It's starting to look like Jack Hughes got the jinx out of the way in Year 1.
The second-year hex is a widely known — if not entirely scientific — sports trope whereby players coming off strong rookie seasons find out just how difficult it can be to maintain dominance at the highest level. In Hughes’ case, his freshman campaign was a rough one, mirroring the miserable year the New Jersey Devils had from start to finish in 2019-20.
But here comes the sophomore surge.
Hughes’ top-shelf snipe on Sunday night opened the scoring in the Devils’ 2-0 win over the New York Islanders.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) January 25, 2021
The first overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft now has three goals and seven points on the season. With five games in the books, Hughes is nearly halfway to his 61-game goal total of seven from last year.
The East Division just got a little tougher.
The middle Flying Hughes Brother — Quinn is already dazzling in Vancouver, Luke will be a first-rounder whenever we next have a draft — was always going to find his footing in the NHL; his silly amount of talent ensured that. But the way he’s stepped up in the absence of the 2017 draft headliner — Nico Hischier, out with a leg injury — has been something to behold.
Hughes has played 66 NHL games in his young career and he’s already on this third bench boss. That tells you how bad last year was in Jersey, when both coach John Hynes and GM Ray Shero were shown the door in-season. Alain Nasreddine took the reins temporarily, but veteran bench pilot Lindy Ruff is at the helm now and the Devils are responding.
Beyond playing without Hischier, Jersey also had to deal with the sudden retirement of free-agent signing Corey Crawford just before the start of the year. No worries, as the duo of Scott Wedgewood and Mackenzie Blackwood — the Timber Tandem? — have combined to post a .944 save percentage thus far. (Blackwood is currently on the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol list). A reconstructed back end now features an all-new left side of Ryan Murray, Dmitry Kulikov and freshman Ty Smith, who’s carried over his prodigious Western Hockey League numbers by netting six points in seven contests.
If that isn’t enough good news, you have to know Devils fans are delighted to see their much-hyped rival, the New York Rangers, stumble out of the gate.
Surely there will be tough stretches ahead for Jersey, especially as it navigates the treacherous East grouping. But with Hughes leading the way, you get the sense some of the kinks have already been worked out for this emerging club.
• There’s not much better than an in-season blockbuster and the Saturday-morning trade that saw Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic move from the Winnipeg Jets to the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Pierre-Luc Dubois and a third-rounder certainly qualifies as that. Barrels of ink were immediately spilled over the swap and one take that jumped out of the gym at me came from Sportsnet’s own Luke Fox: This is about as close to an NBA-style transaction as you'll see, as three young talents — without the leverage of no-trade clauses or impending UFA status — all managed to force their way out of situation they weren't happy with.
I’m not going to say muscling your way out of town is about to become an NHL trend, but there’s no question — across sports — players expect more and more say in how they’re coached, how they’re talked about (thanks to the direct access to fans provided by social media) and you can bet where they play is another thing that belongs on that list.
• Something about the Blue Jackets downing the Tampa Bay Lighting 5-2 on Saturday in the first game of the post-Dubois era feels appropriate. There’s not a drop of self-pity in this organization.
• Edmonton Oilers fans had to be jumping up and down after Leon Draisaitl’s buzzer-beater capped a crazy 4-3 win over the Jets Sunday night. At some point, I’d bet pure elation gave way to intrigue as Edmontonians contemplated the fact Jesse Puljujarvi registered an assist during a strong showing on the top line with Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Hearing Draisaitl say “the sky is the limit” for the big Finn after the contest also marked an encouraging point on the long, winding journey the Oilers have been on with the fourth overall pick from 2016.
• What an opening weekend for the Dallas Stars. A COVID-19 outbreak meant the defending Western Conference champs didn’t start their season until a week later than most of the teams in the league. Dallas, of course, also kicked off its campaign with top-line centre Tyler Seguin and goalie Ben Bishop on the shelf for the foreseeable future. Cue Captain America, Joe Pavelski. The 36-year-old went 2-2-4 in Dallas’s 7-0 smashing of Nashville on Friday night, then netted another goal — the game-winner — and two more assists in a 3-2 victory over the Preds on Sunday.
Last year, Pavelski scored 14 goals in the regular season, then showed everyone how much he had left in the tank with 13 in 27 playoff games. The Stars have a real mix of young and veteran players — and the most accomplished guy on the squad is leading them out of the gate.
• George Armstrong wasn’t just the captain of the last Toronto Maple Leafs team to win the Stanley Cup, he is also Toronto’s all-time leader in both regular season (1,188) and playoff (110) games played. Rest in Peace, sir. You earned it.
The Week Ahead
• Alex Pietrangelo leaving the only NHL team he’s known to sign with the Vegas Golden Knights was the biggest transaction of the off-season. On Tuesday, the former Blues captain will see all his old friends when St. Louis invades Vegas. (The Blues are sticking around for another game on Thursday, too).
• It looks as though Roslovic — the Ohio kid — could suit up for the Blue Jackets on Tuesday when the Florida Panthers visit Columbus.
• The 4-0-2 Montreal Canadiens, after six straight on the road, will play their home-opener Thursday night when the Calgary Flames come to town.