NEWARK — Superstars, almost without fail, have lofty standards for themselves. But sometimes Jack Hughes’ bar for when it’s time to break into a grin is a little too high for New Jersey Devils teammate Erik Haula.
“Game days he’s really quiet,” Haula says of the guy he’s played a fair bit beside this year. “He’s in his own bubble. Playing with him quite a few games, it almost pissed me off because he doesn’t give you much until he gets hat trick. Then I might get a smile from him.”
Haula, naturally, had a little smirk himself as he relayed that tid-bit about Hughes. The first-year Devil did stress, though, that it didn’t take long to realize how New Jersey’s most dynamic player carries himself.
“He’s dialled in, he’s focused on his game,” Haula said. “I learned that pretty quick. I can respect that.”
How could anybody not respect what the 21-year-old Hughes has done this year, building on a breakout second half last season to become one of the most feared scoring and playmaking threats in the league?
Hughes sits 12th in NHL scoring with 76 points in 58 outings and when you start going through the names above him, the thought of him breaking into the Hart Trophy conversation isn’t farfetched.
Now, we all know who’s going to win the MVP, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive that Hughes has vaulted himself into the conversation with the other mere mortals like David Pastrnak and Tage Thompson in terms of who else might squeeze into the top 3.
“[Connor] McDavid, I don’t even know if he’s a real human or not,” Haula said. “The season he’s having is unbelievable and we still have 20 games left. [But] good for Jack, I’m really happy for him. I’m sure nobody is really trying to take over McDavid because it’s almost impossible; he’s just that good. If you’re even in that conversation, it’s such a [sign] you’re doing something right and [Hughes is] so young, he’s got such a bright future.”
The guy one slot ahead of Hughes in NHL scoring — Toronto Maple Leaf Mitch Marner — thinks so, too. But Marner also called attention to the past, when skepticism was as much a part of the conversation around Hughes as celebration.
The 2019 first-overall pick had a rough entry into the league, missing 21 games in his rookie season and registering just 21 points. The next season, a 56-game pandemic-shortened affair, wasn’t a whole lot better.
Suddenly it was easy for those who wanted to make the case that a slight kid couldn’t cut it against the NHL big boys. Hughes actually separated his shoulder at the start of last season, but basically from the start of 2022 to now is playing at a 1.32 points-per-game clip, which is better than everybody save six guys in the entire NHL.
“It’s been great the year he’s having and showing a lot of people they [can] shut up,” Marner said ahead of the Leafs’ visit to Jersey Tuesday night.
Asked to describe what makes Hughes so dangerous, it almost sounded like Marner was describing his own offensive game.
“Just his elusiveness,” Marner said. “He’s very good at making people think he’s going one way and switching up at the last second. I know a lot of people did doubt him early, it’s good to see him having the year he is because I think a lot of people did realize he’s just [as talented as anyone] in the league. He’s showing it now.”
Added Haula: “I think he’s a little bit ahead of the game in his mind and he has the skillset — the speed and the tools — to utilize it to perfection.”
That’s certainly been the case of late. Hughes was forced out of four games after the All-Star break with an upper-body injury originally thought to be more of a week-to-week timeline. Still, in a roughly two-month stretch since Jan. 13, Hughes’ 1.59 points per game is better than everybody other than that alien McDavid that Haula referenced earlier.
That’s helped this juggernaut Jersey squad — which has just one regulation-time loss in its past eight outings — score an average of 3.92 goals per game since the calendar flipped to 2023, a number topped only by McDavid’s Oilers. Now Hughes has a new toy on his left side in the form of trade deadline acquisition Timo Meier from San Jose.
“He’s an incredible, skilled player and makes plays all over the ice,” Meier said of his new centre. “Playing with him, lots of fun, he’s got so many tools he can be a game-changer. Definitely been fun so far.”
Nobody would doubt that. But hopefully somebody told Meier that Hughes is enjoying himself, too, even if it might not look like it.