NEWARK, N.J. — If you saw what Daniel Jones did for the New York Giants, you have an idea what Jack Hughes might be able to do for the New Jersey Devils.
The No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft, Hughes has been nothing short of sensational in training camp and the preseason. The 18-year-old center has scored, set up goals and played two-way hockey. He has shown signs of being a dynamic young star forward, which the organization has lacked since moving to New Jersey in the early 1980s.
The addition of Hughes and general manager Ray Shero’s offseason moves to acquire defenseman P.K. Subban from Nashville and forward Nikita Gusev from Vegas and to sign veteran forward Wayne Simmonds to a one-year contract as an unrestricted free agent gives the Devils depth throughout the roster.
Don’t forget, center Nico Hischier is entering his third season after being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft. Taylor Hall is returning after being limited by a knee injury that required surgery. Kyle Palmieri has been a solid goal scorer and there are a lot of young enthusiastic players who want to go out and play coach John Hynes’ in-your-face style of hockey.
The Devils used to be an organization that rode its defense and goaltending. Last season, they scored 222 goals and gave up 275, a differential of minus-53. They finished with 72 points. Only Los Angeles (71) and Ottawa (64) had fewer.
That has to change if they are going to move forward this season.
And just in case you missed it, Jones, the sixth pick overall in the NFL draft, replaced Eli Manning as the Giants’ starting quarterback and revived hope for the season by throwing two touchdowns and running for two others in a 33-32 victory over Tampa Bay on Sunday. It was the type of spark the Devils hopes Hughes will deliver.
Five things to watch this season as the Devils try to get back to the playoffs:
Hall won the NHL MVP in 2017 with 39 goals and 54 assists and single-handedly got New Jersey into the playoffs for the first time since the 2012 Stanley Cup Final. Hall is coming off an injury-plagued season. He appeared in 33 games and had 11 goals and 26 assists, playing his final contest days before Christmas. The left wing had surgery on his left knee in February and is looking forward to better things.
Hughes isn’t the only new face in town. Subban was acquired on the draft weekend in a major deal with Nashville. Simmonds is a tough guy who plays in close on the power play. Gusev spent the last seven seasons in the KHL, collecting 119 goals and 213 assists.
The Devils emptied the roster at the trade deadline a year ago, dealing C Brian Boyle, D Ben Lovejoy, F Marcus Johansson and G Keith Kinkaid to playoff contenders. After the season, forwards Kenny Agostino and Stefan Noesen were not re-signed and D Steven Santini was part of the deal for Subban, who had a career-low 31 points in 63 games. F John Quenneville was traded to Chicago for F John Hayden.
KEY PLAYERS: Hall tops the list, especially with his contract expiring. Shero would like to get the 27-year-old former No. 1 overall pick signed, but his health is a concern. Hughes has tons of talent but is going to be a marked man in the NHL. He is just 18 and will be hit. Hischier might be the surprise. He seems to be improving. If he hit the nets more, the Devils will be tough. The goaltending looks very good. Corey Schneider is back to his former level of two years ago after hip surgery and Mackenzie Blackwood impressed after coming up from the minors and posting a 6-4-0 record with a 2.37 goals-against average.
OUTLOOK: Since Hynes took over as coach, there has been a pattern of good year, bad year, good year, bad year. This is year five and with the draft and all the moves, the trend clearly indicates good year. The Devils struggled in recent seasons on the power play, scoring on less than 18%. With Hughes, Hall, Hischier, Subban, Palmieri and defensemen Will Butcher and Damon Severson, that should improve. The penalty kill should remain among the best in the league with Travis Zajac, Blake Coleman and Kevin Rooney on the roster.
PREDICTION: After finishing last in the Metropolitan Division (31-41-10) for the second time in three seasons, the Devils have the talent to get back to the postseason. There are question marks, however. The 30-year-old Subban needs to revert to being one of the league’s top defensemen. Hall has to stay healthy. Hughes and Hischier have to deliver and the Devils can’t lose their focus, which they did too many times last season. They should make the playoffs.