If it were not for Jack Hughes, the New Jersey Devils might be in a deeper hole than they’re currently in. New Jersey is off to a 3-2-1 start to the season that’s surely on the back of Hughes’ league-leading 17 points in six games this season. His 99-point season in 2022-23 and current hot start has some naming him an early MVP candidate. Thus, it’s beckoned the question. Is Hughes the No.1 current U.S.-born player in today’s NHL?
One anonymous NHL player via The Athletic isn’t quite sure yet, however:
“I don’t know yet. He’s obviously a skilled player. Shifty. I don’t know if I have him there yet. But he’s obviously good … I would take (Mikko) Rantanen over Hughes. I would put (Jack) Eichel before Hughes too.”
Taking Rantanen out of the conversation, it’s not as easy a debate as it might have been a few years ago. The United States has bred some of the NHL’s best current players. Those names outside of Hughes include Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Jason Robertson, and Matthew Tkachuk, to name a few.
Matthews is likely the bunches’ best pure goal scorer. Robertson is in that conversation, but Matthews has a 60-goal season under his belt. However, Eichel and Tkachuk bring different elements, giving their respective clubs a little bit of everything. For the Devils, Hughes is obviously the team’s best play driver and distributor, yet he’ll also score 40 goals like he did last season. He’s developing into the kind of player that teams turn to “in case of emergency.” Need to push the puck up ice? Throw Hughes on the ice. Need a goal? Put Hughes on the ice. Need to swing momentum? Put Hughes on the ice.
There are only a few players in the NHL who have earned that kind of respect. After Connor McDavid, it’s a short list that Hughes is on. He’s a gamebreaker who seemingly has an unlimited arsenal of ways to create scoring chances.
This conversation also includes defensemen and goaltenders. On the blue line, that includes Adam Fox, Charlie McAvoy, and Jack’s brother, Quinn Hughes. In net, Jake Oettinger and Connor Hellebuyck come to mind. Surely, if there was a draft, Hughes would be selected before any of the aforementioned names.
“If I’m doing a draft, and it’s only American players, (J. Hughes) is going No.1 overall,” former NHLer John Scott said on a recent episode of Droppin’ the Gloves.
In 2022-23, Hughes finished third in the scoring race. His 99 points sat behind Robertson’s and Tkachuk’s 109-point seasons. So far this season, Tkachuk’s six points and Robertson’s four added to their 2022-23 totals put them at 115 and 113 points respectively. For Hughes, he’s sitting at 116 points. Therefore, dating back to last season, Hughes has accrued the most points among U.S.-born players.
As far as what determines the best player, points aren’t the only measuring stick. However, it’s certainly a strong argument.
As Scott said, if there was a draft of U.S.-born players only, he’d select Hughes first overall. It wouldn’t be the first time for the former 2019 No.1 overall pick. However, there are a couple of reasons for that. First, at the ripe age of 22 years old, Hughes hasn’t even hit his peak yet. Second, as a center, he’s the perfect player to center a franchise around. Third, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where at the end of all the current U.S. elite’s careers, Hughes stands out as the best of the bunch.
Devils newcomer Tyler Toffoli certainly understands the argument. The veteran sniper is currently a beneficiary of Hughes’ wizardry. Over the last three games, Toffoli has netted six goals, all of which Hughes assisted on. Although they’re non-U.S.-born Toffoli has played with the likes of Anze Kopitar, Elias Pettersson, and Marion Gaborik. He even played with Quinn during his time with the Vancouver Canucks. Still, none have been as impressive to Toffoli as Jack has been.
“Obviously, you saw the stuff he’s doing out there,” Toffoli explained. “He’s been doing it for a few years now. He’s definitely one of the most skilled, if not, the most skilled guy I’ve ever played with. I’d like to say I played with some pretty good players throughout my career. No offense to them. Some of the stuff he does on the ice is impressive. The way he competes and demands the puck, it’s pretty special.”
Thus, Hughes very well may be the No.1 current U.S.-born player in today’s game. He’s the closest U.S. version to Canada’s McDavid who is widely considered the best player in the NHL. At this rate, we might not be far off from debating how close Hughes is to McDavid, too.