They say you’ll always remember your first game. That should be sweet music to John Hynes’ ears.
Jack Hughes, the 18-year-old top pick from June’s entry draft, has one game down in a career that could be a special one. A gifted talent with top-end skating and playmaking ability, he’ll learn much about the NHL while on the job. His first career game, a 5-4 shootout loss to the Jets was an early lesson: it takes the full 60.
The Devils nearly escaped the opening 40 with a commanding 4-0 lead behind goals from Nikita Gusev, the first in the 27-year-old’s career, Sami Vatanen and a pair by Blake Coleman. But a late tally from Winnipeg in the second was the beginning of a game that was slipping away. Winnipeg would find the back of the net three times in the third to stun the fans at The Rock on opening night.
Hughes was on the ice for Neal Pionk’s game-equalizer at 12:35 of the third, the game that he watched start to get away from the team, happening in real-time while with the forward on the ice. The center wouldn’t see another shift until OT, where he had some of his best looks including a two-on-one opportunity that missed the net.
It went the distance, needing four rounds of a shootout where Winnipeg goaltender, Laurent Brossoit outlasted three of the four New Jersey shooters including Hughes. Blake Wheeler, the Jets final shooter was able to beat Mackenzie Blackwood with a slow move that got the goaltender down and beaten. Gusev for New Jersey and Kyle Connor for Winnipeg also netted ones in the opening round.
“It was an OK start,” Hughes said. “Pretty good first period. It trailed off a bit in the second and obviously in the third, it wasn’t my best. Luckily we got the opportunity to play tomorrow too so we’ll get right after it again.”
Hughes’ official indoctrination to the NHL included one shot on goal and two attempts in 15:12 of ice-time. The game was a harsh reality check on how hard it is to win games at this level. But the notion of moving on to the next one is an important parting message to hear.
“Just turned pucks over, stopped playing in the offensive zones,” he said. “They kind of got the momentum back. We got to learn how to close out games but that’s one of 82.”
Hynes, one game into his fifth season behind the bench, knows the mistakes made on opening night are “fixable.”
“If you look at goal four–we’re in the zone for 1:30, we had four opportunities with the puck on our stick to get it out,” Hynes said. “We weren’t able to execute those plays and they had two scoring chances.
“When you look at those components of the game, those are fixable situations. They’re (being) smart, understanding how to play with a lead, the importance of playing with a lead, understanding when the puck is on your stick and you’re defending, we need to get those pucks out. It’s not always about making a play, it’s about doing the right things.”
The coach has also had his dealings with plenty of the organization’s prospects coming up and in many cases, developing into impactful NHL-er’s. Coleman, Nico Hischier, Miles Wood, Pavel Zacha–just to name a few. Hughes is his next player to try and mold into a more consistent, more rounded Devil.
“I thought there were some things in Jack’s game that he did well,” Hynes said. “He had the opportunity to score a couple goals. I think there’s other components of the game, as we’ve talked about throughout pre-season, that he’s got to learn and grow and work with. He’s a young developing player in the National Hockey League. When you have a talented guy who competes the way he competes you’re going to have some good things, but there’s some other components to his game that need to improve.”
But the first session of class is in the books. And while the blown four-goal lead loss is a tough lesson, there’s another looming on Saturday. The first overall pick sounding eager to get to that with some on-the-job experience checked.
Cory Schneider started the contest but was forced to exit to deal with cramping issues. He’s expected to travel with the team to Buffalo for Saturday’s game against the Sabres. Blackwood was already scheduled to get the start in that game.
Wayne Simmonds assisted on Coleman’s first goal at 1:42 of the second for his first point as a Devil.
Taylor Hall collected his first point on the season at 12:34 of the second period assisting on Vatanen’s goal. It’s his first point of 2019 after missing 49 games last season due to a knee injury.
P.K. Subban assisted on Coleman’s second goal of the game at 13:52 of the second for his first point as a Devil.
Coleman tallied two goals–one of which might already be the 2019-20 favorite for “Goal of the Year”