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
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.