Joe Thornton scored seven points in his first NHL season and two decades later, he’s a shoo-in for the Hockey Hall of Fame. Mark Messier scored one goal as a rookie in the World Hockey Association and had to go to another team after the one he was playing for folded. Steven Stamkos had two goals in his first 22 games under Barry Melrose and played his first season for one of the most dysfunctional teams in history.
So, shed no tears for Jack Hughes, who entered the NHL as the No. 1 pick in the draft and has endured a season of ups and mostly downs, including a season-low 7:15 ice time in the Devils' 7-4 shellacking at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday night. Already, he’s gone through one coach and one GM, endured seeing his landlord get sent to the minors and lost a high-profile teammate in Taylor Hall. Then there has been all the losing and the 6-11-17 point totals in 38 games that look rather ordinary.
“I do,” Hughes said when asked whether he puts much stock into his point totals. “I think that’s obviously my game, right? I’m supposed to get points, but I think where my game is at, the points haven’t translated. I’m creating a lot and playing really well. Obviously I’d like to have more points…but at the same time I realize I’m going to have a really long career in this league and I’m going to be a great player. I’m happy to be in the NHL right now.”
There was always going to be a learning curve for Hughes, the first player in history to make the jump directly from the U.S. National Team Development Program to the NHL. Even though it’s becoming more and more a young man’s league, the chasm between the level at which Hughes was playing last season and this season is about as big as it gets. No major junior, no college, no minors. His older brother, Quinn, is a late birthday who had already spent a year at the University of Michigan before he was drafted and, despite entreaties from the Canucks to join them last season, he elected to spend another year at Michigan. Now he’s going to the All-Star Game.
What Hughes is enduring this season actually comes with the territory for a lot of uber-talented 18-year-olds. Part of the deal that goes with being the No. 1 pick is that you’re going to a rebuilding team, something the Devils definitely are. Despite moves made by former GM Ray Shero, the Devils have not lived up to their billing as a contender and find themselves almost starting again from scratch. They’re the youngest team in the league and will likely get younger at the trade deadline when they unload more veterans. Most likely candidates are Kyle Palmieri, Sami Vatanen and, possibly, Wayne Simmonds.
“I think anybody who knows hockey and sees the young talent in this room knows that this team is going to turn around and be a better team in the future,” said Devils defenseman P.K. Subban. “(Hughes) has done everything that has been asked of him. As an 18-year-old to come into this league, it’s a tough league to be in and I think it has been tough situations for everybody, but I think he’s handled it well. I love playing with Jack. I love the energy he brings every day and watching him play the game the way he plays it is fun to know for the future is going to develop into a superstar. There’s no question about that. People that know hockey know.”
Compounding Hughes’ learning curve was the fact that goalie Cory Schneider, who took Hughes in with his family to help ease the transition, was sent to the minors barely a month into the season. Schneider is back now and saw time in the Devils' loss to the Maple Leafs. Hughes moved out of the Schneider home shortly after the goalie was demoted, but Schneider has made a point of staying in touch. “Just checking on him and making sure he’s not burning his apartment down,” Schneider said. “And that he has food in his fridge. My wife is on that. She’s going to send him some food so he has something to eat.”
On a more serious note, Schneider has learned a lot about Hughes and he’s also impressed with the way Hughes has dealt with the tumult. “It’s amazing at 18 how demanding he is of himself,” Schneider said. “When you’re accustomed to scoring three or four points a game your whole life and you come into the best league in the world and it just doesn’t happen that way, he’s realistic and understanding, but it’s a tough adjustment and he’s handled it well. This is my first in-season GM change and I’m 13 years as a pro and he’s dealing with this as an 18-year-old. You wouldn’t know it, though.”
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