I’ve spent the last week or so scouring the internet for as many videos and highlights packages of Jack Hughes’ rookie season as I can find, and one thing has become clear to me. If you think Jack Hughes is either a bust or even not worthy of the first overall pick due to his play last season, you either didn’t watch him play last season or are just an absolute moron. I watched around 10 Devils games last season, and I’ll readily admit, Hughes didn’t always stand out. But, my rewatching of Jack Hughes’ rookie season tape has me convinced that he will not only be a fantastic player but will be far and away the best player from his draft class. 

Before I start to breakdown Hughes’ rookie year and get into what his second season might hold, I want to outline a few things. Hughes’s path to the NHL is one that no one else had ever done before. No American player had ever gone directly from playing with the National Team Development Program to the NHL, not even Patrick Kane, Hughes did that.

Even Patty Kane spent a year tearing up the OHL after being drafted from the NTDP

No seasoning in the OHL or the NCAA, no 1 year in the Swiss Men’s league like Auston Matthews. Hughes didn’t experience any significant challenges before he hit the NHL. The NTDP is like an AAU team. Imagine someone going straight from AAU to the NBA, unless you’re Lebron James, chances are you are gonna struggle in year 1, even Kobe did. Hughes’s biggest issue last season was his size. You honestly couldn’t help but feel bad for the guy at times when watching him engage in board battles. NHL defencemen would just bully him off the puck without even moving their feet.

I mean, come on, Matt Niskanen, that’s just mean! Hughes in open space was magic. It was almost impossible to take the puck off of him, but once he was anywhere near the boards, he’d just get rubbed out. Hughes has spent all offseason getting yuuuge in the gym, but be sure to watch how he gets on in battles behind and around the net this year to see if his body is NHL ready.

Furthermore, let’s take a look at the team Hughes played for last season. The Devils fired their coach and their GM, traded both their captain and best player and depended on a 19-year-old and a 21-year-old to carry the offence. They were an absolute trainwreck last year, and the only reason they weren’t as bad as the Red Wings was Mackenzie Blackwood. Was Hughes phenomenal last season? No, I think that’s clear, but he at the very least showed consistent signs that he’ll be able to produce at an elite level in this league. Let’s get into why.

High Speed, High Skill

Hughes was drafted first overall for a reason. He’s an incredibly talented player and does things with the puck going full speed that only the elite of the elite can do. His skating style is unique, even sneaky. It sometimes seems like he’s just gliding, yet he goes by opposing players effortlessly. His cross overs help him generate the speed and power to get his feet moving quickly, and his first step is high-end. He keeps the puck tight to his body when stickhandling at high speed, partly due to his small stick, but also to make sure the puck isn’t poked away or taken from behind.

Here he takes advantage of a lousy pivot by Aaron Ekblad and exploits the gap between the two defenders by tucking the puck close to him and exploding through. Somehow this puck stayed out despite the great move he puts on the goalie, his go-to breakaway move, as you might notice. What I really like about this play is Hughes’s aggressiveness. Many players, especially young players who don’t want to turn it over at the blue line, would just chip this in and get after it, but not Hughes. He’s confident in his abilities and knows what he is good at. It’s really just a great play.

I don’t really have much to say about this clip other than wow. At the time, this is an 18-year-old kid just walking through an entire team and setting up his teammate for a golden chance. Two things I really like about this clip is at the start when he baits the shit out of Evgeni Malkin and sends him for a hot dog. He just dangles the puck out in front of him before bringing it back in close to his body to avoid Malkin; it’s beautiful. The second thing I like is his tenaciousness on the puck. Sure he loses it, but it doesn’t affect him one bit. He just regains it and starts his crossovers again. Again, watch the start of the clip and how much he loads up with those crossovers. It’s an essential aspect of his skating ability. 

Look how beautiful this edgework is. Are you kidding me? Yes, that is Duncan Keith, who he just walked around and Corey Crawford, who he just went top shelf on. As I’ll touch on more later, he’s a really smart player and adept at finding open space, but just watch the footwork here. Again, the hands in tight areas are what shines here too. He brings the puck tight to his body to avoid any poke checks. Excellent stuff.

