NEWARK, N.J. — Hours before the Devils and Rangers would renew their rivalry, Jack Hughes is stuck. New Jersey’s young center is locked behind a solid steel door leading back into the locker room without the correct keypad combination. He lays a hand on a broadcaster’s shoulder—part of the fleet of national media in attendance for the first meeting between Hughes and Kaapo Kakko—and makes conversation for a couple minutes before the door finally opens.
Through his first six games, Hughes hadn’t cracked the scoresheet. He hadn’t gone pointless in three consecutive games in his USNTDP career, ever, and Hughes obliterated Clayton Keller’s program record with 228 career points in 110 games. The wait wouldn’t last long: Hughes finally registered his first career assist in the Devils’ 5–2 win over the Rangers, deflecting a Matt Tennyson slap shot off Miles Wood’s butt and into the net.
Not quite what kids practice in the driveway growing up.
“It’s really nice to get on the board, [I’m] more at ease in my head now,” Hughes said after the game. Fans, the ones who weren’t wearing blue, cheered when the Prudential Center later credited Hughes with the assist. “I think they’re big fans of me. Hopefully I can score a little bit more for them in the future.”
There’s one word that doesn’t suit the Hudson River Rivalry well: patience. Hughes wasn’t alone in his struggles to produce as the No. 1 overall pick. Stamkos took eight games to score his first goal, and teammate Taylor Hall had one through his first seven games before tallying four points in his next two. Perennial All-Stars Rick Nash and Joe Thornton took some time to get going, too. Kakko—who, if you didn’t know, was taken second after Hughes—hasn’t lit the Calder race on fire, and there’s at least a few more years’ worth of Rangers-Devils scraps before the two 18-year-olds can answer who was deserving of the first pick.
“When [Hughes] gets his 1500th point, I hope he remembers we got him the puck for his first one,” P.K. Subban, who was sure to grab the puck from Wood’s goal, said after the game. “He’s going to get a ton of points in this league and he’s going to do extremely well. He’s 18 years old. It’s hard to believe. He’s going to be just fine.”
The growing pains aren’t over, and that’s not limited to the two rookies. The Rangers, who are in Year 2 of an accelerated rebuild, have to figure out how to not surrender the most shots per 60 minutes in the NHL. Mika Zibanejad had exploded for eight points in his first three games and Artemi Panarin is as talented as every cent of his $81.5 million contract, but depth has to come from somewhere. Lias Andersson, New York’s 2017 seventh-overall pick, has disappeared on the fourth line. Blue chip prospects Filip Chytil and Vitali Kravstov are lying dormant in the AHL, and the latter has been rumored to be considering a return to Russia.
The Devils aren’t in the clear either. After possessing one of the league’s worst special teams units on both ends, their penalty kill locked down the Rangers and the power play notched its first goal. Subban hadn’t looked like a dominant offensive force and struggled defensively against the Panthers on Monday, but he rebounded with a career-high nine shots and added his first goal of the season on an empty netter. One win bought coach John Hynes some breathing room but it doesn’t solve a shaky situation in net—despite Mackenzie Blackwood’s play tonight—and Hall’s contract renegotiations loom over any potential losing skid.
But, let the rivalry breathe. The Devils’ hyped offseason acquisitions (n, Nikita Gusev, Wayne Simmonds and Hughes) notched three points while the Rangers cadre of additions (Panarin, Jacob Trouba and Kakko) finished with zero points and a -3 rating. Hughes outperformed Kakko. Blackwood outshined Alexander Georgiev. Zibanejad and Hall took turns bulldozing defensemen in the offensive zone. The scrappy, malcontent play characteristic of the cross-Hudson battles never left, manifesting in the form of 34 penalty minutes.
“We needed that [win] to get our confidence back and some swagger back,” Hughes said after the game. “Especially coming against the Rangers, it’s really good timing.”
The on-ice rivalry hasn’t boiled to Sean Avery–Martin Brodeur levels of hatred yet. No one from the Devils has turned coat a la Scott Gomez. They haven’t met in the playoffs in over seven seasons, let alone approach anything to the stakes of two Stanley Cup–starved franchises in the mid-90s. Give it time. The seeds are there for another era of raucous matchups across the Hudson but it might not happen right here, right now.
“It’s a really, really special rivalry to play in,” Hughes said after the game. “The two teams are pretty similar. It will be a pretty good rivalry for the next couple years.”
As for Hughes and Kakko? They’re going to be alright, and they might have more than one point each by the time Round 2 returns to the Prudential Center on Nov. 30.