Devils Need to Move Hughes Back to Center

It’s been a rocky rookie season for Jack Hughes. The first overall pick at the 2019 Entry Draft has 21 points in 58 games and has struggled to score consistently. He’s played center for a majority of the season, but New Jersey Devils’ interim head coach Alain Nasreddine moved him to left-wing on a line with Kyle Palmieri and Nico Hischier to try and get him going. The experiment started a little over two weeks ago, but the results have been less than desirable. 

There are only 16 games left this season, but getting Hughes comfortable heading into the summer would be a plus. The Devils don’t need him to go on a point-per-game tear, but they do need to put him in a position to succeed. And that starts with moving him back to center. 

Hughes’ Struggles as a Left-Winger

The idea of moving Hughes to left-wing with Hischier and Palmieri isn’t without merit. They’re two of the Devils’ best two-way forwards, and he could learn some good habits from playing with both of them. They also have the scoring touch that could help him start picking up some points. 

Related: Devils’ Blackwood Emerging as Legit Starting Goalie

But so far, that hasn’t been the case. Since his first game at left-wing on Feb. 18, Hughes has one assist in eight games and has fired only 12 shots on goal. As a line, Hughes, Hischier, and Palmieri have struggled mightily at five-on-five — they have a Corsi share (CF%) of 42.24% and expected goals share (xGF%) of 45.39% in 89 minutes together. 

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

They’ve also struggled to generate offense, as well as prevent the opposition from creating shots and chances. The trio is averaging 45.65 shot attempts per 60 minutes (CF/60) while giving up 62.43 per 60 minutes. They’re averaging 2.28 expected goals per 60 minutes (xGF/60) while giving up 2.74 per 60 minutes. So it’s been a rough go, to say the least.  

Hughes’ on-ice numbers have taken a hit too. In 50 games at center before Feb. 18, the Devils had a CF% of 47.3% and xGF% of 48.84% with him on the ice. That’s neither great or terrible, but it’s much better than his numbers at wing — those stats drop to 39.18% and 39.16%, which is a significant decline.

He may have had a better showing with Palmieri and Hischier against the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday evening. But that still prompted Nasreddine to move Hughes down to the third-line as a winger alongside Travis Zajac and Jesper Boqvist at their most recent practice. Zajac is one of the team’s most steady defensive forwards, but there’s limited offensive upside for Hughes on that line, so where does he fit best?

If Hughes Returns to Center, Who Should Play on His Wings?

Part of a young player’s development depends on putting him in the right situations to grow his game. Hughes’ most common linemates this season have been Pavel Zacha and Wayne Simmonds, who’s now on the Buffalo Sabres. Neither player was an ideal fit for him because they’re limited offensively. One option that could make sense moving forward is pairing him with Jesper Bratt and Joey Anderson. 

Related: The Best Team in Devils Franchise History

Bratt was once a defensive liability, but he’s had a strong defensive impact this season. He’s also been one of the Devils’ best forwards over the last month, with 12 points in 15 games, and he’s turned into one of their top shooting threats. Anderson is known for being a winger with a strong defensive game and has looked solid offensively since being called up a few weeks ago. 

New Jersey Devils Jack Hughes Sami Vatanen
New Jersey Devils’ Jack Hughes celebrates with teammate Sami Vatanen after scoring his first career NHL goal. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

The downside to shuffling things up is it’d break up the Bratt, Zacha, and Nikita Gusev line, which has looked very good in the few games they’ve played together. But it might also be time to move Gusev up a line to play with Hischier and Palmieri. While he’s a dynamic offensive talent, his defensive game needs some improvement. Since Hischier and Palmieri thrive defensively, they’d help make up for some of Gusev’s defensive flaws. Here’s what a potential lineup could look like:

  • Gusev – Hischier – Palmieri
  • Bratt – Hughes – Anderson
  • Zacha – Zajac – Boqvist
  • Wood – Rooney – McLeod

Bratt hasn’t played with Hughes since October, but there’s a real chance they could be linemates in 2020-21. It’d be worth trying that out again since Bratt is a much different player than he was at the start of the season. Zacha and Boqvist will be part of a crowded group competing for a top-nine spot in training camp, and it wouldn’t hurt to give them an audition together. That should give the Devils a balanced lineup while also giving them a chance to look at the big picture heading into next season. 

It’s About Getting Hughes in a Suitable Role

There are plenty of other line combinations Nasreddine can put together for Hughes. But the goal should be to get him back in a spot he’s comfortable with where he can succeed. Bratt and Anderson are ideal linemates for him, plus placing them with Hughes wouldn’t come at the expense of the rest of the lineup. 

New Jersey Devils Jack Hughes
New Jersey Devils center Jack Hughes (Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)

The Devils didn’t select Hughes first overall for him to be a role player, either. He’s someone they want to build their franchise around, and interim general manager Tom Fitzgerald said as much at the trade deadline. He doesn’t need to go on a scoring tear over the last 16 games, but finding a bit of offense can’t hurt. That doesn’t seem like it’ll happen with him playing on the wing, so a move back to center should be in the cards. If placing him with the right linemates gets him going, both he and the Devils should feel good about their futures. 

* * *

Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick