The World Junior Championship is on the horizon and with the season going sideways in New Jersey, it might be best for the Devils to let Jack Hughes find his groove at the tournament.
Jack Hughes|Vincent Ethier/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Assuming Jack Hughes returns from his hand injury and appears in the New Jersey Devils’ lineup Tuesday night when they host the Vegas Golden Knights, he will continue an NHL season where he’s on pace for 37 points. Thirty-seven points. That would be the second-fewest rookie season by a No. 1 overall pick this century, ahead of only Nail Yakupov, who scored 31 points in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Think about that for a minute.
We bring that up only because, with the calendar turning to December and all, the World Junior Championship is rapidly approaching. What does that have to do with Jack Hughes? An awful lot, possibly. There is nothing to suggest the Devils are even considering releasing Hughes to play for Team USA in the event, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t.
The minor injury notwithstanding, it’s fair to say the season has not gone as intended – not for Hughes, not for the Devils, not for anybody. There have been nights when he’s looked completely at home and comfortable playing in the best league in the world, other nights where he’s struggled and looked a little lost. Of the 24 games Hughes has played this season, he’s scored points in eight of them. If someone told you before the season that one-third of the way through 2019-20 that Jack Hughes would have 23 points and Quinn Hughes 11, you likely wouldn’t have been too surprised. If someone told you it would be the other way around, which it is, that would have been a shocker, right?
And it’s not as though Hughes is being buried down the Devils lineup and not getting the opportunity. He’s getting 16:02 of ice time per game, which is third in the league among rookie forwards, behind only 24-year-old Viktor Olofsson and 25-year-old Ilya Mikheyev. And he’s getting 3:16 per game on the power play, second only in the league among freshmen to Olofsson.
Dispatching Hughes to play in the World Juniors would not be the worst thing for him or the Devils. What Hughes probably needs right now is a dose of positive vibes and playing for that team would undoubtedly accomplish that. The Americans have an outstanding team without Hughes in the lineup, one that is a legitimate favorite to win the tournament. Cole Caufield, with whom Hughes formed a two-man, record-setting wrecking crew for the U.S. development program last season, will be on the roster and there’s already some built-in chemistry there. Hughes would have the chance to dominate again against players his own age and there’s literally no downside to that.
If the Devils were to loan Hughes, he’d be out of the lineup for about a month, which would give the Devils some time to decide what to do with him upon his return. The season in New Jersey is already pretty much lost and Taylor Hall already has one foot out the door, with an anticipated package of prospects and picks expected to come in return. The Devils could put Hughes back into their lineup in January and the American League would also be an option if they decided to go that route.
The fears in doing that are (a) alienating Hughes, and (b) the Devils having to make an admission they brought him along too quickly. On the former, Hughes is not a prima donna who expects to be treated differently. He has a firm grip on reality and would likely see this as a setback, but is also smart enough to see the bigger picture in terms of his development. As for the latter, making that move would not be a negative by any stretch of the imagination. As talented as Hughes is, he’s not the first player to struggle with the transition to professional hockey. There’s a reason why nobody had ever jumped directly to the NHL from the U.S. program before Hughes did. If you ask Jason Spezza and Eric Staal they will both tell you that in terms of their development, the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season was the best thing that happened to them. It allowed them to dominate at another level, all the while providing them with the valuable lessons about being a pro that made them ready to be impact players when the league started up again.
That doesn’t mean that Hughes will be ruined if he remains for the rest of the season with the Devils. After all, Joe Thornton had seven points in his rookie season and he’s headed to the Hall of Fame. Vincent Lecavalier had 28 and Steven Stamkos endured a terrible stretch at the start of his career. Some players can handle those kinds of setbacks and others can’t. I suspect Hughes is in the former camp.
But in a lost season where there’s absolutely no downside to letting Hughes go and play – and probably dominate – among his peers, it’s something the Devils might want to be considering at the moment. Reading the tea leaves, there’s nothing to suggest the Devils have done that yet, but they might want to keep an eye on Dec. 16, when Team USA opens its camp.
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