When Jack Hughes was injured just four periods into the season, many people were unsure if the Devils would remain competitive. Now as Hughes prepares to return, the Devils are in the thick of a playoff race.
This quote gives me a strong feeling that Jack Hughes could be back in the Devils lineup as early as Tuesday and almost certainly by Thursday. This possibility is highly exciting as Jack Hughes is still the Devils most talented and dynamic forward. In his absence, the Devils have managed to stay relevant in the Eastern Conference playoff race, earning 57.9% of the points available to them. This puts the Devils on pace for 95 points, which in almost any 82 game season, would put them right around the two wild card spots. Either just barely in or just barely out. That’s a marked improvement from the Devils of recent years where they have been out of realistic playoff contention inside of the season’s first month. Currently, New Jersey sits just two points behind Pittsburgh for the last wild card spot but have played two fewer games than the Penguins. The Devils currently have the 9th highest point percentage in the Eastern Conference. Seeing as only 8 teams makes the playoffs from each conference, the Devils are currently sitting just outside the playoff picture.
How have the Devils been able to survive without Jack in the lineup? In short, some players have stepped up in Jack’s absence and others have been earning their contracts. The players who have stepped up are having career years or exploding onto the NHL scene for the first time. Jesper Bratt, Andreas Johnsson, and Pavel Zacha are off to the best offensive starts of their careers and helping to lead the Devils offensive attack. Johnsson and Bratt are tied for the team with 17 points, Johnsson leads the team with 9 goals and Zacha is second with 8. Meanwhile, Dawson Mercer is turning a lot of heads so far, with 14 points (6G 8A) in the first 19 games of his NHL career. All the while, Dougie Hamilton is proving to be worth every penny of the 9 million dollars the Devils are paying him this season. With 12 points, Dougie leads Devils defensemen in scoring. He also leads all Devils players with 61 shots on goal, and average time on ice with over 22 minutes per game. In the advanced stats department, Hamilton leads all Devils skaters who have played more than 2 games with a Corsi for percentage of 57%. This means than 57% of the time that Hamilton is on the ice, the Devils are attacking the other goal rather than defending their own. Puck possession is a massive part of the NHL today and when Hamilton is on the ice, more often than not, the Devils are controlling the puck. The Devils last game against the Flyers was a perfect example of how Hamilton can control a game. He had 10 shots on goal as well as a goal and an assist.
Not only did that game show the importance of Hamilton and all the ways that he has stepped up, we also got to see Andreas Johnsson and Jesper Bratt show their offensive abilities. Johnsson had two goals and two assists while Bratt had one goal and two assists. Johnsson and Bratt, neither of whom have ever scored more than 43 and 35 points respectively in an NHL season, are both on pace to shatter their previous career high in points. They, along with their center Dawson Mercer, have been absolutely electric every time they step on the ice. The three line mates are currently the top three scorers on the team. In the game Sunday night against the Flyers, they showed why that is the case.
That line of Johnsson, Mercer and Bratt has been the Devils best line all year and I see no reason to break them up when Jack Hughes returns in the near future. Having the teams most talented offensive player on a line without any of the teams top three point producers will force teams to focus on the Hughes line or the Johnsson, Mercer, Bratt line. As a result of the teams best defenders going against one line and not the other, hopefully that will create more room for either Hughes or the Devils top three scorers, and lead to more goals for the Devils. Adding an offensive threat like Hughes makes the Devils into a truly dangerous team in the Eastern Conference. They are already solidly above NHL .500, but Hughes rejoining the lineup can turn the Devils from a bubble team into a legitimate playoff contender.
Get excited Devils fans. He is coming back. The Devils are coming for the playoffs. Let’s go Devils!
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All stats for this article from hockeydb.com and hockey-reference.com