Hockey IQ and playmaking

It was clear to most when Hughes was drafted that his biggest strength was his passing and ability to set up his teammates in good positions to score. His play at the World Championships furthered this notion. His patience and aptness for drawing defenders to him allowed him to find guys in acres of space. This example shows this to a tee.

Hughes holds and waits until he has both defenders committed before sliding it over to a wide-open Kyle Palmieri, who promptly misses the one-timer. He makes it seem like he’s going to attack the net, so the defender has to come over; it’s really well done. Hughes excelled the most this season on the power play, and it’s easy to understand why.

Hughes RAPM chart on the power play showing his goals for and expected goals for per 60 compared to the rest of the league

He was given ample opportunity and had a ton of space to work with due to his team being up a man. By the end of the year, he started to get more confident in his passing too.

See here as he wants the puck, tapping his stick and starting to move his feet before the pucks even moved. One detail that should be highlighted here is the pullback before he passes it. Watch right before he makes the pass. He drags the puck back just a bit to make it seem like he might shoot before firing it onto Palmieri’s stick for an easy tap in. It’s not anything crazy, but it’s enough to freeze the defenders and the goalie, and it just opens up the lane just enough to make the pass. 

Going back to what I talked about earlier, the most impressive thing I noticed about Hughes is his natural born gift of finding and exploiting space.

Watch his head on this play; it’s on a swivel trying to find a crease. He notices there is a gap between the defenders because of a change and goes after it. He gives Taylor Hall an option and then shows off his strong edgework as he fights off the defender and makes his patented backhand forehand move. 

Hughes wasn’t exactly Patrice Bergeron in his own end, He found himself getting caught on the wrong side of the puck quite often. He also wasn’t great at staying in position and not puck-chasing, but he’ll learn as his career goes on. But! Despite saying all of that, Hughes did impress me with his takeaway skills, especially in the neutral and offensive zone. He’s got a nifty stick lift and has the acute talent of just finding the puck and doing whatever it takes to take it from his opponent.

Here’s just one example, he pressures David Savard into making a wrong decision and takes advantage. Also, look what move he tried too; it’s cash money for him. 

This time, it’s all about his stick-to-it-iveness and being strong on his stick, creating a goal. He loses the puck but quickly relocates it and takes it right back, great signs from the young player to not give up on the play.

What does 2021 have in store for him?

2021 could be a big year for Hughes if he did the necessary work in the offseason, which seems like he did. He needed to improve his shot, mostly due to his not so fast release. He had some very lovely snipes last season, but if you watch them back, you’ll notice he needed a long wind-up and a ton of time to get them off. The word is he added about 20 pounds, which would do nothing but help him, especially on faceoffs. He likes to work behind the net, too, as most elite playmakers want to do, and hopefully, the extra weight helps his puck protection.

He’ll start on the top line due to Nico Hischier’s injury, which still doesn’t have a timetable for his return. It looks like he’s going to play with Kyle Palmieri and Nikita Gusev to start, which is probably one of the worst 1st lines in the league, but nonetheless, those two can score some goals. With no preseason and not much time to get ready for the season, it should be a sloppy start to the year. That plays into Hughes’s hands and should mean more offensive opportunities and more space for him. He’s had 10 months to prepare for opening night, and he should be roaring to go. It’s common for people to worry about a sophomore slump for highly-touted rookies, but I think last year’s experience will be crucial for Hughes’s development. Again, remember that he came straight from the NTDP to the NHL, that isn’t a jump that should be made, and you could tell he wasn’t ready for the speed of the NHL right away. As the season grew on, he got better and better. The Devils probably aren’t going to be very good, but Hughes still needs to have a good year for his confidence and for the team’s faith in him. I think he’ll be an All-Star, put up around 50 points and maybe even score a couple more highlight-reel goals. The 2021 season will be the proper start of the Hughes and Hischier partnership that dominates the Eastern Conference for years to come.