Devils’ Top Line Needs Hughes

The New Jersey Devils’ rough start isn’t a thing of the past, but they have managed to get their play going in the right direction. They’re 4-2-2 in their last eight games and are getting improved goaltending from Mackenzie Blackwood. They’ve also seen Jack Hughes, the first overall pick at the 2019 Entry Draft, make notable progress. 

Jack Hughes New Jersey Devils
Jack Hughes is showing why he was the first overall pick at the 2019 Entry Draft (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

After not recording a point in his first six NHL games, Hughes has 4 goals and 5 assists in his last eight games. The improved play has seen him earn spot minutes on the top line, but it hasn’t been consistent enough. If the Devils are to continue working towards turning their season around, head coach John Hynes needs to give Hughes regular minutes with Kyle Palmieri and Taylor Hall. 

Hughes’ Case for Top-Line Minutes

To say Hughes’ start to the season was a struggle would be an understatement. His underlying numbers weren’t terrible — he had an expected goals for percentage of 54.07% through six games. But the Devils were struggling to find the right linemates for him, as pairing him with Nikita Gusev and Jesper Bratt wasn’t working out. 

Related: Devils Starting to Find Their Groove

Hughes saw some minutes with Pavel Zacha and Wayne Simmonds in a third-line role after a couple of games, and that seemed to help him get going. Since then, Hughes’ performance has improved with each game. It’s allowed Hynes to give him some top-line minutes, and he’s taken advantage of it, as the trio of Hall, Hughes, and Palmieri has dominated at five-on-five:

  • Corsi for per 60 minutes (CF/60) – 57.73 
  • High-danger chances for per 60 minutes (HDCF/60) – 13.86
  • Expected goals for per 60 minutes (xGF/60) – 3.09

Those are numbers you like to see from a first line. But for whatever reason, Hynes broke them up before their game against the Winnipeg Jets earlier this week. And his reasoning for it is interesting.

The most glaring thing about those comments is the first two sentences. The numbers listed above show that Hall, Hughes, and Palmieri were generating quite a bit at five-on-five, so Hynes’ remarks don’t add up with the stats. And the notion that Hall, Nico Hischier, and Palmieri are generating offense at five-on-five is, well, not true:

  • CF/60 – 49.18
  • HDCF/60 – 7.23
  • xGF/60 – 1.71

Hall, Hischier, and Palmieri have a great track record together, so it’s easy to understand why Hynes would go to them. But it’s not clicking this season, and their numbers are significantly worse than when Hughes is on the top line. So why would Hynes say the first line is generating more when Hischier is on it? There’s no real clear answer to that because, from any stat that’s available publicly, they suggest otherwise. 

Hughes, Hischier, and Balance in the Top Six

Hughes playing on the top line doesn’t just boost that trio, but it also affects the rest of the lineup. The Devils acquired Gusev this summer to help boost their offense. And while he’s shown flashes of brilliance, his play off the puck has been a nightmare — he has the fourth-worst Corsi for percentage (CF%) in the league (min. 100 minutes played). 

To help make up for that, Hynes has played Hischier and Zacha, two of the Devils’ best defensive forwards, alongside Gusev to help him out. That combo only got a game together before Gusev was a healthy scratch, but it was also his best game off the puck. The Devils need Gusev in their lineup for his offense, and if it means playing him alongside Hischier and Zacha, then Hynes shouldn’t hesitate. 

New Jersey Devils Jack Hughes
Jack Hughes has a strong case to be on the first line (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

There’s also pretty good evidence to support that the Hughes and Gusev combo doesn’t work. They teamed up for a pretty goal against the Calgary Flames, but they have a 36.36 CF% and 36.28 xGF% as a combo. Since Hughes is a first-year player and doesn’t have the two-way game of Hischier, it makes little sense to play him with a forward like Gusev, who’s struggling defensively. 

The Devils’ top six is also much better balanced when Hughes is on the first line. Before Jesper Bratt’s minor injury, Hynes seemed to have found a second line that worked with Bratt, Zacha, and Hischier. It’s a small sample size of 24 minutes, but that trio has a 68.18 CF% and 69.52 xGF%. It’s possible that combo could find success with Hughes, too. But why go to an unknown when it looks there’s something that works with Hischier?

Related: Devils’ Goaltending Needs to Be Better

It’s a nice luxury to have centers like Hischier and Hughes who fit in anywhere in the top six. But the Devils had something good going with Hughes on the top line. It was a big reason why they were 4-1-2 before last night’s loss to the Flames, so it makes sense to go back to it to help the rest of the lineup. And if they do, they will get better results in the long run. 

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Advanced stats from Natural Stat Trick