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An Interesting Little Evolution in Jack’s Game

Jack Hughes has improved significantly since entering the NHL four seasons ago. His game has improved in many facets. Today, I take a look at one that I found interesting.

Carolina Hurricanes v New Jersey Devils - Game Four Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Every year since he entered the league for the New Jersey Devils, Jack Hughes has done one thing: he has improved on his points per 60 total at 5 on 5. This is an impressive sign of growth and development for the former number 1 overall pick, and it is why he has become a phenom, the team’s best player, and one of the better players in the entire league.

When Jack came into the NHL in 2019-20, he ended up with 0.92 total points per 60 5v5 minutes across 61 games. That went up to 1.37 points per 60 across 56 games in 2020-21, then it was 2.56 points per 60 across 49 games in 2021-22. Finally, last year he topped all of that with 2.8 points per 60 across a much larger 78-game sample in 2022-23. That 2.8 points per 60 number last year was good for 13th among all forward last year who played at least 200 5 on 5 minutes. There were not many forwards better than him last year.

It is interesting, however, to look at some of the other stats that go along with those seasons to see how his game has evolved, despite just becoming a better point producer, which only tells us so much. There are tons of analytics out there that are very relevant to this, and those are very important. He is a strong possession player, has great expected goal numbers, and so forth. Others could describe that information way better than I could, and it all matters. Today, however, I just wanted to comment on something much smaller I noticed while diving into numbers. However, while smaller, I thought it was interesting and worth writing about.

One area that I have written about in the past couple of years where I have effusively praised Jack is his ability to generate takeaways. Between 2020-2022, Jack was one of the best forwards in the NHL when it came to generating takeaways. In both the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons, he ranked 4th among all forwards in the NHL in terms of takeaways per 60. In 2020-21, that number sat at 3.54, and it was a nearly identical 3.52 in 2021-22. He was an aggressive and opportunistic defender, using his stick to generate takeaways and, as a result, odd-man rushes and even breakaways for the Devils.

This past season, however, that trend did not fully continue. His takeaways did not fall off the face of the earth, mind you, but they did fall back down to the surface. He generated nearly a full takeaway less per 60 in 2022-23, ending the season at 2.6 takeaways per 60 minutes at 5 on 5. That was good for 47th in the NHL among forwards and 2nd on the Devils behind Nico Hischier. So he definitely still does do it, and at a decent clip, but not nearly at the rate that he was over the prior two seasons. However, that 2.6 number was right in line with what he did as a rookie in the NHL, where he put up an identical 2.6 number in 2019-20.

However, that drop in takeaways, obviously the negative side of this, does come with a positive too. In those two seasons, he was near the top of the league in takeaways, from 2020-22, he also had a much higher rate of giveaways while at 5 on 5. In 2020-21, his giveaways per 60 sat at 4.11, which was dead worst in the league among forwards with at least 200 minutes played at 5v5. The following year, 2021-22, that number was 3.92, good for 3rd worst. So for those two seasons, he was great at generating takeaways, but at the same time, was giving all of those back in terms of giveaways, and even more so, as his giveaway numbers were higher than his takeaways. But this past season, his giveaways also fell alongside his takeaways. He ended the season with 3.05 giveaways per 60, a much better number than the two prior seasons. Granted, that was still good for 12th worst among forwards last year, but that is still an improvement for him.

To me, I think seeing both of those numbers move the way they have is a sign of maturing from the star forward. He realizes that he cannot play so risky and give up the puck as much as he does, even if it means lowering the number of takeaways he gets as well. Of course, the ultimate goal should be to get to the point where his takeaways outnumber his giveaways. That still has not happened yet since he entered the league, but the drop in giveaways last year was definitely an improvement in this direction. If he can figure out how to play his game such that he can generate takeaways like he was from 2020-22 without giving the puck up as much, that would be the ultimate improvement in this area of his game. He is already so dominant, and that is still with giveaway numbers that are almost a half point higher per 60 than takeaways. If he can flip that stat, that would just take his game to the next level. Not that he really needs it, he is already a star for sure, but he is only entering his 5th year in the NHL this year, he still can improve his game for sure, and this perhaps might be one area where he does.