It probably didn’t get the attention it deserved a season ago because the New Jersey Devils only finished with 63 points in the standings. But two years after the Devils drafted him with the first overall pick in 2019, Jack Hughes had arrived. Injuries limited him to 49 games, but he finished his third NHL season with 26 goals and 56 points — a 44-goal, 94-point pace over 82 games.
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Entering Year 4 of the Hughes experience, the goal was for him to repeat and build on what was truly a breakout campaign in 2021-22. Through 26 games this season, he’s done just that, as he has 13 goals and 31 points — a 41-goal, 98-point pace. He’s a significant reason why the Devils are 21-4-1 on the season and 18-1-1 in their last 20 games. Let’s look at what he’s done so far and why he’s proving he’s among the NHL’s elite.
Hughes Has Been Building Toward This
Before getting into Hughes’ 2022-23 season, let’s look back on what he did a year ago to provide some context. We already mentioned the counting totals, but what he did at five-on-five demonstrates the impact he had on a Devils team that finished with 63 points because of goaltending woes.
Hughes finished last season with a 53.95 expected goals percentage (xG%), ranked second on the Devils to Jesper Bratt and Fabian Zetterlund (min. 150 minutes played). The team controlled 55.61 percent of the scoring chances and 56.89 percent of the high-danger chances with him on the ice. He was driving play, as many expected he eventually would as a pro, and he showed the elite playmaking that could turn him into one of the NHL’s best facilitators.
Not only was Hughes driving play, but he was scoring too. He was averaging 2.56 points per 60 minutes, ranked third on the Devils to Bratt and Zetterlund again. That scoring rate placed him in the top 50 of the league among forwards and was better than names such as Artemi Panarin, Leon Draisaitl and Patrik Laine, to name a few.
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The most notable difference in Hughes’ scoring uptick a season ago was his shot, which showed significant improvement. He didn’t have much of a shot as a rookie in 2019-20, and though it showed some progress during the COVID-shortened season, it wasn’t yet close to above NHL average. That changed in 2021-22, as he was regularly picking corners without much trouble because the power and accuracy behind his shot had improved tenfold.
Speaking of the COVID-shortened 2020-21 campaign, Hughes’ breakout a season ago shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. He led the team with a 53.72 xG% in 2020-21, and the Devils overwhelmingly won the scoring and high-danger chance battle with him on the ice. It was a sign of things to come, and that’s why general manager Tom Fitzgerald signed Hughes to an eight-year, $64 million extension just before American Thanksgiving in 2021. Here we are a year later, and that decision is proving to be quite wise.
Hughes’ Unlimited Toolbox
Since the first two games of the season, both defeats, the Devils have lost just three games (two in regulation, one in overtime). Early on, you could’ve argued for Bratt being the best player on the team, and the same is true of Nico Hischier. But make no mistake, Hughes is the Devils’ best player.
Through 26 games, Hughes has a 64.87 xG%; only Bratt and Tomáš Tatar have a better xG% (min. 100 minutes played). The Devils have controlled 62.53 percent of the scoring chances and 66.89 percent of the high-danger chances with him on the ice. Only Tatar has a better high-danger chance share than Hughes. Individually, he leads the team in shots on goal, shot attempts and scoring chances at five-on-five, with only Hischier having more high-danger chances (32-28).
When speaking about his individual ability, take this goal against the Chicago Blackhawks, for example. Hughes takes the Blackhawks on 1-on-4 but creates a passing lane for himself to set up Dougie Hamilton for a one-timer. The leadup to the goal was something else as well:
There aren’t many players that can do what you watched in the video. We’ve seen Connor McDavid pull it off a couple of times, but he’s the best player in the world. And he did it by skating through everyone for a goal, not a 50-second marathon shift to set up a tally as Hughes did here with his tremendous puck skills.
That goal is part of what makes Hughes so much fun to watch. Cam Charron and Dimitri Filipovic mentioned it on their deep dive of the Devils on The Hockey PDOcast at the end of October. Hughes has such a vast toolbox that you don’t have any idea what’s coming when he’s in the offensive zone. He can do what he did in the Blackhawks game with his puck skills, or he can set up someone for a goal from behind the net with a split-second pass as he did for Nathan Bastian in a game against the Calgary Flames on Nov. 5.
As Charron and Filipovic also mentioned, the rink is essentially a chess board for Hughes. He’ll move around pieces to get the look he wants in the offensive zone, but it doesn’t stop there. He’s also one of the best rush players in the league. The line of Erik Haula, Hughes and Bratt ranks in the top five of the NHL in rush chances (via Meghan Chayka). And when he gets an opportunity on the rush, he will bury it if he gets time and space:
Not only is Hughes a star offensively, but his defensive game has rounded out too. He probably won’t get nominated for a Selke Trophy any time soon, but that shouldn’t underrate his two-way efforts. Only Jesper Boqvist has suppressed expected goals at a better rate than Hughes on the Devils this season. Perhaps part of that is because the team always has the puck in the offensive zone when Hughes is on the ice, but he’s playing hard defensively too.
The Devils Have a Star Player on Their Hands
It may still be early in the 2022-23 season, but there isn’t any doubt about Hughes’ abilities. If he stays healthy, he has an excellent chance of breaking 90 points. And becoming the first 100-point scorer in Devils history isn’t out of the realm of possibility either. The only skaters with a better game score average than Hughes this season are Jason Robertson and Matthew Tkachuk. It’s safe to say he’s now among the NHL’s elite.
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Alex Chauvancy is a New Jersey Devils writer for The Hockey Writers who has a penchant for advanced stats, prospects, signings and trades. He previously wrote for Devils Army Blog, a New Jersey Devils fan blog, from 2015-2017