A Devilish Jack Hughes Issue

It hasn’t been a good December for the Devils. On Thursday night, they lost their fourth in a row by a score of 5-3 at The Prudential Center in Newark. Thus far, they’re 1-6-1 for the month. That won’t get it done.

With the team struggling to win games, there has to be more pressure on coach Lindy Ruff. A very experienced bench boss, he’s in his second year with the Devils. They’re the third team he’s coached. Most of his success came with the Sabres where he guided them to to the ’99 Stanley Cup Final and two appearances in the Eastern Conference Final. An impressive resume for sure.

However, time might be running out. Although it’s only Year Two for Ruff, expectations were higher due to key additions Dougie Hamilton, Ryan Graves, Jonathan Bernier and rookie Dawson Mercer. Instead, they wasted a promising 7-3-3 start. Over the last 16 games including last night, they’re 3-10-3. That poor stretch has them seventh in the Metropolitan Division with a 10-13-5 record.

A bigger issue that should concern the Devils’ Red Army is the kind of big hits Jack Hughes takes. In his third season, the 20-year old former 2019 top pick is an elite skater with great skills. The trouble is he hasn’t always been healthy.

After a good start with two goals and an assist in the first two games (both wins), Hughes absorbed a heavy hit from Jeremy Lauzon in that second game against the Kraken. He landed awkwardly into the boards and suffered a dislocated left shoulder. That cost him 17 games.

Hughes returned six weeks later on Nov. 30 versus the Sharks. In nine games since coming back, he has tallied three goals and two assists for five points. That included scoring his fifth goal of the season on Thursday night. He also had a second goal wiped out due to an offside late in regulation.

The problem is he took another big hit a few minutes earlier. While carrying the puck over the Vegas blue line, Hughes got caught with a clean hit from defenseman Zach Whitecloud. While it was a little high, the contact was through the upper chest knocking Hughes down. He was okay.

Once his apparent second goal was reversed with under 20 seconds left, Mason Geertsen was sent out for a face-off. You didn’t need to be an expert to know what would happen. He got into it with both Alex Pietrangelo and Brayden McNabb. Pietrangelo got a few shots in ln Geertsen before Robin Lehner erupted by taking his mask off and looking for any dance partner.

This was the kind of chaos that could’ve been avoided. However, due to Hughes taking a hard hit, the Devils wanted to defend their meal ticket. That’s part of hockey now. Even if a hit is clean, teams will come to the aid of a player and stick up for them. Especially if it’s an established star. Nathan MacKinnon took a heavy hit from Jacob Trouba last week. Gabriel Landeskog immediately challenged him.

With Hughes being so young, the Devils can’t afford to lose him for long stretches. The hit he took from Lauzon wasn’t a penalty either. But Geertsen immediately engaged Lauzon with both squaring off early in the second period. Each received 15 minutes total including fight majors and misconducts.

There’s nothing wrong with teammates having each other’s backs. It shows character. Something former Devil Ken Daneyko loves. You need to have that. Protecting Hughes is understandable. He’s not the biggest guy and already signed a long-term contract extension that’ll pay him an average of $8 million beginning in ’22-23 that won’t conclude until 2030.

Here’s the thing. Hughes must do a better job at recognizing where he is on the ice. As former Devils’ 2003 Stanley Cup hero Mike Rupp put it on NHL Network, the top center has to be more cognizant so he isn’t absorbing such heavy hits frequently. Rupp made a good point about Patrick Kane. Not the biggest in stature either, you never see Kane get caught. He’s very aware on the ice and doesn’t put himself in a vulnerable position.

The Blackhawks star remains one of the game’s most dangerous scorers. Also a former top pick in 2007, he’s gone onto a brilliant career helping the Hawks win three Stanley Cups. With 411 goals and 701 assists for a total of 1,112 points, the 33-year old Kane is a future Hall Of Famer. He’s been able to stay healthy and have a great career.

Hopefully, Hughes can go onto have a great career in New Jersey. However, he needs to do a better job at avoiding these big hits. It’s important for the franchise that he doesn’t put himself at risk. The potential is there. For him to become the player he’s capable of, being able to stay on the ice is crucial.

Of course, he needs more help. It can’t only be Pavel Zacha and Jesper Bratt producing along with Andreas Johnsson. Dawson Mercer is a nice story in his rookie year. But he’s in a slump like the team. The Devils are still waiting on recent first round pick Alex Holtz. He’s developing at Utica in the AHL. He could become the finisher Hughes needs to be more successful.

With eight points (5-3-8) in 11 games, Hughes seems to be on the right track. In the abbreviated ’21 season, he finished with 11 goals and 31 points over 56 games. That was an improvement from his rookie season when he had only 21 points (7-14-21) and finished a minus-26 in 61 games. In that ’19-20 COVID-19 interrupted season, he took a big hit from former Flyer Matt Niskanen.

On the play where he was shoved into the boards, Kyle Palmieri challenged Niskanen and fought him. Another clear example of Hughes taking some punishment in a vulnerable position. But that was Year One. He’s now in his third year. At some point, he must do a better job by avoiding certain areas that can put him at risk.

With still 54 games remaining, it would be nice for the Devils to have Hughes take part in the majority sans the latest COVID outbreak that’s going around due to the new Omicron variant. We’re seeing many players wind up in Protocol. Some games have been postponed including tomorrow’s Bruins/Canadiens tilt. Boston can’t travel due to Covid issues.

That will remain a concern for the NHL along with other major sports getting hit. For the Devils, they need Hughes to avoid injuries and provide fans with a glimpse of what’s to come. Hopefully, he can adjust and stay healthy. The future depends on it.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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