The New Jersey Devils players often watch from the bench and marvel at what Jack Hughes can do on the ice.
“Every game, at least a couple of times, I’ll be like, ‘Oh my god, that guy is amazing,'” said forward Michael McLeod. “He just makes it every night.”
The same is true in Buffalo, where Rasmus Dahlin called Sabre’s teammate Tage Thompson’s development a “ticking time bomb.” And in Dallas, where coach Peter DeBoer lay awake dreaming of coaching Jason Robertson with the Stars.
While being an All-Star is old hat for the NHL’s old guard of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and even the undisputed best player in the world, Connor McDavid, this weekend’s celebrations in South Florida are a showcase for the next generation of league stars led by Hughes, Thompson and Robertson. Hughes is an All-Star for the second year in a row, Thompson and Robertson each for the first time, and their emergence could upend how the standings — and leaderboards — look for years to come.
“Once you’ve established yourself as an NHL player, the next step is figuring out how you’re trying to win,” said Hall of Famer, two-time MVP and six-time Stanley Cup champion Mark Messier. “It’s been fascinating for me to see these players go through this process of not just becoming NHL players, becoming real superstars, but more importantly, trying to figure out how to win in this league. “
With Thompson, Robertson and Hughes all in the top 10 in goals and points, it’s no coincidence that each player’s respective team is in the playoff race at the break. Ditto for the surprising Seattle Kraken, the only team without an All-Star after rookie Matty Beniers was injured, but they’ll need him even more to make it in their second season.
The Devils are ready to play playoff hockey for the first time since 2018 and only the second time in 11 years, thanks in large part to Hughes, who is trailing only McDavid in the scoring race, Boston’s David Pastrnak, Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen and Thompson lies. Mike Rupp, who won the trophy with New Jersey in 2003, expected Hughes to hit a 100-point pace but didn’t expect his goal to be as significant this season.
“He scores in big moments,” said Rupp, an NHL Network analyst who will be seeing Hughes up close at Sunrise this weekend. “That’s how he does it. He carries his team at certain times. He pushes his team, Jack and Tage (too). And I think that’s the incredible thing about them, they’re not just great talent: they’re great talent and they seem to have nerves of steel.”
Thompson’s nerves of steel and skill could show in the playoffs if Buffalo can finish strong and knock out either Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins or Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals from a wildcard spot. The Sabers have by far the longest playoff drought in the league at 11 seasons, and if they make it, Thompson will be a big part of it, even before kicking off a seven-year, $51 million deal he was rewarded with last summer .
Messier credited Thompson with getting stronger in the offseason, strengthening the hands that made the now 25-year-old a 38-goal scorer in 2021-22 and putting him on the line for more than 50 goals this season. Norris Trophy-winning defenseman PK Subban, who saw Thompson’s growth firsthand by playing him several times over the past five years before retiring and joining Messier as an ESPN analyst, sees him as a bigger player Version of Hughes with the same skill.
“What sets him apart from a lot of players in the league and will separate him from a lot of players in the league in the future is his ability at his size to do anything at top speed (with) his reach and skill with the puck, his skating ability,” Subban said. “He has all the makings to be a dominant player in this league for a long time.”
So does Robertson, who is coming off a 41-goal breakout season and, like Thompson, signed a lucrative extension ahead of opening night. The 23-year-old Californian, who is Filipino-American and hopes to be a role model for players of Asian descent, has a big personality to match his game and could soon be one of the faces of the league.
Robertson has put on a show this season with 66 points in 51 games.
“You get used to it, and you almost have to sit down and think about how special it is what you’re seeing,” DeBoer said. “It’s incredible. He makes it look easy.”
And along with Hughes and Thompson, he’s making it easier for the NHL not to lean on Crosby and Ovechkin, both of whom collapsed more than 15 years ago.
“Obviously they’re the best of all time, but it was kind of just them,” Rupp said. “It was a couple of guys who really needed to carry the league. (Now) there’s a lot of people wearing it, so I think the league is in a very healthy place with superstars.
Follow AP Hockey writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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