With the 2021 World Junior Championships right around the corner, it was announced that three eligible players will not be participating this year for their respective countries. Those players include New Jersey Devils forward Jack Hughes for Team USA along with New York Rangers forwards Alexis Lafreniere for Canada and Kaapo Kakko for Finland. The Rangers made the decision for their players, but in the case of Jack Hughes, it was his decision. And while it is ultimately Hughes’ decision to play, was it right the right decision? Let’s explore and dissect that very question below.
Jack Hughes Needed To Represent Team USA
Now many people wonder why Jack Hughes needs to play in a tournament he already played in. Well for starters, Hughes has not played a competitive game of hockey in over nine months. The last time he saw the ice was March 10, 2020, in a loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. And while the Devils can say all they wanted was their decision and they want him to focus on the upcoming (whenever that will be for the Devils), the truth is, the organization gave him permission to go and he declined. But, why decline any opportunity to play hockey? It is not like he had an eventful World Juniors in 2019 for Team USA.
As an 18-year old centre in the tournament before being drafted number one by the Devils, Hughes recorded four assists in four games en route to winning a silver medal as Team USA lost to Finland. However, the story of the tournament was not his play, it was the fact he missed three games with an undisclosed injury. Now granted it is a 19-year old tournament as they say. But, that is not impressive for someone who was going to be the number one overall pick.
Last season, you could make the argument that Hughes missing the tournament was the right thing. The Devils were in the midst of their season. And the organization felt it was in his best interest and for his development to stay in New Jersey. And you cannot argue with that. Though at the time, Jack Hughes was struggling with confidence and as a goal scorer sometimes you need to go dominate to get that confidence back. Not to mention it does help in the development of players, something Hughes needed last season.
Jack Hughes Makes Team USA Better
The addition of Jack Hughes makes Team USA even better. They are contenders for a medal this year, but Hughes makes them a favourite with Canada. Even without Lafreniere, Canada is still loaded. However, the addition of Hughes would have given Team USA depth down the middle with Trevor Zegras and Alex Turcotte. Not to mention Hughes would be reunited with his running buddy from the U18 tournament, Cole Caufield one last time. This 2001 age group has some unfinished business as they would say. Plus, the duo would be probably paired with Arthur Kaliyev. This would have given Team USA a dominant first line.
Team USA is loaded with talent with Spencer Knight, John Beecher, Bobby Brink and possibly Nick Roberston all returning members from the 2020 World Juniors team. And, considering during the 2004-05 lockout Canada put together one of their best teams ever, this would be a similar situation. Now, no way does this Team USA team compare to that Team Canada team, but the same premise is there. Plus having played in the NHL gives Hughes a leg up on his competition.
Timing Is Right
The timing is right for Hughes to play this season. With so much uncertainty surrounding the start of this season, it makes sense to go and play. It’s not like he would have to leave the tournament early for training camp. Most likely NHL training camps will start after the tournament is over. Now the quarantine might be an issue and he may miss time there, but again nothing about the upcoming season is set in stone. There is only so much you can do in the gym and in practice by yourself. Eventually, you need to get those reps from a real game. And a player like Hughes who has not played since March needs those reps.
Why Skip the Tournament
One of the biggest concerns for the Devils is that Jack Hughes could get injured and miss significant time this upcoming season. The coaching staff is hoping for big things from Hughes and the Devils this season. They will be giving him a bigger role this season and hope he takes a big step forward. And if he gets hurt and misses significant time, that throws a wrench into their plans. But there is a risk of injury in the NHL too. And Hughes was often injured during his rookie campaign. But you can understand why the team would not want him to go.
You can also understand things from Hughes’ perspective as well. He wants to focus on the NHL. He has been there and done that. It was a fun experience, but he views himself as an NHL player now. And you have to respect that. But you must wonder if he made the right decision.
Hopefully, Hughes and the Devils made the right decision. His play at the beginning will determine that. If he has instant success nobody will question it. But if Jack Hughes struggles, questions will be asked. Again you have to respect the decision, but it is ok to question it too.
Embed from Getty Images