There are a lot of reasons to be excited about the New Jersey Devils going into the 2023-24 season.
The Devils are coming off of a franchise record for points in a season. They made the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. Not only did they win a playoff series for the first time since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2011-12, they bounced back from an 0-2 deficit to vanquish their cross-river rivals in seven games. And while the Carolina series didn’t go their way, the offseason went about as well as anyone could have asked for the Devils. This is all stuff that you already know, but that doesn’t change the fact that many are counting down the days until the season begins October 12th against Detroit. Understandably so.
Of all the reasons to look forward to the upcoming season, perhaps the two biggest reasons are centered around two of the youngest players on the Devils roster. And since you clicked on this article, you can read, and you can see the picture I chose to use for this article, you probably have a good idea who I would be referring to. That would be Jack Hughes and Luke Hughes.
There’s not much to say about Jack that hasn’t been said already, as the 22 year old superstar is set to begin his 5th full season. He’s on one of the best contracts in the league for the next seven seasons and is coming off of a campaign where he finished 8th in voting for the Hart Trophy. He’s a homegrown American star who plays an exciting brand of hockey. He plays in the shadow of the #1 media market in the country in a league that desperately needs to promote more players like #86, as very few players can do stuff like this on a nightly basis.
Devils fans know who Jack Hughes is and what he is capable of doing, even though he might just be scratching the surface of the player he will ultimately be. Sure, there’s a chance he continues to develop and get even better. Maybe the Devils find him consistent linemates who know exactly where to be on the ice when Jack is making plays that only Jack and a handful of other players on the planet can make. Maybe he rounds out his game to be a more complete player rather than just an offensive dynamo. Maybe the Devils finally figure out how to ice a power play that isn’t a tire fire despite somehow finishing 13th this past season. Maybe as he ages, he puts on a little more muscle and gets even stronger on the puck, addressing one of the few flaws currently in his game in the process. Maybe he wins a Hart Trophy at some point. But even if Jack doesn’t and what we saw in 2022-23 is the player he ultimately is, we’re still talking about one of the best players in the league.
For the most part, Jack is a known commodity with the skillset that he brings to the table. That alone is exciting....which makes adding Luke Hughes to the mix for a full season downright scary. If we’re just scratching the surface with what his older brother can do, we haven’t even gotten to the surface yet with Jim and Ellen Hughes’s youngest son.
Tyler wrote about Luke Hughes back in June and one of his takeaways was how Luke’s style of play shared similarities with Hockey Hall of Famer and Devils legend Scott Niedermayer. It would be unfair to Luke to directly compare him to Niedermayer, of course. Luke has a whole five games of NHL experience. But its an interesting comparison and just the fact that one could make that comp speaks to the tantalizing, franchise-altering upside Luke has.
Even if one wants to be conservative and say he maxes out as a bigger, stronger version of big brother Quinn Hughes, that’s not an insult. Quinn Hughes is a borderline Top-10 defenseman in the league, a former Calder Trophy runner-up, and has three top-15 Norris finishes under his belt before turning 24 years old. Quinn Hughes is a damn good player in this league in his own right, and there would be no shame in Luke having a similar career to his oldest brother.
But what if Luke is better than Quinn? What if Luke winds up becoming the best of the Hughes trio?
What if he does have a Niedermayer-like career?
For the younger fans who might be reading this, you’re likely aware that Niedermayer was a great player, but they might not necessarily recall that Niedermayer was one of the very best defensemen of his era. They might not recall the specifics of why Niedermayer was so special as a player between his skating ability and his offensive prowess.
If Nicklas Lidstrom and Ray Bourque were the gold standard of defensemen in the 1990s and early 2000s, Niedermayer is somewhere on that next tier with legends like Chris Chelios, Scott Stevens, Chris Pronger, Brian Leetch, Al MacInnis, and Paul Coffey. That list is a Who’s Who of Norris Trophy winners, Stanley Cup Champions, and Hockey Hall of Famers. When one looks at Luke’s skillset and projects the player he may ultimately become, he’s compared to his modern day counterparts. Adam Fox. Norris winner. Cale Makar. Norris winner and Stanley Cup champion. Charlie McAvoy. A Top-five defenseman in the league. All players who are future Hall of Famers if they stay healthy and productive.
It’s not a coincidence that when Niedermayer’s career was all said and done, he had won everything there was to win in hockey. It’s not a coincidence that when Niedermayer was at his peak between the age of 20 and 30 and playing 24-25 minutes every night, the Devils were perennial Stanley Cup contenders. It’s also not a coincidence that the Devils were never really the same when Scott Niedermayer departed in free agency prior to the 2005-06 season, as they only made the Conference Final once since then. The Devils never really replaced Niedermayer at the time because you can’t replace a Scott Niedermayer. Those types of players might only come around once a generation.
That is the type of massive upside this Devils team has in front of them now that Luke Hughes is in the fold. That is the kind of upside for a team that already set a record for points in a season. Championship upside. Award winning upside. Hall of Fame upside.
No pressure, kids.
I don’t write all of that to put unfair or unrealistic expectations on the youngest Hughes (or Jack for that matter). I say that to say that if anyone is capable of becoming that type of player, its the youngest brother of one of the best defensemen currently in the NHL. It’s the youngest brother of one of the biggest stars in the sport. It’s the youngest son of Jim Hughes, a former player and coach himself. It’s the youngest son of Ellen Hughes, a former three-sport star who won a silver medal for the United States at the World Championships in 1992. If anyone would understand the hard work and dedication to their craft that it takes to reach that level of success, it would be the Hughes family. As unlikely as it might be, if anyone could be the next Scott Niedermayer, its Luke Hughes.
We’ve talked a lot on these forums about the type of upside Luke has, and understandably so. But I don’t think we’re talking enough about how the Devils did what they did last year before adding Luke to the mix, outside of a handful of games late in the season. I don’t think we’re talking enough about the Devils having one of the best forwards in the league on top of maybe having one of the best defensemen in the league. Even if you factor in growing pains (and we probably should as most young defensemen deal with it, including Scott Niedermayer), we’re talking about a player who within his first five games, looked like he belongs, scored a game winning goal, and more than held his own in 25 minutes of ice time in an elimination game on the road.
Knowing this, and knowing who Jack is, and who Quinn is, and who the Hugheses are in general....why would anyone bet against this player? These brothers? This bloodline? Do so at your own risk, but that is a losing bet.
That’s not to say that the Hughes brothers should get all the credit should they win. Nobody is saying that or suggesting that. Obviously, there’s more to the team than one player. There’s more to the team than two players, as talented as they may be. The Devils will need contributions from their other top players, as well as from their role players, to get where they want to go. Championship teams usually become championship teams because of the contributions of their very best players though. For the Devils to get to that point, they’ll need what the Hughes brothers provide, along with what Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Timo Meier, Dougie Hamilton, Dawson Mercer.....well, you get the idea. They’ll need all of that.
When you’re talking about a 22 year old superstar who might already be a Top 10 player in the sport and a 20 year old defenseman who has a reasonable chance of being one of the best in the league? That would be a very big deal indeed if they could reach those heights.
That’s how I see things. I don’t think we’re making a big enough deal about Luke as he’s about to begin his first full NHL season, and I think there’s another level that both he and Jack can reach. What do you think? Please feel free to leave a comment and thanks for reading.