After dislocating his shoulder in the second game of the season, Jack Hughes returned to much fanfare on Tuesday night against the San Jose Sharks. The Devils lost the game 4-2, but it was a welcomed sight to see their star player back in action after missing close to six weeks of action. However, he did not return to his usual position of center, as head coach Lindy Ruff had him at left wing on a line with Nico Hischier and Yegor Sharangovich.
Last night in their 5-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild, Hughes remained at left wing, this time with Hischier and Pavel Zacha. The results were not any different, as each night, his line got caved in. Perhaps protecting Hughes’ shoulder is part of the decision of playing him on the wing, especially on faceoffs. But it could not be any clearer; Hughes needs to be playing center. And if faceoffs are that big a concern because of his shoulder, there are other solutions than having him play left wing.
Hughes Wing Experiment Hasn’t Gone Well in the Past
Experimenting with Hughes on the wing is not the first time the Devils have toyed with it. Towards the end of his rookie season in 2019-20, he played his final 11 games on the wing, and the numbers were not pretty. He totaled a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 39.29 percent and expected goals percentage (xG%) of 41.04 percent at five-on-five.
Granted, that was Hughes’ rookie season, and he was supposed to return to center on March 12. But I think we’re all familiar with how COVID upended the world. The NHL suspended the season, and the Devils wouldn’t play another game in the calendar year 2020, with their next contest not taking place until January 2021.
Once the 2020-21 season got underway, Hughes began at center, where he’d play in every game. He only produced at a 45-point pace per 82 games. But he was the Devils’ best player at five-on-five and was an elite play driver. It was clear that’s where he belongs.
Fast forward to the Devils’ last two games, and Hughes’ results very much resemble his stint on the wing at the end of his rookie season — he has a CF% of 44.83 percent and xG% of 30.53 percent. Granted, two games is an incredibly small sample size, and he’s much a better player than he was as a rookie. Still, it’s easy to see the experiment at wing isn’t going to work.
Against the Sharks, the trio of Hughes, Hischier and Sharangovich had a CF% of 40 percent and xG% of 27.9 percent. When Ruff switched the lines in the third period and had Zacha, Hischier and Tomáš Tatar together, the Devils had a CF% of 92.1 percent with them on the ice. A coincidence? Probably not.
Moving on to the Wild game, flipping Zacha and Sharangovich with Hughes and Hischier didn’t help much. In fact, it made things worse. That unit finished with a CF% of 25 percent and xG% of 27.9 percent. There were at least a couple of shifts where they got hemmed in the Wild’s defensive zone, though they never gave up a goal at five-on-five.
Hughes is one of the best transition centers in the league. But that can get and has gotten negated with him on the wing because he doesn’t have the same ability to drive a line. He didn’t look comfortable at left wing as a rookie, and he doesn’t look comfortable now either. The Devils are effectively, though not intentionally, limiting the impact their best player can have at five-on-five. If they’re concerned about protecting his shoulder, that’s completely understandable. But there are still ways to ensure he doesn’t re-injure himself playing down the middle, especially if faceoffs are the No. 1 concern.
Moving Hughes to Center Makes the Devils Better
If I had to guess, Ruff doesn’t have plans to keep Hughes at wing long-term. He was going to move him back down the middle at some point. But it’s obvious he’ll need to do it sooner than he intends to. The Devils have gotten thoroughly outplayed in the two games since Hughes returned to the lineup. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that’s occurred with him playing overwhelmingly on the wing.
So who should play alongside Hughes as his wingers with a move back to center? The logical choices right now seem to be Sharangovich and Tatar. The Devils signed Tatar to help improve their offense, and he’s been doing that lately, with eight points in his last 11 games. Sharangovich looked like a budding 20-25 goal scorer with Hughes in 2020-21, so perhaps Hughes can get him going. Here’s what a lineup could look like:
- Andreas Johnsson – Dawson Mercer – Jesper Bratt
- Sharangovich – Hughes – Tatar
- Zacha – Hischier – Janne Kuokkanen
- Jimmy Vesey – Michael McLeod – Nathan Bastian
Despite playing wing last season, Sharangovich is a natural center. He’s played more than a few games there in 2021-22, and he can take draws for Hughes while Hughes is at center during gameplay. Tatar is playing his best hockey as a Devil right now, so putting these three together seems to make plenty of sense.
Ruff hinted in his pregame media availability yesterday that he doesn’t want to break up the line of Johnsson, Mercer and Bratt right now. That’s fine, considering they were the Devils’ best trio while Hughes was out of the lineup. But if breaking them up means Hughes moves back to center, Ruff has to consider it. Mercer can play right wing and obviously can take faceoffs since he’s been playing center the whole season. Mercer and Hughes on a line together? Why not.
- Johnsson – Hischier – Tatar
- Bratt – Hughes – Mercer
- Zacha – Sharangovich – Kuokkanen
- Vesey – McLeod – Bastian
It’s probably a controversial idea to break up Johnsson, Mercer and Bratt. With that said, is a line of Bratt, Hughes and Mercer going to be any worse? That seems unlikely because all three players are high-end, skilled forwards. I doubt generating offense and scoring would be a problem for them. Johnsson’s play hasn’t been flukey, either. He’s been legitimately great this season, and he’d probably thrive on a line with Hischier and a streaking Tatar.
In that same media availability mentioned above, Ruff stated he prefers to have his top players grouped together. That’s fine as well, but having Hughes on the wing is not the solution. There are plenty of other combinations Ruff could try with Hughes at center. Even giving the unit of Sharangovich, Hughes and Kuokkanen another kick at the can would be worth it, given their production in 2020-21.
But no matter what, Hughes has to be back at center, starting tonight against the Winnipeg Jets. The Devils are at their best when Hughes and Hischier are centering their own lines and not together as one unit. For a team with two wins in their last nine games, getting back to that setup could be the spark they need to right the ship.
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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