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FanFirst Friday: Luke Hughes Edition

We’ve only had a small sampling of Luke Hughes and boy, was it a fantastic tasting.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New Jersey Devils at Carolina Hurricanes
Elite edges. 2023-2024 - The Year of Luke.
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

We are only a few weeks from the Devils losing to the Carolina Hurricanes in round two in Game 5. The Stanley Cup hasn’t even been awarded yet. And still, I’m already beginning to get fired up for the 2023-2024 season.

As I’ve mentioned in this space before, I’m a looooong time New Jersey Devils fan. I go back to probably the 1985-1986 season following this team. I’ve seen tons of wonderful players come and go here. I’ve seen legends hoist multiple Stanley Cups. And possibly my all-time favorite Devil is Scott Niedermayer (though Jack Hughes is rapidly climbing that list and could take over in short order). I bought a Kamloops Blazers sweater (his junior team) customized with his name and his number 28 on it. I met him outside a practice facility here in Los Angeles in the early 90s during one of his very early seasons (maybe even his rookie year) and got him to sign that jersey. That’s how much I believed in Niedermayer becoming a foundational piece of the Devils before he ever came close to lifting a Cup.

Sports for me is enjoying watching superior athletes do things that I could never do. I played hockey when I was younger but my skating always held me back from playing it in any truly serious way. I played roller hockey as I got older and moved to California where rinks and ice time were limited. But because skating was my Achilles Heel in the sport I loved more than any other, I am naturally drawn to those players who make it look effortless, as though they aren’t wearing tiny sharp blades on the bottom of boots. They resemble the grace and elegance of a ballet dancer, making the impossible look very, very possible. I believe that’s what drew me immediately to Scott Niedermayer. I had a giant satellite dish on my Mom’s house to catch all kinds of hockey that would’ve never been available to me otherwise, so I saw a lot of those Kamloops Blazers games (the dish caught a lot of illegal feeds). I could never take my eye of number 28. That number is now retired by the Blazers FWIW. He would fly up and down the ice without looking like he was sweating. He made the element of hockey that I struggled with so very much look like he was born with skates on. Devils color commentator and former defenseman Ken Daneyko has long sung Niedermayer’s praises, often saying things like, he could play an entire 60-minute game if he wanted because everything came so easily to him.

I never thought I would ever see another defenseman pull on the Devils sweater that would give me Niedermayer flashbacks. And yet, just this past April in the Devils season-ending game, I felt like if I squinted at my high definition TV enough, I would see number 27 on the replay of this instead of number 43:

Now Luke Hughes wasn’t a surprise to me. I’ve been watching University of Michigan games for the past two years (this time through my legal Directv subscription of Bally Sports Detroit and the Big10 Network). I’ve also seen Hughes on the international stage in the World Championships and World Junior Championships. Fast forward to 2:30 here to see Luke not only use his rocket-powered skates to escape and score an overtime winner in last year’s World Championships, but the incredible bald eagle celly afterwards was chef’s kiss:

Now I’m not saying that Luke Hughes is Scott Niedermayer. They are different players, for sure. Luke can do things at the offensive blue line that players back in Scott’s day didn’t really do and that was shimmy-shake moves to open up lanes. Scott did it a bit, but Scott played in an era that was a LOT more cautious and didn’t truly encourage offensive gambling. Defense-first was the Devils mantra that led to three Stanley Cup championships. But every so often, people on social media ask what player from any Devils era you could take in his prime and drop it into today’s lineup. My answer is always Scott Niedermayer. I believe no player from Devils history would benefit more from today’s rules and the evolution of the game more than Niedermayer. He wouldn’t have anyone holding him back, focusing almost exclusively on the defensive side of the puck. I could see him sailing up and down the ice like he did against the Detroit Red Wings in Game 2 of the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals.

The skating is the main comparison between Niedermayer and Luke Hughes. Both can make it look infuriatingly effortless. Luke will have the benefit of playing in a system that will encourage him to pinch and dance along the offensive blueline to create opportunities. Whatever you believe about Lindy Ruff as a coach, he has a system that encourages the riverboat gambler aspect of a Luke game. So while you might occasionally see someone poke the puck off Luke’s stick for an opportunity the other way, more often than not, you’re going to see someone consistently creating offensive opportunities for the Devils. Stuff like this:

Just even the freeze frame of this shows Luke on the very smallest parts of his blades with the plastic part above the blades touching the ice. His skating is absolutely breathtaking and he’s nearly worth the price of admission on his own. Will he likely struggle on occasion and have games where the puck won’t cooperate with his elite moves? Yes. But more often than not, he’s going to dazzle Devils fans in this modern age of elite defenseman. If you pair him with someone as stellar defensively as John Marino is, and it could potentially be one of the best pairs in the entire league. And this upcoming year will be Luke’s rookie season. He also has the advantage of having his own superstar brother suiting up in the same uniform. Someone who should be able to keep Luke grounded through the inevitable ups and downs of a long 82 (or possibly 84?)-game season. Not to mention the likely natural chemistry that comes from suiting up with someone you’ve been playing pick-up with your entire lifetime.

As for the differences between Luke and Scott Niedermayer, well, Luke probably isn’t as evolved or physical as Niedermayer was defensively at the same age...though some would argue the sport catered more to that aspect back when Niedermayer was 18, 19, 20 years old. So Niedermayer had to be a bit more physical out of necessity. Both have very good defensive sticks and understand good defensive positioning to take advantage of that good defensive stick. Luke is listed at 6’2” and 184 pounds whereas Niedermayer was listed at 6’1” and 200 pounds. I don’t know how many of you are too young to remember Niedermayer well, but he was the master of firing a low and tippable wrist shot through screens. He seemingly always got the shot through. Luke has much of that same quality, though he uses his elusive skating to often open up those lanes whereas Niedermayer would find the hole in the defender to get it through. He had an uncanny ability there. But he rarely shot to score goals. He often went for tips and rebounds to create more offense for his teammates. Luke has a very good shot and is often trying to score when he rips it from the point. And boy can that kid celly. Just look at all of them on TikTok.

Look, I’m not saying that these two are exactly the same because no two hockey players are identical. Hockey is a sport that allows for unbelievable improvisation within the boundaries of that ice sheet. It’s part of what makes it absolutely the best sport. Teams may play structured hockey or systems, but within each of those, the artistry allowed and displayed makes it the beautiful game (apologies to my soccer-loving friends). Niedermayer and Luke Hughes played/play defense, which is largely about preventing the other team from scoring, but both have the ability to tilt the ice one way and not allow the opposition to use their speed and creativity against them.

I am so looking forward to 2023-2024 and witnessing a player who I believe will be in the Calder Trophy conversation because he’s that good. He played in Game 5, an elimination game for the Devils, and this is what his Hockey Stat Card looked like:

Yes, this is all small sample size stuff, but having watched him play and compete for two plus seasons, he does so very much to be a dominant force on the ice. And having a full training camp and preseason games should only help him. Not to mention the confidence he must’ve gained from already having experienced the postseason.

Oh and one other thing...he doesn’t need to do to Anaheim to play with his brother like Scott did. Kick your feet back and enjoy the Luke Hughes era Devils fans. Because it’s right around the corner.

I leave you with a Scott Niedermayer compilation video. Just because I can watch a defenseman like him create offense all day long.