HUGHES CON­FI­DENT HE’LL LEAD DEVILS TO PROMISED LAND

It’s far too early to give up on top pick de­spite a rookie sea­son from hell

Vancouver Sun - - SPORTS - MICHAEL TRAIKOS Toronto mtraikos@post­media.com

The coach was fired. The best player was traded. And it was only Novem­ber.

In the next three months, Jack Hughes would lose the gen­eral man­ager that drafted him first over­all, as well as five of his team­mates, in­clud­ing the cap­tain.

So, yeah, the 18-year-old has a con­flicted view of his first sea­son in the Na­tional Hockey League.

“It was pretty rocky for sure,” he said in a phone in­ter­view from his par­ents’ home in Michi­gan. “You could say that.”

Rocky? That’s one way of de­scrib­ing it.

As far as highly touted prospects go, the Amer­i­can-born but Toronto-raised cen­tre might not have been con­sid­ered a gen­er­a­tional tal­ent at this time last year. But he was pretty close. Hughes tied Aus­ton Matthews’ sin­gle-sea­son scor­ing record at the U.S. Na­tional De­vel­op­ment Team Pro­gram and had a skill set that drew com­par­isons to Connor Mc­david and Patrick Kane.

It was safe to as­sume the New Jersey Devils rookie was go­ing to tear it up. Af­ter all, that’s what he had done his en­tire hockey ca­reer.

In his fi­nal year of mi­nor hockey, Hughes scored 159 points in 80 games for the Toronto Marl­boros. At the un­der-18 world cham­pi­onship, he broke Alex Ovechkin’s goal-scor­ing record and com­pleted his two years in the U.S. pro­gram with a record 190 points — more than Matthews, Kane and Phil Kes­sel.

When the Devils se­lected him, the ex­pec­ta­tion was that Hughes would step in and make an im­me­di­ate im­pact. Hughes ex­pected the same. As a five­foot-10 and 170-pound for­ward, he knew that play­ing against men was go­ing to be a chal­lenge. But he also knew he was join­ing a Devils team that had 2018 Hart Tro­phy win­ner Tay­lor Hall in its lineup and ac­quired P.K. Sub­ban and Wayne Sim­monds in the sum­mer.

Pre-sea­son pre­dic­tions had the Devils as a play­off con­tender and had Hughes as the favourite to win the Calder Tro­phy. The hype was real.

“I was an op­ti­mist for sure,” Hughes said. “I knew a lot about the league, but at the same time I knew very lit­tle.”

Hughes didn’t know it was go­ing to be this hard, this ugly.

No one did.

In a year that was dys­func­tional at best, the Devils lost their first six games. Hughes didn’t have a point in any of them. He scored his first two goals in the eighth and ninth games of the sea­son, but by Dec. 3, both head coach John Hynes and Tay­lor Hall, the 2018 Hart Tro­phy win­ner, were gone. Next was GM Ray Shero in Jan­uary. By the trade dead­line, Hall said good­bye to Sim­monds, Blake Cole­man, Sami Vata­nen, goalie Louis Domingue and cap­tain Andy Greene.

If the sea­son ends up re­sum­ing with the play­offs, it will be with­out the 26th-ranked Devils.

And yet, if you think this year is an in­di­ca­tion of what the fu­ture holds for Hughes, think again.

He is as op­ti­mistic as he was six months ago that he will pro­duce big num­bers in the NHL, that he’ll have a long and suc­cess­ful ca­reer and that the Devils will con­tend for a cham­pi­onship.

“One thing you take from it is that I hope that I never have a year that is as crazy as this year,” he said. “In the fu­ture, none of this hap­pens again. It’s a win­ning cul­ture. And it’s a win­ning cul­ture be­cause I’m mak­ing it a win­ning cul­ture.”

We’ve been spoiled. From Sid­ney Crosby and Ovechkin to Matthews and Mc­david, the list of No. 1 picks who have come into the league and made an im­me­di­ate im­pact is as long as it is con­sis­tent. There’s a rea­son we re­fer to them as can’t-miss prospects.

Ten of the past 14 Hart Tro­phy win­ners were drafted first over­all. Five of the past 13 Calder Tro­phy win­ners were top picks. Even the so-called first-over­all “busts” pro­duced right away.

Nail Yakupov, out of the league af­ter six sea­sons, led rook­ies with 17 goals and 31 points in 48 games dur­ing the lock­out-short­ened 2012-13 sea­son. Alexan­dre Daigle had 20 goals as a rookie.

Hughes has 21 points. He scored seven goals in 61 games.

You have to go back two decades to find the last No. 1 pick to pro­duce so lit­tle. And the player’s name isn’t one to make the Devils feel con­fi­dent about the fu­ture. Pa­trik Ste­fan had five goals and 25 points as a rookie. He would never score more than 14 goals or 40 points in a seven-sea­son NHL ca­reer.

Of course, the last No. 1 pick to fin­ish with less than 20 points was Joe Thorn­ton, who scored three goals and seven points in 55 games in 1997-98. By Year 6, he fin­ished with 101 points and was the league’s top scorer three years later.

In other words, give Hughes some time.

BRUCE BEN­NETT/GETTY IM­AGES

Devils rookie Jack Hughes, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NHL En­try Draft, scored just seven goals in 61 games dur­ing an ab­bre­vi­ated rookie cam­paign.

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