate in June of 2022.

Regardless, the Devils have looked, well really good against the Sabres and then really average against the division rival Islanders, though they escaped with a W. But one thing has stood out to me and I wanted to cover it here. As you already guessed by the photo and the headline, it’s Luke Hughes. But more specifically what Luke Hughes brings to the Devils power play that wasn’t there last season. To the point that the team is sporting a power play near 37 percent and leading the league in percentage. This is a team that was at 21.9 percent last year and 13th in the league with the man advantage. The Oilers, a historic power play last season, averaged 32.4 percent for the year. Basically they were almost guaranteed a goal if you gave them three power plays. And the Devils are nearly five percentage points better than that power play. FIVE. Now it’s still in the small sample size realm and I don’t expect it will be that high at the end of the year. But there are several factors WHY the power play has been so much better.

Two of them are straight expected improvement offensively from young stars and the addition of Tyler Toffoli. Jesper Bratt is 25. Nico Hischier is 24. Jack Hughes is 22. All of them have likely not even hit their prime. Bratt could be getting close (but not likely for another two or three years), but both Nico and Jack are ascending. Tyler Toffoli is really good and extremely underrated at passing and puck possession/puck recovery. The Devils power play excels at bumping the puck around quickly which leads me to another reason they are so great this year. New coach Travis Green has unleashed movement on the power play. Jack Hughes is all over the ice. One minute he’s cutting to the net to score on a back door feed and the next he’s whipping a shot moving downhill on the left wing. The next he’s bumping back and forth from the right boards, semi-quarterbacking with his brother, Luke. The power play got very predictable in 2022-2023. It made it exceptionally easy to shut it down once the playoffs came around. Jack almost always tried to find Jesper Bratt through the seam, took a shot himself or tried to create space to give Dougie Hamilton a one-timer. Not to mention his zone entries were repeatedly shut down by both the Rangers and Canes in the playoffs. They’d stack four across the blue line to prevent him from entering.

This is a lot of build up to discuss how Luke Hughes has been, IMO, the biggest factor in changing how the power play works. Toffoli is absolutely vital, but I don’t think this team tops the league without Luke Hughes. Let me explain. And yes, I might be biased here considering I was calling for Luke to be on PP1 in August (to be fair, it was WITH Dougie but the point stands).

But Luke has exceeded my expectations and opened up a similar strategy to entering the zone during the power play that the Devils employed last year, but his exceptional skating and skill makes it so much better and more effective than it used to be. Luke often grabs the puck in his own zone after a clear and will use his exceptionally fast skating skill and elusiveness to push the defenders back, often using a subtle movement of the hips or dragging the puck quickly from one side to another. The speed forces opponents back, usually into less compact positioning than they would like across their own blueline. Luke then often drops the puck, either without ever looking or taking a quick glance back, to his brother Jack...or sometimes Jesper Bratt. Both of those players have rocket-powered skates and Shakira hips to provide them with typically a very easy entry into the zone. Alas, the setup for the power play becomes nearly automatic. Teams often game plan to stop a power play before it ever enters the zone. You could see the Rangers and Canes stacking the blueline four across to prevent Jack Hughes from entering. It became a repeated exercise in frustration for him. Even though Jack is remarkably talented, it made for a task that even he couldn’t figure out. It remains to be seen if, down the road, teams adjust to the zone entry, but the good news about Luke Hughes is that he’s almost as unpredictable as Jack is. And will likely only keep getting better and better as he learns what he can, and can’t, get away with to make Jack’s job easier.

The other aspect that Luke has added to the power play is he’s a wild card. Completely unpredictable as the quarterback. He can let go of a one-timer. He can shimmy and shake to open up a lane for a patented Niedermayer-style wrister to create havoc around the net. He can also open up passing lanes with those moves. He did something like that against the Islanders. Watch this closely. It’s a tiny movement, but he drew the defenders ever so slightly to the left with him by just taking one slight step to that side to open up a wicked Jack Hughes one timer that Ilya Sorokin couldn’t handle and Nico Hischier had the easiest goal of his life.

Hockey often comes down to a lot of decisions that are made in a millisecond that add up to how a play develops and whether it’s successful or not. Hockey requires a brain that processes the game in an instant and Luke Hughes possesses the ability to do just that, just like Quinn and Jack. He’s served to bring two extremely high hockey IQ minds that process the tiny details in a similar fashion to the power play. As great as Dougie Hamilton’s shot is on the power play, what Luke already brings is just infinitely more valuable, from the zone entries to the multiple options in decisions he can make from his quarterbacking position. And it’s just starting. What’s terrifying for the league is that Luke will only continue to get better as he reads and sees more scenarios. The league will adjust and coaches will try and stop his ability to help the Devils zone entry, but he should be able to adjust as well, given his talent.

Jack Hughes often leaves me speechless and wondering how the Devils got so lucky to get a remarkable talent like him. I believe Luke Hughes will ascend to a similar perch. His beyond-his-years maturity on the power play at 20 years old already shows what is in store for us Devils fans moving forward. And this doesn’t even mention how much better he’s already gotten in his own zone.

And yes, I purposely went in this direction today and avoided any talk of goaltending. It’s healthier this way. You’re welcome.

What about you? Do you see all the subtle, yet wondrous things Luke is doing to help this power play fully click? I don’t know about you, but for the first time in many years, I’m super excited every time the Devils draw a penalty. Imagine that. A power play with actual...power.