NEWARK, N.J. — For months, New Jersey Devils fans have been anxiously waiting for 2019 No. 1 pick Jack Hughes to take the ice. When he finally did on Friday, that wait was worth it.
The 18-year-old phenom made his NHL debut in the Devils' season opener against the Winnipeg Jets — just one night after New York Rangers rookie, and No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko — showing off that talent that made him the highest-rated prospect.
Despite great expectations, Hughes didn't — and doesn't — seem like a rookie, from morning skates to warm-ups to his first shift; even in the morning, the young star nonchalantly told reporters that he may grab a sandwich before heading to the biggest game of his life to date.
"It was crazy, exciting. It was kinda fun to get that under my belt," Hughes said simply.
All night long, No. 86 was a threat in the offensive zone, showcasing his speed, crafty passing and silky hands on a number of impressive plays, including one where he nearly went end-to-end, wheeling past defenders for a sneaky wraparound opportunity that could have increased the score to 5-0 and another where he made a falling pass to get the puck to a teammate in front.
Playing alongside and against long-time pros at the highest level didn't faze the U.S. National Team Program's all-time leading scorer, just as skating between Nikita Gusev and Jesper Bratt worked seamlessly with the pace of the game.
For Hughes, that's something that comes with practice and experience.
"I think it was nice to just play my first game more mentally, just to kind of be at peace with it," he said. "Now I can buckle in and just start playing."
In his first game, Hughes not only created scoring chances but he registered one shot, three giveaways, one takeaway and went 4-for-9 on faceoffs in 15:12 minutes of ice time. He also got his first shootout attempt but failed to convert as New Jersey fell 5-4 to Winnipeg after blowing a four-goal lead.
Going forward, head coach John Hynes sees a lot of potential and room for growth for the Orlando, Fla. native.
"I thought there were some things in Jack's game that he did well. He had the opportunity, could have scored a couple goals," he noted postgame. "He's a young developing player in the National Hockey League, so I think when you have a talented guy who competes the way he competes, you're going to have some good things but there are other components to his game that need to improve."
Hughes won't have to wait long for another shot at his first NHL point as the Devils take on the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday.
"The fans have been awesome with me. So hopefully I can start producing some points and give [the support] right back," Hughes said.