It’s always nice when a player lives up to the hype. Jack Hughes might have taken a little bit longer to get there, but the 21-year-old has proven himself a bonafide superstar in recent weeks. Despite struggling in the first three years of his career, Hughes has been spectacular in his fourth campaign for the New Jersey Devils. Lets’ take a look at how the Jack Hughes expectations are being met.
Jack Hughes Living Up to Expectations
When New Jersey selected Hughes first overall in the 2019 NHL Draft, they were hoping he would be a key piece in a rebuild they were desperate to begin. For a team that struggled with offensive inspiration, Hughes filled a niche that the Devils needed. He was scouted as a player with incredible skating ability and the hands to match, with NHL Central Scouting comparing him to dominant players like Jack Eichel and Connor McDavid. His hockey IQ was another strength noted, with NHL Central calling him “unafraid to challenge that opening that others may not be able to get through because he sees beyond with the opportunities there”. The Devils wanted a franchise player, someone to build the team around. Hughes was, seemingly, the guy to do it.
However, Hughes did not immediately settle into his game at the NHL level. In his rookie season, Hughes had only seven goals and 21 points, as well as a team-lowest minus-26 plus-minus. He didn’t record a point in his first seven games and did not look to be the talent that everyone was expecting. Hughes struggled with the pace and size of the game in the big leagues. He also could not contribute in the way he wanted, causing many to wonder if the expectations surrounding him were unwarranted. His struggles in the league continued, with only eleven goals in his sophomore season, and an MCL injury cutting a promising 2021-22 season short.
Hughes Making an Impact in 2022-23
However, Hughes has exploded in the 2022-23 season. Halfway through the season, he has already surpassed his previous career high in goals, scoring 28 goals in 43 games. He has seven goals in his last six games, including two in Friday’s win over the Anaheim Ducks. His 28 goals lead the team, and he sits third in assists behind Dougie Hamilton and Jesper Bratt. He is currently seventh in goals scored across the league, and tenth in points. He’s been held off the scoresheet in only 11 games so far this season. Hughes is finally playing with the confidence of a first-overall draft pick.
The emergence of Hughes has been key to the Devils’ good fortune so far this season. With a record of 28-12-3, New Jersey has already tied its total number of wins in the entire 2021-22 season. With Hughes consistently producing, the Devils’ entire forward group becomes much more balanced. This balance makes them that much tougher for opponents to defend. The Devils are no longer a one-trick pony, with all of the defensive focus heading to Nico Hischier on the top line, but can instead force the opposition to defend at least two lines with significant scoring potential. Add in the fourth line of Miles Wood, Michael McLeod, and Nathan Bastian surpassing their expected production, and New Jersey has three solid lines that will convert a chance if you give it to them.
Hughes deserves much of the credit for his spectacular gameplay throughout the season. However, there’s a chance it doesn’t happen if he’s playing on any other team. New Jersey is an exceptionally young team, with the fifth-youngest roster in the NHL. They rely on that youth, playing fast and using their speed and skating ability to stretch the ice and corral pucks when they need. For example, four of the Devils’ six goals against Anaheim on January 13th were set up by a stretch pass or a breakaway. That includes Hughes’ game-icing goal late in the third period. Hughes’ skating ability and stick skills lend themselves to being successful in that environment. Whether it’s intentionally set up to benefit him or not, the Devils’ offensive system is working to Hughes’ advantage. This will continue to do so for years to come.
He is ridiculous and he is inevitable. pic.twitter.com/a8XsQqmQF1
— New Jersey Devils (@NJDevils) January 14, 2023
The Devils are a long shot to win the Stanley Cup this year. They’re incredibly young and have next to zero playoff experience. The team, as a whole, is exceeding expectations in almost every metric. This always leaves the possibility open for regression to the mean and a downward spiral that eliminates any playoff hope that the first half of the season has brought. However, Jack Hughes is finally meeting expectations and playing like the superstar he was always meant to be. If he can keep it up, maybe the dream isn’t as far out of reach as it may seem. It’s safe to say that the Jack Hughes expectations are finally being met.