Jack Hughes making big strides, but Devils need to get him more help
NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and New Jersey Devils. Bruins-Devils stream coverage begins at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
Heading into his rookie season, many people -- likely several in the Devils’ organization -- expected an instant impact from Jack Hughes. Instead, Jack Hughes’ impact sounded like a troubling thud.
(Or maybe he went splat?)
Now, the Devils shouldn’t have seen a reason to panic with Jack Hughes. As much as young phenoms keep raising immediate expectations in the NHL, Hughes was (and is) still a teenager. It’s just that his skill and NHL-friendly skating prompted some to expect some instant gratification.
In this strange, pandemic-shortened season, there’s good news and bad news for the Devils and Jack Hughes.
An improved Jack Hughes in second season with Devils
When you consider overall impact, Jack Hughes made a big jump during his second Devils season.
Really, you can observe that improvement in traditional ways, and also see stark differences in analytics.
With 13 points in 20 games (.65 points-per-game), Jack Hughes has nearly doubled his rookie scoring rate (21 points in 61 GP, .34 points-per-game). No doubt, some of that comes from a significant boost in ice time. But it’s easy to see why Lindy Ruff is unleashing Hughes, especially at even-strength.
[BRUINS-DEVILS COVERAGE BEGINS AT 5 P.M. ET - NBCSN]
The Devils are creating more high-danger chances than they’re allowing when Jack Hughes is on the ice, and he’s also faring well in volume shot count stats like Corsi and Fenwick. Of course, it’s most exciting when Hughes can put it all together and make it look easy:
Strangely, Hughes being the focus of media criticism about the Devils as a whole is a subtle sign of his progression.
Now, sure, there are areas to improve. He continues to get hammered on faceoffs. And, as time goes along, the Devils might ask the premium playmaker to shoot a bit more.
But he’s already leveraging his potentially elite skills in noticable ways. And Jack Hughes is even becoming part of the leadership core.
Can’t do it alone
Simply put, Jack Hughes needs more help, even if the Devils would probably be best served addressing their issues step-by-step.
In one of the bigger surprises of the 2020-21 NHL season, Pavel Zach currently leads the Devils with 15 points in 20 games. That’s really something, and it’s promising that Hughes is productive at second on the team with 13.
But only two other Devils players enter Sunday’s game against the Bruins with double-digits in points (Miles Wood and promising young defenseman Ty Smith, both at 11).
While P.K. Subban’s nine points seems reasonable enough for a defenseman, his overall game hasn’t rebounded. Kyle Palmieri (nine points, zero power-play goals) and Nikita Gusev rank among the Devils’ bigger disappointments.
Overall, it’s challenging to gauge how much the Devils’ issues boil down to personnel, and how much it falls on the possibility that Lindy Ruff’s tactics might not work as well in the modern game.
On one hand, Palmieri has been disappointing this season, and he’s Jack Hughes’ most common linemate. On the other ... how many better options do the Devils really have?
That said, when your special teams units are this putrid, it’s fair to wonder about coaching.
So far this season, the Devils have scored just eight power-play goals, tied for third-worst in the NHL (a dismal 13.6-percent success rate). Their 63.9-percent penalty kill rate is dead last (22 power-play goals allowed in 20 GP).
No doubt, some of that comes down to personnel. How many shutdown skaters do the Devils really have? Ultimately, MacKenzie Blackwood and other goalies can only clean up so many messes.
Now, to be fair, the Devils do show occasional signs of improvement, even beyond the growth of young players, especially Jack Hughes. As Corey Masisak noted at The Athletic (sub required), this team’s made strides at even-strength.
Hopefully, the Devils will have better injury luck with Nico Hischier, among others. So it’s not all bad, especially if you focus on their 6-3-2 start more than the 1-8-0 stretch that leaves them at 7-11-2 overall.
From a big picture perspective, the Devils face key challenges revolving around finding Jack Hughes enough support. At least Hughes looks like the real deal, though.
NBC Sports celebrates Hockey Day in America, presented by Discover®this Sunday with an NHL quadrupleheader on NBC and NBCSN, as well as a collection of stories and features which explore hockey’s impact and influence across the U.S. The day is a highlight of NBC Sports’ NHL coverage in March, which includes 30 games over 30 nights.