Devils star Jack Hughes taking another step forward after breakout 2022-23 campaign

The New Jersey Devils superstar entered 2023-24 already considered to be one of the best players in the NHL, but he's exceeding expectations early.

Before last Friday, Jack Hughes had produced two four-point performances in his first 259 NHL games, including the playoffs.

In the New Jersey Devils' last two games, he's managed that feat twice — putting him in a tie with Dylan Larkin for the NHL points lead at 14.

Hughes isn't taking anyone by surprise hot off the heels of a 99-point campaign, but he seems to be finding a new level early this season.

Part of that is coming from an expanded role. In 2022-23 Hughes ranked 30th among NHL forwards in average ice time (19:58). So far this season, he's up to third (22:34).

Jack Hughes has been absolutely electric for the New Jersey Devils early in the season. (Andrew Mordzynski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Jack Hughes has been absolutely electric for the New Jersey Devils early in the season. (Andrew Mordzynski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

That increase in workload hasn't come with any sacrifices in quality of play, either. According to the NHL's player-tracking data, Hughes ranks first in the NHL in distance covered per 60 minutes (10.93 miles) despite the fact he's spending so much more time on the ice.

A combination of constant movement, top-level skill, and a heavy helping of minutes helps explain how Hughes is creating more offense than anyone else in the league.

Another factor driving his success is the Devils' outstanding power play, which has a 44.0% success rate and accounts for nine of the 14 points Hughes has scored.

That sounds like a significant red flag for the 22-year-old, suggesting his success is unsustainable. To an extent, it is. Hughes isn't going to get the 230 points he's on pace for in 2023-24.

Even so, his early reliance on the man advantage isn't as troubling as it might seem. Growth in power-play production is one of the best paths forward for Hughes to put up massive numbers. Between his rookie season and 2022-23 the Devils' power play ranked 25th in the NHL (17.7%) and even last year when the team took a leap it only climbed as high as 13th (21.9%)

As a result, the career-high 31 power-play points Hughes produced last season ranked 22nd in the NHL. His ceiling in that category is much higher, as we're seeing early in 2023-24 — and New Jersey should be deadlier on the man advantage with a refurbished top unit that includes Tyler Toffoli and Luke Hughes.

That will help Hughes, who has demonstrated the skills required to excel in 5v4 situations for some time now — both in terms of shooting...

... and creating opportunities for teammates:

When Connor McDavid annihilated his previous career-best points total last season he did so largely by finding a new gear on the power play. Entering 2022-23, he'd never topped 45 points with the man advantage, but he produced 71 in his 153-point campaign. A total like that might be a stretch for Hughes, but on a percentage basis that kind of growth isn't out of reach.

Another reason to be bullish on Hughes continuing to perform is that his 5v5 production is in line for some positive regression. The center has been more than solid in these situations with an expected goal rate of 56.87%, while his team is out-chancing the opposition 55-32. Despite those underlying numbers, New Jersey has a 33.33% goal share in his 5v5 minutes — largely due to the team scoring on just 6.0% of its shots.

It's fair to expect Hughes to stop putting up 1.8 power-play points per game, but his even-strength production could improve, which is impressive considering five EV points in five games is already excellent.

Coming into the season it was probably fair to expect Hughes would at least replicate his 2022-23 and cross the triple-digit point threshold. Now that's looking like a low bar. If the superstar even matches last season's points/game pace from here on out he'd end up with 112 points — the sixth-best total all-time for an American-born player.

Because he's just 22 and his points/game has risen in every year of his career (from 0.34 to 0.55 to 1.14 to 1.27) it's reasonable to project more. If he makes the same gain this year as he did between 2021-22 and 2022-23 (+0.13 points/game) from here, a healthy season could yield 122 points.

Prior to 2023-24 that would've seemed like an extremely aggressive prediction for Hughes. Now a monster season like that is looking well within reach.