It’s all but a forgone conclusion the New Jersey Devils will miss the playoffs for a second consecutive season. They sit at 18-24-8 on the season and would have to go on a ridiculous winning streak to stand any chance at making the postseason. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to throw in the towel for the rest of 2019-20.
The Devils have a lot of young players on their team. And since that’s the case, focusing on their development will be crucial over the team’s final 32 games. One player who the Devils need to get going is Jack Hughes. The 2019 first overall pick has 17 points in 42 games while playing in a mostly third-line role. But despite the low production, it’s time for interim coach Alain Nasreddine to begin looking into moving Hughes into better minutes with scoring wingers.
How Hughes Has Fared as a Third-Liner
When the 2019-20 season started, then-head coach John Hynes began by playing Hughes on the team’s second line. But things did not go well with his fellow linemates, Nikita Gusev and Jesper Bratt. It didn’t take long before Hynes moved Hughes down to the third line with Pavel Zacha and Wayne Simmonds. That seemed to get him going a bit, and his numbers began to improve as November rolled around.
But the Devils’ struggles began to multiply in November. The losses mounted and two blowout defeats to the Buffalo Sabres and New York Rangers led to Hynes’ firing. Nasreddine took over as the interim coach on Dec. 3, but Hughes’ role has stayed the same. His most common linemates since then? Zacha or Miles Wood on his left-wing, with Simmonds on his right-wing.
When Zacha, Hughes, and Simmonds have been on the ice, the Devils have controlled just 36.36% of the shot attempts and 36.49% of the expected goals. When Wood is alongside Hughes and Simmonds, the Devils are controlling 43% of the shot attempts and only 33.13% of the expected goals. None of those numbers are any good, and there isn’t a case to continue using either line moving forward.
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The reality is those wingers aren’t great fits for Hughes, either. Simmonds has played his role well for the Devils, but he doesn’t have the scoring touch he used to. Wood creates shots and chances at a high level but doesn’t convert them at the rate he should, given how many he creates. Zacha can contribute offense from time to time, but he’s way too inconsistent to be relied upon as a scoring threat. So how can the Devils get Hughes going in the right direction?
The Best Fit for Hughes
It’s clear the final games of the 2019-20 season should have an eye towards the future, and the Devils seem to realize that, too. They sent top prospect Jesper Boqvist to the AHL before the All-Star break, where he’ll play on the Binghamton Devils’ first line for the foreseeable future. Nasreddine also said they’re looking to lighten the workload for goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood and split starts between him and Louis Domingue.
With a plan in place for Blackwood and Boqvist, two key young players for the Devils’ future, now would be the time to start thinking about how to manage Hughes the rest of the way, as well. One of his best games of the season came on Monday night against the Ottawa Senators, where he fired eight shots on goal and had the game-winner in the shootout. But that was followed up by a weaker effort against the Nashville Predators last night, where Nasreddine benched Hughes to give him a reset.
Hughes is still searching for some consistency in his game. But he needs better linemates, and that’s something Nasreddine should consider changing. The easy switch is to get Hughes in Travis Zajac’s spot in the lineup. Zajac has done a fantastic job centering Blake Coleman and Gusev, but that’s not where he fits into the lineup for 2020-21. That’ll be Hughes’ spot to lose moving forward. And it’d be best to see how he plays in a scoring role because there’s a real chance Coleman and Gusev could be his linemates next season.
There’s also a case to move Hughes on a line with Bratt and Kyle Palmieri. But those two have been so good — with Nico Hischier as their center — it’d be tough to break them up. The Devils are controlling over 63% of the expected goals with them on the ice since Dec. 3. They could be a line next season, so it’s worth keeping them together and seeing if they continue to produce down the stretch.
Getting Hughes Comfortable With a New Role
The Devils have two options with Hughes: keep him on a line with Zacha and Simmonds or flip him and Zajac’s spot in the lineup. And there are cases for both. Hughes needs to be more consistent, but it’s no guarantee that happens with Simmonds and Zacha as his linemates. There may be more risk in elevating his role, but it could also get him going if he’s playing with wingers with skillsets closer to his, like Gusev and Coleman.
Hughes played on the top line with Taylor Hall and Palmieri earlier in the season, and that’s when he looked his best. Moving him back to the first line might not be best for him now, but playing with other scorers on his wing should help him. It isn’t something that should happen overnight, either, as Nasreddine would be doing Hughes a favor by easing him into a new role. One way for that to happen is in situational moments, like when the Devils are trailing and needing a goal. But if he isn’t at least given that shot before the season ends, the Devils would be doing his development a disservice.
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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick
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