New Jersey Devils: Expect to see the real Jack Hughes in 2020-21

Jack Hughes is primed for a significant breakout year for the New Jersey Devils.

With high hopes come lofty expectations and no-one can attest to that more than New Jersey Devils phenom Jack Hughes, who had to get used to life in the fast lane pretty quickly during his rookie year in 2019-20.

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, Hughes was rapidly anointed the official savior of the Devils and was projected to take the National Hockey League by storm from the very get-go.

However, as was the case with New York Rangers forward Kaapo Kakko, who was the No. 2 overall pick in the same Draft class, Hughes needed some time to adjust to the best and most competitive league in sport.

Yes, 21 points (7 G, 14 A) in 61 games with a plus/minus rating of -26 can be viewed as a major disappointment but, as is the case with most things in life, it is important to add some context and not just look at things through a prism.

After all, Hughes was a mere boy at just 18-years-old for much of his rookie season and, at 5-foot-10 and 168 pounds, he was playing in a body that wasn’t conducive or used to playing against fully grown men who are fighting for their proverbial lives on a nightly basis.

As such, it shouldn’t have come as a huge shock to anyone that the uber-talented center went through some growing pains during his first taste of the NHL, and it is simply ridiculous to attempt to rewrite history and suggest that the prospect isn’t what we thought he was based on one season.

Just stop, please.

Instead, let’s focus on the positives and the fact that a turbulent first go at the big leagues will probably only benefit Hughes in the long-term and make him both a better person and a more-rounded player for the experience.

In the words of the one and only Coach Eric Taylor: “Every man, at some point in his life, is gonna lose a battle. He’s gonna fight, and he’s gonna lose. But what makes him a man is that, in the midst of that battle, he does not lose himself.”

If I was Jack Hughes – if only (I can dream, okay) – then I would print out the most iconic speech in all of TV history and read it to myself before bed every single night to get myself ready and in the zone for a huge sophomore season.

After all, that absolutely breathtaking and make-you-want-to-run-20-miles kind of inspiring speech sparked the Dillon Panthers into life and served as the catalyst to overcome a 26-0 deficit at the half and beat the West Cambria Mustangs in the Texas State Championship Game, led by the ultimate villain in Ray “Voodoo” Tatum, 27-26 and cap off a thrilling comeback led by the much-loved underdog in quarterback Matt Saracen.

While Jack Hughes has certainly garnered a lot more respect than Saracen ever did in his career, the New Jersey Devils forward will have a point to prove in 2020-21 and he needs to use his tough introduction to life in the National Hockey League as motivation and fuel to spearhead a true breaking out party next season.

Because, let’s face it, the 19-year-old is one hell of a talent and he could be one of the best players America has produced in quite some time, and that is saying something.

While the overall body of work in 2019-20 left something to be desired, there were flashes of brilliance and little signs of the kind of talent that the Devils hope will propel them back to the glory years at some point.

And, in an incredibly positive sign, pictures have emerged of Hughes on social media throughout the offseason that suggests the forward is already well on his way to becoming bigger, better and stronger in a quite literal sense.

It is fair to say that Hughes is looking rather large in a good way and it is clear that he beefed up during the offseason, which should make his life a lot easier when it comes to dealing with the physical nature of the NHL.

As a result, if Hughes can compete better physically in 2020-21 then that should pave the way for the rest of his game to be unlocked and for him to show the rest of the league what he’s really made of.

Jack Hughes #86

Jack Hughes #86 of the New Jersey Devils. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Not only will extra upper-body and lower-body muscle help Hughes to really maximise his offensive talents, but the added strength will also pay dividends when it comes to puck battles in the dirty areas and in the corners, in addition to in the faceoff circle where he had a winning percentage of just 36.1 percent in 2019-20.

Having an experienced Head Coach in Lindy Ruff could help Hughes’ development too, and it is important to remember that the 19-year-old had to deal with constant upheaval within the franchise in 2019-20, coupled with some bad linemates, incredibly bad luck and a roster that just wasn’t good enough.

Following the appointment of Ruff and the promotion of Tom Fitzgerald to General Manager, coupled with some notable offseason additions, the Devils should be a more competitive team in 2020-21 and that should only benefit Hughes in a big way.

Plus, another caveat to consider is the fact that Hughes is hardly alone when it comes to having a tough rookie year after arriving in the league with much fanfare and hype. I mean, just look at Joe Thornton who put up just seven points (3 G, 4 A) in games during his rookie year with the Boston Bruins in 1997-98, and his career turned out okay to say the least.

Overall, the verdict that Jack Hughes’ rookie year was a complete bust is nothing more than a myth, but that tough first introduction to the NHL and the lessons learned from it should only provide a springboard for the elite talent to really explode and put the league on high alert in 2020-21.