Jack Hughes was the 57th player in NHL history to be selected first overall in his draft year. Many of them made an immediate impact on their teams. Some, like Jack Hughes, did not.
Hughes lugged the baggage of expectations into his rookie season and was crushed under the weight of them. He had seven goals, 14 assists and skated to a minus-26 in his 61 games played in the 2019-20 season. It was the lowest points-per-game average for a first overall pick in more than 20 years.
“He felt like everyone was just looking at him and waiting for him to do everything. He had a hard time getting going,” Martin Brodeur, the Devils executive VP of hockey operations, told ESPN.
In fairness to Hughes, his rookie season was, to put it kindly, tumultuous. His first coach, John Hynes, was fired two months into the season. The general manager who drafted him, Ray Shero, was fired a month after that. In between, the team’s star player Taylor Hall was traded to the Arizona Coyotes before he could walk away as a free agent. The Devils finished the truncated season with 68 points; despite the NHL expanding the postseason to 24 teams in its summer bubble restart, New Jersey’s season was over on March 12.
It was a lot for any player to handle, let alone an 18-year-old rookie.
“And he was definitely a young 18,” said Brodeur with a laugh.
In a forgettable rookie season for a first-year player with such heavy hype, Hughes felt a lot of emotions. But embarrassment wasn’t one of them.
“If someone five years ago told me that I could play in the NHL by the time I was 18, that’s pretty damn good, you know? I was proud to be the youngest guy in the NHL. It was a huge honor,” he told ESPN. “Last year didn’t go the way I wanted it, but if you asked me if I could have done that or go to school or done something else, I would have picked that 100 times over.
“Look, you come into the league, you’re expected to perform. It obviously was good motivation for me to work on my game and become a different player.”
It’s undeniable that at the start of his second season, Jack Hughes looks like a different player.