The buzz over the 2019 draft seems quaint now. Or it did. Back then, especially because it involved the rivals Devils and Rangers trying to race to the bottom to get one of the top two picks, it picked up more buzz than hockey lotteries normally do. No, it wasn’t the McDavid-Eichel draft (and the Eichel part of that produces more chuckles the more the Knights back up this season), but Jack Hughes was the next great American hope. Kaapo Kakko was seen as the dominant scorer who had every chance of landing immediately in the NHL and scoring tons and ending up better than Hughes. Perhaps I’m jaded because as a lapsed Hawks fan they ended up with the No. 3 pick and got a large doormat, but we’ll leave that.
And that’s pretty much where the buzz died. The Devils got Hughes, and no one’s thought about or watched the Devils since. The Rangers continued their rebuild, and Kakko’s production still resides in the neighborhood of dick. In fact, so has Alex Lafreniere’s, meaning the Rangers revival has had almost nothing to do with what were supposed to be the two pillars of it. #ShesterkinForThanos.
I was hopping around the NHL last night, but never stopped on the Devils-Rangers game. Saw the score was 7-4, which raised an eyebrow, but figured that Igor Shesterkin didn’t play (turns out he did and got lit up), and given how the Eastern Conference playoffs have been locked in since December, it didn’t really register as anything more than a footnote.
Until a friend passed me this note this morning:
It’s true. Hughes has 49 points in 43 games after two goals last night, which is a 93-point pace over a full season. Hughes is also 11th in all forwards with a 1.07 individual expected goals per 60 minutes at even-strength, meaning he’s getting among the most and best chances to score himself. He’s 14th among all forwards in attempts at goal per 60 minutes at even-strength. Maybe most impressively, Hughes has produced this sneaky historic season playing almost entirely with Jesper Bratt and Yegor Sharangovich. Before this season, Bratt had never cracked 40 points in a season, and had been a fast, useful, but pretty nondescript middle six winger. He’s got 61 points now, pretty much all due to getting to ride shotgun in the Hughes charger. It’s not like he’s getting a ton of help. Fo teams that care enough, when planning for the Devils, it pretty much starts and ends with No. 86.
Of course, as exciting as Hughes’s production has been, there’s a couple of lead-weighted “BUTS.” The Devils are only being propped up by the Flyers in the Metro Division, and the Flyers are sadness. The players on that list who managed 1.10 points per game in their age-20 season were all on playoff teams, aside from Eric Lindros and Alex Ovechkin (who was in his rookie season in his age-20 season). Hughes won’t be close. Whenever someone has a huge season on a bad team, there’s a tremor of, “Well, someone has gotta score the goals.”
That’s not fair to Hughes, who is a talent, but it’s impossible to parse out how much of that is resulting in his numbers. The other pause is probably the reason that Hughes’s production isn’t generating more buzz. It’s only 43 games. Hughes has missed 20 games. He missed 20 in his rookie year. And every Devils fan has to wonder if this isn’t just a thing they’re going to have to deal with every season.
Hughes is listed at 5-foot-11 and 175, but just watch him and you wonder if he can be anything over 5-foot-9. And he’s playing center. Looking at the top-20 scorers, it’s hard to find too many players of the Mighty Mouse Brigade. Kirill Kaprizov is listed at 5-foot-10, but he’s a winger. Patrick Kane has lived in the top end of the scoring charts for 14 years now, and he’s 5-foot-8, but he’s also a winger. Nazem Kadri is having a career season, is listed at 6 feet but would need platforms to get there, but that’s not his normal hood or game. Wherever Kadri signs in the summer, that team is going to be awfully disappointed if it expects Kadri to carry a No. 1 center’s responsibility (or not get suspended when it absolutely matters most).
Of the top-20 centers in scoring, only Kadri is listed anywhere near Hughes’s size. Small wingers can find time in a game to just find space and duck out of some battles on both ends of the ice. Centers can’t. They’re in deep over 200 feet. Is Hughes ever going to be able to last for a full season? The Devils were obviously concerned with this, playing Hughes at wing last year for a few games to non-rave reviews.
But that’s a concern for another day, especially in a lost season for the Devils. Whatever his size and durability is, Hughes is producing at a historic rate. You can figure out the rest later.