The 2021 New Jersey Devils find themselves at a difficult crossroads.
Sure, the Devils have some nice pieces around the roster. Even still, a rebuilding team is a rebuilding team, and while they currently sit at 2-0-1 heading into Jan. 21 play, the Devils, over the duration of the 2021 NHL campaign, will more than likely falter back to the bottom of the pack in what amounts to an extremely tough MassMutual NHL East Division.
While the preseason projections will likely hold true for the Devils, the team can at least hang its hat knowing it has its next legitimate superstar.
Hughes, the first-overall selection in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft and the younger brother of Vancouver Canuck (and 2020 Calder Memorial Trophy runner-up) Quinn Hughes, certainly has the pedigree to be a franchise-altering skater. Despite his smaller stature (he is only 5 feet, 10 inches tall), Hughes’ blend of blistering speed, quick release and smooth puck handling definitely sold everyone into solidifying his top position among the vast majority of draft boards.
Over the duration of the 2019-20 campaign, Hughes, in his first year of NHL action, performed as decently as anyone would expect of a then-18-year-old. In 61 games played, Hughes collected 21 points (seven goals, 14 assists) and averaged over 15 minutes of ice time per game (15:52). When delving into the annals of NHL history, this was in no way a drastic world-breaking performance by a youngster. Nevertheless, it was more than a cup of coffee for the left-handed center. After all, he was getting ice time and the experience. For a rebuilding team, that matters.
Luckily for Devils’ fans, Hughes is already building on his experience from the season prior this season. In three games played, Hughes (who is the youngest skater on the 2021 the Devils’ roster), has already collected six points (two goals, four assists). After collecting only one three-point game last season (Oct. 25, 2019 against the Arizona Coyotes), Hughes already has a three-point game on his resume this season (Jan. 19, 2021 against the New York Rangers).
The increase in productivity does not end there. His average time on the ice (ATOI) has also seen a significant uptick, as his 19:57 ATOI is leaps and bounds more time when compared to his 15:52 mark from last season. Then, there is his plus-minus (+/-), which looks at the goal differential the team possesses when a certain player is on the ice. While Hughes’ +/- last season was -26, his current +/- is +3. This number is tied for fourth on the team (Matt Tennyson with +5, and Kyle Palmieri and Miles Wood with +4).
While the increase in output could be relegated to the “small sample size” bin in the back cupboard, Hughes’ performance at such a young age is almost solely unique to him. Among all Devils’ players in franchise history, only two between the ages of 18 and 19 have collected at least six points through the first three team games of a season: Jesper Bratt (2017-18 season) and Hughes (2020-21 season). Hughes, despite being older compared to when Bratt achieved the feat (Bratt was 19 years old and 69-73 days, while Hughes was 19 years old and 245-50 days), Hughes surpassed Bratt in terms of total ice time (59:50 vs. 50:28) and total shifts (79 vs. 69), signifying his increased role as a potential game-changer.
While the 2021 season might be a long one for the Devils, their youth is on the rise. If one of their young buds (and potential franchise star) in Hughes is taking a step forward like he has so far, then there just might be a noticeable light at the end of the Devils’ rebuilding tunnel.