Jack Hughes and the Devils have officially arrived

Devil superstar Jack Hughes is blossoming before our very eyes.  (Getty)
Devil superstar Jack Hughes is blossoming before our very eyes. (Getty)

Jack Hughes is arguably the coolest player in the world and the New Jersey Devils send opponents to hell during their 10-game winning streak, so you can forgive the 21-year-old star if he has no patience for preconceptions about his team.

Hughes, the first overall pick in 2019, is playing with a searing focus and he’s not waiting for the rest of the league to catch on. When asked what the Devils could do to stay consistent ahead of Tuesday’s 5-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens, Hughes balked at the idea that the Devils’ current form was an anomaly.

“I mean, we’re on a heated nine-game run, I’d say we’re doing well,” said Hughes.

Hughes’ outrage is more than justified. New Jersey leads the NHL in expected goal percentage (62.3) and 5v5 scoring opportunities (478), and is third in risky chances (197) and scoring opportunities against (289) at 5v5, via Natural Stat Trick. Hughes ranks sixth in individual projected goals for 5-on-5, while teammates Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier are ninth and tenth respectively in points of equal strength. And if you ignore his disdain for trivial interviews, Hughes is the likely Lady Byng Trophy leader with only one penalty against him so far.

You don’t need the charts to witness the scope of the Devils’ domination. We examined the contributions of Hughes, Bratt and John Marino on November 4, when the Devils’ winning streak reached five games. All three players, most notably Hughes and Marino, have continued to bolster their game over the past two weeks – the former making a hefty score while the latter is currently a bona fide Norris Trophy contender.

Hughes is a phenomenal skater and the speed of the New Jersey team has been a point of attention for opponents who have trampled on the Devils’ relentless pace. He’s been one of the best players in the NHL at 5-on-5, but he’s also getting more powerful in the man advantage. Hughes, perhaps fueled by the media’s perceived disrespect, planned to embarrass the Canadiens on Tuesday.

On his first goal, he takes a pass from Dougie Hamilton, and as two Canadiens defenders crash into the firing range, teammate Nathan Bastian sets up a perfect display and Hughes blasts it into the top corner. Hughes already plays at an almost unparalleled pace and if he shoots with this level of precision he will ascend to an unstoppable weapon.

Here’s another quick example: Hughes comes flying into the strike zone at full speed, the Arizona Coyotes pull back, and the 21-year-old makes the most of a clean firing range and picks the top corner again. You can’t make it accelerate or it will become a problem.

Hughes, along with Anaheim’s Trevor Zegras, also tops the NHL in the most important (and definitely real) fancy stat of them all: cool games per 60. On his second goal against the Canadiens, Hughes flies into the offensive zone, circles the net and jumps when Jake Allen doesn’t know what to do with the puck. Canadiens defenseman Jake Harris loses the puck in his skates, tries to dig it out, but Hughes and linemate Dawson Mercer have already dove in. In one move, Hughes blasts the puck past Allen for his second goal of the night. There is no margin of error compared to the Devils’ team speed.

New Jersey’s turbo pace is one of its defining elements and bodes well for future success.

Playing in a super-fast gear that the rest of the NHL couldn’t match, the reigning champion Colorado Avalanche emerged victorious despite being gambled averagely by the league for the rest of the year. It’s not just Hughes blowing opponents away in the speed department either. For example, Miles Wood is one of the fastest skaters in the NHL and lives on New Jersey’s nominal fourth line.

Hughes is making headlines, and Bratt is shaping up to be one of the breakaway players of the year, but there were several components to the Devils’ early season hit. Captain Nico Hischier has had the best start of his career and is currently Patrice Bergeron’s leading competitor for the Selke Trophy. Hischier has been on the ice for 15 goals with only four conceding at 5-on-5, as he accounted for an unreal 65.35 expected goals. Nice, pretty good. Hischier also punishes opponents in transition and he is an elite player at turning their mistakes into immediate offensive production.

And let’s not forget the less flashy but equally important parts of this team. Dougie Hamilton is once again one of the NHL’s best blueliners and he is absolutely deadly in transition, while John Marino makes a strong case to be considered one of the best defensive backs in the league. Marino jumps laps with ease, he’s been a monster at penalty kills, he can play physically without sacrificing positioning and has easily been the offseason move of the year so far. Dimitri Filipovic of the PDO Cast put together a mixtape of Marino’s best plays and he was instrumental in New Jersey’s jump-start.

The Devils were also surprisingly solid between the pipes. Vitek Vanecek performed well above internal expectations for the Devils, and a recipe for continued success this year is already in the making. If the NHL is a copycat league, it seems the Devils have learned the right lessons. New Jersey also has enough cap flexibility to trade for a bona fide starter by the deadline if they don’t impress enough with Vanecek and the injured Mackenzie Blackwood upon their return.

Hughes makes hockey look more fun than any player in the NHL, his running mate Hischier is arguably the best two-way forward in the league, Bratt’s speed and pace are a perfect fit for a team just skating away from opponents, while Hamilton and Marino both plead strong for the Norris Trophy. It’s all fun and games from afar, but the Devils have sent their opponents straight to hell, one after the other.

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