Across the last two Saturdays, I have discussed players coming off their rookie NHL seasons who, with improvement, will really help to benefit the Devils this season. While improvement from Boqvist and Gusev will be important, the most important in this group will undoubtedly be Jack Hughes.
Over the last two weeks, I have been looking at players entering their second season both in the NHL and with the New Jersey Devils who could improve their games and provide a boost in production for the team. This will be vital if the Devils are to improve as a team this season. The organization hopes that Jesper Boqvist and Nikita Gusev will both be vital figures for years to come, and their growth will really help this team become much more competitive. Boqvist, with such small production last season, has a chance to become a regular producer on this team in the middle 6 of the lineup should he continue to improve, and could provide that secondary scoring that all good teams have. Gusev had a strong first year in the NHL, but there is obviously potential for more, perhaps for a point per game if he can get to Panarin levels. With Taylor Hall no longer on the team, having Gusev reach that sort of production would be hugely important for the continued success of the top line.
However, while their growth is definitively important, there is a third person who fits this category on offense who is more important than both of them. As the first overall pick, there were huge expectations for Jack Hughes entering his rookie season. This was especially since there was a good debate about who to take at first overall, and no one wanted to see Kakko perform well in Manhattan while Hughes struggled in Newark. That would have been even more painful than watching Mathew Barzal, which by the way, is excruciatingly painful.
Well, as it turned out, neither of the top two overall picks really performed to expectations. While Kakko can be discussed elsewhere, Hughes ended the season with only 21 points in 61 games. Among #1 picked forwards who played their rookie season, that is the lowest in quite some time. Even Nail Yakupov, who has produced nowhere near #1 overall talent, had a quality rookie season with 31 points in 48 games. Now, that can be looked at in two ways. The pessimistic view is that he might have been a poor choice at one overall. The more optimistic view, and perhaps a more realistic view as well, is that there is still a huge amount of room for him to develop and improve, and in fact, considering how little he produced last season, we could see a nice bump in production this year.
When looking at some numbers, you can see that a bump for Hughes in year two is definitely possible. First, he was not a drag on the team’s possession. While his overall CF% was only 45.79% at 5v5, a pretty bad number, the context tells a different story. His relative Corsi was on the positive side, sitting at 0.78. That is not crazy positive, but when you see the likes of Pavel Zacha sitting at -4.14 and Miles Wood at -3.36, being a relative positive, despite his poor number overall, notes that he didn’t hurt the team’s possession numbers, even if he was not a major help. You would think that as he improves his game and adapts to the NHL, that number will improve, especially considering that his style of play is one of a playmaker and distributor. He will thrive with possessing the puck up the ice, and as he gets better at this level, his possession will only get better.
Also, he did not get all of the bounces last year that he might have. This is referenced by comparing his relative GF% to his relative xGF%. Jack’s actual relative GF% last season was -12.97, which was second worst among all forwards at 5v5 with at least 200 minutes played. It was an atrocious number, and indicates that when he was out there, the Devils were giving up way more goals than they were scoring. The only forward with a worse number there was Boqvist. His relative xGF%, however, tells a different story. His number there at 5v5 was a positive 0.47, good for 6th among those same forwards. That is a monster difference. Given his play and analytics, he was expected to be a net positive in goals for percentage when he was out on the ice. In reality, he was extremely negative. Just from a pure regression to the mean, he should improve next year on that alone.
Next, as Tom Fitzgerald improves this team’s roster, and Hughes gets better teammates, that could also improve his production. At 5 on 5, Hughes did spend more time with Kyle Palmieri than any other forward last year, so that was a benefit to him there, but that benefit ended there. Otherwise, his time was mostly spent with the likes of Wayne Simmonds and Pavel Zacha, not the best linemates he could have. If Lindy Ruff decides to put Hughes with say Palmieri and Gusev, that could provide a boost in his production simply by playing with better linemates. Of course, Nico Hischier could also likely play with them instead, and Hughes could get the likes of Andreas Johnsson and Jesper Bratt. Those would not be bad options, and he could do well between those two, but of course that is second line production, not top line.
In the end, however, for Jack, the main boost in production will come from his own improvement and an improvement in luck. More than anyone else, he has the benefit of being young. Under 20 years old, his production can and should grow. His body will develop, he will get stronger, and this will improve his ability to maintain possession of the puck, to take possession away from opponents, and to improve his ability to battle along the boards. Then, throw in some improved luck which will improve his analytics, and we’re looking at a sophomore year which should be definitively improved over last year. He might not all of a sudden become a point per game player like we know he is capable of and will become one day, but even if he becomes a half point per game player next year, or hits 0.67 points per game, that will provide a huge boost to the team and help it get better from its poor standing last year. Considering that Nico will be the top line center, that sort of boost in production for Jack will provide excellent help to the team’s middle 6 production, something that the team desperately needs. The Devils have needed help in scoring from outside the top line for years now, and this will go a long way towards that. And of course, this doesn’t mention the long term implications of what an improved Jack Hughes will mean to this organization, but we can get into that another time. For next year, a better Jack will mean a better New Jersey Devils.