New Jersey Devils players watch from the bench often and marvel at some of the things Jack Hughes can do on the ice.
“Every game, at least a couple times, I’ll be like, ‘Oh my God, that guy’s amazing,'” forward Michael McLeod said. “He just gets it done every night.”
The same goes in Buffalo, where Rasmus Dahlin described Sabres teammate Tage Thompson's development as “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 unquestioned best player in the world Connor McDavid, the festivities this weekend in South Florida are a showcase for the league's next generation of stars, led by Hughes and Robertson now that Thompson is out with injury and replaced by Dahlin. Hughes is an All-Star for the second consecutive season and Robertson for the first time, and their emergence could upend the way the standings — and leaderboards — look for years to come.
“Once you establish yourself as an NHL player, the next step is how you figure out how to try to win,” said Hall of Famer, two-time MVP and six-time Stanley Cup champion Mark Messier. “It’s been fascinating to me to see these players going through that process of becoming not only NHL players but bona fide superstars, but more importantly how they’re 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 each player's respective team is in the playoff race at the break. So are the surprising Seattle Kraken, the only team without an All-Star after rookie Matty Beniers was injured, but they'll need him more down the stretch to make it in their second season of existence.
The Devils are on pace to play playoff hockey for the first time since 2018 and just the second in 11 years thanks in large part to Hughes, who trails only McDavid, Boston's David Pastrnak, Colorado's Mikko Rantanen and Thompson in the goal-scoring race. Mike Rupp, who won the Cup with New Jersey in 2003, expected Hughes to produce at a 100-point pace but did not anticipate his scoring to become so meaningful this season.
“He’s scoring in big moments,” said Rupp, an NHL Network analyst who will see Hughes up close this weekend in Sunrise. “It’s the way he’s doing it. He’s carrying his team at certain times. He’s pushing his team along, Jack and Tage, (too). And I think that is the incredible part is they’re not just great talents: They’re great talents, and they seem like they’ve got nerves of steel.”
Thompson's nerves and playmaking ability could be on display in the playoffs if Buffalo can finish strong and knock either Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins or Ovechkin's Washington Capitals out of a wild-card spot. The Sabres have by far the league's longest playoff drought at 11 seasons, and if they snap it, Thompson will be a big part of it, even before starting a $51 million, seven-year contract he was rewarded with last summer.
Messier credited Thompson for getting stronger in the offseason, augmenting the hands that made the now-25-year-old a 38-goal scorer in 2021-22 and putting him on track for more than 50 this season. Norris Trophy-winning defenseman P.K. Subban, who experienced Thompson's growth firsthand from playing against him several times the past five years before retiring and joining Messier as an ESPN analyst, sees him as a taller version of Hughes with the same level of skill.
“What separates him from a lot of players in the league, and is going to separate him from a lot of players in the league going forward, is his ability at that size to do everything at top speed (with) his range, his skill with the puck, his skating ability,” Subban said. “He has all the tools to be a dominant player in this league for a long time.”
So does Dahlin, who probably should have been an All-Star in the first place. The Swede who was the top draft pick in 2018 a year before Hughes went first ranks second among defensemen in goals and points this season.
Like Thompson, Robertson got a lucrative extension before opening night. The 23-year-old from California, who is Filipino American and hopes to be a role model for players of Asian descent, has a big personality that matches his play and could soon be one of the faces of the league.
Coming off a breakout 41-goal season, Robertson has put on a show this season with 66 points in 51 games.
“You kind get used to it, and you almost have to sit and think about it after about how special it is what you’re witnessing,” DeBoer said. “It's unbelievable. He’s making 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 broke in more than 15 years ago.
"Obviously they're all-time greats, but it was kind of just them,” Rupp said. “It was a couple guys that had to really carry the league. (Now) there’s a ton of guys carrying it, so I think that puts the league in a very healthy spot with superstars.”
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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