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Jack Hughes and the Devils have officially arrived

Devils superstar Jack Hughes is blossoming before our eyes. (Getty)
Devils superstar Jack Hughes is blossoming before our eyes. (Getty)

Jack Hughes might be the coolest player alive and the New Jersey Devils are sending opponents to hell during their 10-game winning streak, so you can forgive the 21-year-old star if he has no patience for preconceived notions about his squad.

The first overall pick in 2019, Hughes is playing with a searing focus and he’s not waiting for the rest of the league to catch on. Asked about what the Devils could do to remain consistent prior to Tuesday’s 5-1 rout of the Montreal Canadiens, Hughes balked at the idea that the Devils’ current form was an aberration.

"I mean, we’re on a nine-game heater, I’d say we’re doing OK," Hughes said.

Hughes’ indignation is more than warranted. New Jersey leads the NHL in expected goals percentage (62.3) and 5v5 scoring chances (478), and sits third in high-danger chances (197) and scoring chances against (289) at 5v5, via Natural Stat Trick. Hughes ranks sixth in individual expected goals for at 5-on-5, while teammates Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier are ninth and tenth, respectively, in even-strength points. And if you ignore his disdain for trivial interviews, Hughes is the likely Lady Byng Trophy leader with just one penalty called against him so far.

You don’t need the charts to witness the scope of the Devils’ domination. We examined Hughes, Bratt and John Marino’s contributions on Nov. 4 when the Devils’ winning streak reached five games. All three players, particularly Hughes and Marino, have continued to amplify their games over the past two weeks — the former going on a torrential scoring run while the latter is a bonafide Norris Trophy candidate at this juncture.

Hughes is a phenomenal skater and New Jersey’s team speed has been a point of emphasis for opponents, who have been caught flat-footed against the Devils' relentless pace. He’s been one of the NHL’s best players at 5-on-5, but he’s also becoming more potent on the man advantage. Hughes, perhaps fuelled by said perceived disrespect from the media, was intent on embarrassing the Canadiens on Tuesday.

On his first goal, he takes a pass from Dougie Hamilton, and as two Canadiens defenders collapse the shooting lane, teammate Nathan Bastian sets a perfect screen and Hughes rifles it into the top corner. Hughes is already playing at a nearly unmatched pace and if he shoots with this level of precision, he’s going to ascend into an unstoppable weapon.

Here’s another quick example: Hughes comes flying into the offensive zone at full speed, the Arizona Coyotes back off and the 21-year-old makes the most of a clean shooting lane, picking the top corner again. You can’t let him accelerate or else he’s going to be a problem.

Hughes, along with Anaheim’s Trevor Zegras, also tops the NHL in the most important (and definitely real) fancy stat of all: cool plays per 60. On his second goal against the Canadiens, Hughes flies into the offensive zone, circles the net and pounces as Jake Allen doesn’t know what to do with the puck. Canadiens defender Jordan Harris loses the puck in his skates, attempts to dig it out but Hughes and linemate Dawson Mercer have already swooped in. In one motion, Hughes fires the puck past Allen for his second goal of the night. There is no margin of error against the Devils’ team speed.

New Jersey’s turbo pace is one of its defining elements and it portends well for future success.

The reigning champion Colorado Avalanche played in a hyperspeed gear that the rest of the NHL couldn’t match and emerged victorious, despite receiving league-average goaltending throughout the rest of the year. It’s not just Hughes blowing opponents away in the speed department, either. Miles Wood, for example, is one of the fastest skaters in the NHL and he resides on New Jersey’s nominal fourth line.

Hughes deserves the headlines, and Bratt is developing into one of the breakout players of the year, but there have been several components to the Devils’ early-season heater. Captain Nico Hischier is off to the best start of his career and, at this juncture, he’s Patrice Bergeron’s leading competition for the Selke Trophy. Hischier has been on the ice for 15 goals for with just four against at 5-on-5, while carrying an unreal 65.35 expected goals for share. Pretty, pretty good. Hischier is also punishing opponents in transition and he’s elite at turning their mistakes into instant offensive production.

And let's not forget the less flashy but equally important parts to this team. Dougie Hamilton is one of the NHL’s best blueliners once again and he’s absolutely lethal in transition, while John Marino is making a strong case to be considered one of the league’s premier defensive defenseman. Marino is jumping passing lanes with ease, he’s been a monster on the penalty kill, he can play with physicality without sacrificing positioning and has been easily the offseason move of the year so far. Dimitri Filipovic of the PDOCast compiled a mixtape of Marino’s best plays and he’s been instrumental to New Jersey’s blazing start.

The Devils have been surprisingly solid between the pipes, too. Vitek Vanecek has performed well above internal expectations for the Devils, and there's a recipe for sustained success this year already in the works. If the NHL is a copycat league, it appears the Devils have learned all the right lessons. New Jersey also has plenty of cap flexibility to trade for a bonafide starter at the deadline if they’re not sufficiently impressed with Vanecek and the injured Mackenzie Blackwood upon return.

Hughes is making hockey look more fun than any player in the NHL, his running mate Hischier may be the league’s best two-way forward, Bratt’s speed and pace is a perfect fit on a team that is just skating away from opponents, while Hamilton and Marino are both making strong cases for the Norris Trophy. It’s all fun and games from afar, but the Devils have been sending their opponents to straight to hell, one after another.

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