Jack Hughes Has Arrived
After 2019 first overall pick Jack Hughes’ disappointing rookie season, there was no shortage of ruthless fans ready to anoint him as the heir to Patrik Stefan's throne. Whether it was his seven goals, 21 points, minus-25 rating, or even just how much like a kid he looked on the ice, there was no shortage of ammunition for detractors trigger-happy with the “bust” label.
Back in December, I interrogated those claims using stats and game tape, doing my best to sort out what went wrong for Hughes and whether there was cause for legitimate concern. The player that I saw, in the data and on the ice, was certainly flawed and lagged behind his peers in many important categories; however, there were important elements of his game that were not only strong but top-level. Overall, I concluded that…
Devils fans should not be overly concerned about Hughes’ rookie season for two reasons. First of all, his counting stats were almost certainly extremely deflated by plain old bad puck luck, and even if he somehow didn’t improve his actual game at all next season he would almost certainly score more points. Secondly, the skills he needs to develop are some of the easiest things for a player to work on - he needs to be stronger, his shot needs to be a lot better, and he has to get used to playing against NHL defenders. The stuff that can’t be taught is the stuff Hughes can already do.
Sure enough, Hughes entered his sophomore season stronger, more confident, and ready for a much larger role. His time on ice per game leapt to 19 minutes per game, establishing him as the New Jersey Devils’ top centre, and he has responded to the unwavering trust of head coach Lindy Ruff by making huge strides at both ends of the ice. In the eyes of anybody who watches him play, Jack Hughes has arrived, even if the point totals aren’t there yet.
So what kind of player has Hughes developed into in his second year of professional hockey, how have his underlying results changed, and what are the changes in his game that are driving them? To break it down, I’ll use game tape from InStat and stats from Corey Sznajder’s All Three Zones project, TopDownHockey, EvolvingHockey, and NaturalStatTrick.
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