Whether it involves New Jersey rookie center Jack Hughes or any other prospect, Devils general manager Ray Shero says the most important aspects of a prospect’s development must be in place before first stepping into the locker room.
Simply put, the key is culture, and how it rubs off on an impressionable 18-year-old.
”If you have a bad group of guys, if you’re not in a good environment in terms of work ethic, you’re like, ‘OK, that’s how it’s done here, great. I’m not going to work, I’m going to stay out ’til 4 o’clock,”’ Shero told The Associated Press.
”If there’s accountability, and that’s really a big thing in terms with anything whether it’s business, sports, whatever … when you walk into that it’s ‘Oh, that’s how it’s done,”’ he added. ”There’s learning curves for everything on and off the ice. I think the better you support those guys as young kids and teenagers, the better off they’re going to be.”
The start of the NHL season this week places the focus on a new crop of youngsters set to make their debuts.
In New Jersey, all eyes are on Hughes, the under-sized, play-making center who became the eighth American-born player selected with the top pick in June. He joins a team that features two other No. 1 draft picks in Taylor Hall, who was selected first by Edmonton in the 2010 draft, and Nico Hischier, selected No. 1 by the Devils in 2017.
Nothing Hughes has done thus far should give Shero pause as the Devils prepare to open their season hosting Winnipeg on Friday.
The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Hughes displayed how much of a competitor he is in expressing how unhappy he was losing in his first NHL competitive setting – a 6-4 loss to Buffalo in in the Sabres prospects tournament last month.
”We kind of got lucky to put four on the board, and only gave up six. Disappointing game,” Hughes said.
The youngster responded once the preseason began by scoring twice, including the decisive goal, on a give-and-go with Nikita Gusev in a 4-3 overtime win in his preseason debut against Boston.
Devils defenseman P.K. Subban was so impressed, he referred to Hughes’ performance as ”nasty.”
And the player who spent the past two years setting USA Hockey’s National Development Program’s scoring record followed up by scoring a breakaway goal 34 seconds into a 4-2 win over the Rangers a few days later. Hughes finished the preseason with three goals and an assist in four games.
Coming from a hockey family in which his brother Quinn is a defenseman in Vancouver and father Jim a former coach, Jack Hughes understands he has not accomplished anything just yet. And he got a taste of what playing in the NHL would be like representing the United States at the world hockey championships in May.
”I went into this summer knowing I needed a lot of work to be done. I kind of figured it out that it wasn’t the USHL,” he said. ”It was kind of wakeup call to work on my game and get a lot better.”
The Devils are encouraging Hughes’ development by assigning him a locker next to Hall.
Hall sees his role as being someone Hughes can use as a sounding board
”He’s taking in a lot of information every day, so helping him with that. It’s more leading by example,” Hall said. ”I think it’s up to us as players as coaches as management to shelter him as much as possible to make sure all his energy is going toward hockey.”
Like any youngster, Hughes is bound to make mistakes. One issue that stood out in Buffalo was the number of times he coughed up the puck.
Former NHLer turned broadcaster Ed Olczyk isn’t concerned, believing Hughes will learn to adapt.
”He’s going to try things that he won’t in 50 games game from now or 100 games from now. You’ve going to have to take the good with the bad and vice versa,” he said.
Devils assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald said Hughes’ turnovers are no different than what he saw during his time in Pittsburgh with then-youngsters Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
”I just think you allow the player to be who they are, and that’s what he is,” Fitzgerald said. ”Jack’s a magician with the puck.”
Here’s a list of other youngster to keep an eye on this season:
D Cale Makar, COLORADO
After helping UMass make its first Frozen Four appearance in April, college hockey’s Hobey Baker Award-winner made the jump to the NHL by joining Colorado in the midst of its first-round playoff series with Calgary. He became the first defenseman to score a playoff goal in his NHL debut and finished with a goal and five assists in 10 games.
D Quinn Hughes, VANCOUVER
A play-making defenseman, Hughes spent two years at Michigan before closing last season with three assists in five games with the Canucks.
RW Kaapo Kakko, NEW YORK RANGERS
Selected second overall behind Jack Hughes, the 6-foot-2, 194-pound forward led Finland with six goals in 10 games at the world championships. His 22 goals in the Finnish Elite League last season were the most by a draft-eligible player.
LW ALEXANDRE TEXIER, COLUMBUS
The 20-year-old is being counted upon to be part of the Blue Jackets’ young core to step up following the offseason free-agency departures of Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene. Texier had two goals and an assist in eight playoff games with Columbus last spring.
D Erik Brannstrom, OTTAWA
Acquired in a trade that sent Mark Stone to Vegas in February, Brannstrom is expected to get plenty of playing time on a young Senators team.
F Victor Olofsson, BUFFALO
Nicknamed Victor ”Goal-ofsson” for his deft shooting ability, he had two goals and two assists in six games with the Sabres last year, and had a team-leading 30 goals in 65 games with AHL Rochester. A seventh-round pick, the 24-year-old rookie was a late-bloomer after playing five seasons in his native Sweden.