Devils’ Hughes Has Come Alive After Tough Start

The New Jersey Devils’ 2021-22 season would probably look a bit different right now had Jack Hughes not dislocated his shoulder in the second game of the season. That forced him to miss 17 games, and the team certainly felt his absence. Even once he returned, it took him some time to get up to speed, which made matters worse for a Devils team struggling mightily. 

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Lately, however, Hughes has looked very much like a player that was the first overall pick at the 2019 draft. Since the Devils returned from an extended Christmas break, he has 12 points in seven games. But even before then, there were signs he was beginning to turn it around. Let’s look at his 10 first games compared to his last 10 and see what’s changed. The difference is quite stark, and it appears the Hughes breakout is in full force. 

Hughes’ Start to 2021-22 Set off Course by Injury

Before the season began, many pundits believed a Hughes breakout season was on the horizon. For the first four periods of the regular season, it sure looked like that was going to be the case. Most everyone remembers his overtime game-winner against the Chicago Blackhawks with him throwing his stick into the crowd in celebration. Even against the Seattle Kraken, he tallied an assist before dislocating his shoulder in the second period of play. 

Though Hughes missed 17 games, the Devils held water without him, totaling a 9-7-4 record. However, there were clear signs of a downward trend in their team game for a couple of weeks before Hughes returned to the lineup just before Thanksgiving. There was hope he could help spark a turnaround then. But in hindsight, it’s pretty clear he was a player who still wasn’t all the way recovered from a pretty significant injury. 

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After Hughes returned from his dislocated shoulder, he totaled only four points in his first eight games back. He had 14 shots on goal, and his five-on-five on-ice results weren’t what we’re used to seeing from him. His Corsi-for percentage (CF%) of 46.55 percent was third-worst on the team, while his expected goals percentage (xG%) of 41.15 percent ranked sixth-worst. Add the first two games of the season, and Hughes had a CF% of 45.9 percent and xG% of 42.67 percent in his first 10 games.

Jack Hughes New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils center Jack Hughes (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Those are obviously not the numbers the Devils want or need from Hughes. Having seven points in 10 games was solid production, but he needs to be the team’s top play driver. There were plenty of signs he was developing into one in 2020-21, even though he only had 31 points in 56 games. His CF% of 55.1 percent was first on the team, while his xG% of 53.72 percent was second to Dmitry Kulikov (min. 10 games played). 

Hughes’ five-on-five results aren’t quite there yet in 2021-22, though they’re getting pretty close. And a significant reason for that is his play over his last 10 games. While it’s still a small sample size, what he’s done over the last month closely resembles what many envisioned as a Hughes breakout season. 

It’s Been Night and Day for Hughes Since Mid-December

Hughes has been the Devils’ best player since they returned from the Christmas break. But there were signs that he was turning his game around in the three games before the break. Though he only totaled a goal in those contests, his five-on-five numbers were way up — he had a CF% of 61 percent and xG% of 57.88, first and second on the team. 

Related: 2013 NHL Entry Draft: Where Are They Now?

Those results were, in hindsight, a sign that Hughes was beginning to feel closer to 100 percent. With 10 days off for Christmas after COVID postponements imposed by the NHL, he returned flying out of the gate. The points are beginning to come, and with a CF% of 54.17 percent and xG% of 63.18 percent in seven games since the break, it sure seems his play-driving ability has come back.  

If we combine those seven games and the three before the Christmas break, Hughes has looked much closer to the player he was in 2020-21. His CF% of 56.18 percent is third on the team to Nico Hischier and Pavel Zacha, while his xG% of 61.75 percent is second to Yegor Sharangovich. Hughes is averaging 2.27 points per 60 minutes, which is top-line production at five-on-five. 

Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils
New Jersey Devils center Jack Hughes (Photo by Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Another noticeable thing about Hughes over this stretch compared to his first 10 games is his shot generation. In those first 10 games, he had 18 shots on goal, an average of a little less than two shots on goal per game. Since then, he has 40 shots on goal, an average of four shots on goal per game. He’s fired four shots on goal or more in seven of those contests, and most of it has come at five-on-five. His 29 shots on goal at that game state are the most on the team over that span; Damon Severson is second with 18. 

That’s what the Devils want and need to see from Hughes. And his per 60-minute shot rates at five-on-five over his last 10 games show a player reaching the top of his game (team rank in parentheses):

  • Shot attempts per 60: 19.69 (2nd)
  • Scoring chances per 60: 13.63 (1st)
  • High-danger chances per 60: 7.95 (2nd)
  • Shots per 60: 10.98 (2nd)

The key for Hughes and the Devils will be him sustaining it over their final 45 games. There’s zero parity in the Eastern Conference this season, so the playoffs are likely a pipe dream. But finishing strong and playing in competitive games in March and April is still possible and a must. They can reach that goal with Hughes staying healthy and playing the way he is right now. And the success he has with a certain Belarusian winger on the team could help him reach another level.

Hughes & Sharangovich Have Undeniable Chemistry

Head coach Lindy Ruff could place almost anyone on the roster on a line with Hughes right now. Tomáš Tatar, Jesper Bratt, Dawson Mercer, even a bottom- or middle-six forward like Jimmy Vesey or Janne Kuokkanen, and it’d probably work. With that said, he and Sharangovich have undeniable chemistry as linemates. 

Sharangovich missed a couple of games while on COVID protocols earlier this month. But otherwise, all his appearances in the lineup since Christmas have come on Hughes’ line. In those four games, he’s totaled four goals and five points while firing 15 shots on goal. He also has a CF% of 57.46 percent and xG% of 71.85 percent. It’s clear having Hughes as his center has helped him, but it goes further than that:

Jack Hughes, Yegor Sharangovich
Jack Hughes & Yegor Sharangovich’s on-ice results with and without each other (via Natural Stat Trick)

In the visual above, we’re looking at Hughes and Sharangovich’s numbers together for all of 2021-22 and not just the last few games. As a pair, they have a CF% of 53.5 percent and xG% of 59.06 percent. Hughes’ xG% climbs by almost 11 percent when he’s with Sharangovich, the best shooter on the team. So it’s not just Hughes making Sharangovich better; the latter makes Hughes better too. 

With the Devils returning to the ice against the Arizona Coyotes tomorrow night, expect Hughes and Sharangovich to remain together. Who rounds out that line may be irrelevant. It could be Bratt or Tatar, and they’ll probably still get results. Hughes is playing at that high a level right now and has been the team’s best player over the last month. He’s an even better center with Sharangovich as a linemate because he has a shooting threat on his wing. Add it all together, and the 20-year-old Hughes has come alive for what appears to be his long-awaited breakout.

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick