It’s safe to say that Jack Hughes’ rookie season with the New Jersey Devils hasn’t gone as expected. The no. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft probably wasn’t expecting to see his head coach fired, his GM fired, his captain traded, and the team’s best player traded. But at least going forward he’s gotten some experience in how to deal with these business decisions that were made. The dismissals of John Hynes and Ray Shero, and the trades of Andy Greene, Taylor Hall, and Blake Coleman were not the fault of Hughes though, despite the fact that he has struggled at times through his rookie season.
He’s missed time due to some injuries and yeah, the point total (20 points in 51 games) isn’t where most of you expected it to be. But he is adjusting to and navigating the NHL life on the fly, and at the tender age of 18-years-old, he is learning valuable lessons that will only help him become a better pro. On the surface, or to the casual observer who only has watched him play a handful of times, it may not look like Hughes has developed much, if at all over his first 50+ games.
That’s why we talked to some of the people that know him best, those that see him every day, and those that work and play beside him. All of the players we spoke with believe that Hughes is going to be a superstar in the league and for the Devils for many, many years to come.
Palmieri has spent some time on the right side of Hughes as the rookie’s winger, and lately, Hughes has been playing the wing opposite of the Devils’ leading goal scorer. As we’ve learned during Palmieri’s tenure in New Jersey if you want an informative and descriptive answer about young players trying to break into the NHL, he’s your guy. Never disappoints, and always insightful.
So where has no. 21 seen Hughes improve in from training camp in September to the present day? “I think there are little areas of the game, little nuanced stuff that he has been picking up from guys like Nico (Hischier), Travis (Zajac), and even Pavel (Zacha). It’s hard to play in this league at 18-years-old, and he’s been doing an exceptional job of growing on the fly,” replied Palmieri.
“He’s just going to continue to get better every day, and obviously he’s going to mature, and get stronger. Those are all things that will make him a more dangerous player. He has high-end moves.”
Moves that create openings on the ice for a winger such as Palmieri to capitalize on, right?
“Of course,” Palmieri said. “His speed, and the way he can handle a puck at high speeds, is one of those things that only the top guys at this level can do in the tight areas. He’s finding ways to use his teammates and his linemates more, and the more he does that the more he’ll produce offense and opportunities for us.”
Hughes missed a handful of games early in the season, and then again just prior to the NHL’s All-Star Break with minor injuries. Not terribly shocking for a teenager playing nightly against grown men. But the more recent absence may have reenergized the Devils rookie, allowing him to rest his body and recharge his batteries for the final two months of the NHL season.
“The NHL season, it’s a lot of hockey. It’s a tough league when you’re in your mid, upper-20’s/early 30’s,” said Palmieri with a chuckle. “As an 18-year-old he’s not the biggest guy but he plays in the hard areas and he’s obviously a guy that teams are going to look out for and try to be hard on defensively.”
“You go through growing pains as a young player in this league and I think he’s done a great job of staying confident, being positive, and knowing that his strengths are skating ability and the way he thinks the game. That stuff is really things that you can’t teach players coming into this league. He has that ability and as he develops and fills out his game, fills out his body – he’s going to be a sensational player.”
Like Hughes, Severson made his NHL debut as a younger player, so he has some insight into what the phenom is going through; Severson was 20-years-old at the time of his pro debut. As a defenseman, he has played with Hughes at even-strength as well as on the power play and he’s noticed a few things about the rookie this season.
“I think he’s starting to understand it’s not really like when he played with the US Program, where he was able to skate through the whole opponent’s team on a regular basis,” said the 25-year-old Severson. “He’s going to get those chances but nine times out of ten it’s not gonna work. But that one time he’s going to make a highlight-reel play, and that’s great.”
“He’s realizing that he has to use his teammates more, and give us the puck to get it back,” he added. “Jack can use his speed and create plays like that. He doesn’t have to be a one-man show, he can use us and it’s showing a lot more (lately). He’s being a lot more creative out there.”
Hughes only has two power-play points since the calendar flipped to 2020, and one goal, but Severson has seen improvements in the 18-year-old when they have the man-advantage.
“With the extra guy on the ice, if you move the puck quick they can’t react quick enough, right? You don’t have a whole lot of time to learn in this league (during the season),” Severson explained. “He understands that when there are plays to be made, they have to be made. He’s a heck of a skilled player with a high hockey IQ, and he’s a big-time contributor for us and will be going forward.”
Simmonds, like Palmieri, has spent time on the right-wing of Hughes – and maybe more times than anyone this season. The power forward is in his first season with the Devils and he has stated that he’d like to stay here longer than the one-year deal he signed with New Jersey this past summer.
Where has he seen Hughes improve and what does he like about the rookie’s game through his first 51 games as an NHL player?
“He’s keeping it a little more simple lately. He’s taking what they’re giving him; when he has the lane to skate and handle the puck he’s doing it,” replied Simmonds. “But he’s picking and choosing when to do it. I’ve seen him evolve over the year, he’s already a heckuva a player and he’s only going to get better.”
Will adding some muscle over the next few seasons prevent him from being knocked off the puck by defenders going forward?
“Yeah and that comes with age and maturity,” Simmonds added. “Any kid that comes into the league at 18-years-old is obviously not finished developing. I think Jack has done a great job and he’s pretty strong for his size, he’s just going to get bigger and stronger. That stuff will come.”
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.