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On Jack Hughes' neutral zone play and Joonas Donskoi

May 22, 2019, 12:40 PM ET [36 Comments]
Todd Cordell
New Jersey Devils Blogger • RSSArchiveCONTACT
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1) The New Jersey Devils are very likely going to select Jack Hughes with the 1st overall pick in June.

Regardless of your stance on Hughes vs Kaapo Kakko, we know a) Hughes is the more dynamic player; b) Hughes is the better skater; c) Ray Shero is very close with the Hughes family and; d) Hughes plays a premium position.

Kakko has attributes working in his favor, too, such as more strength, a better shot, and more well-rounded two-way game, but I just don't see the Devils overlooking what I mentioned above and bypassing Hughes.

Hughes' offensive ability and creativity is the most enticing aspect of his game, of course, but one thing I've really gotten excited about while tracking Hughes is his neutral zone play.

Zone entries (and exits) play a big role in controlling the shot share, and Hughes is next-level when it comes to them.

Across various leagues and competitions, I've tracked eight of his games thus far. In those contests, Hughes has piled up 55 carry-ins and 10 pass-ins while dumping the puck just three times. He has been denied entries at times, of course, but Hughes *always* wants to make a play with the puck and keep possession, and his mix of speed (forces defenders to back off) and skill (can elude defenders when they do challenge) allows him to do so.

Approximately 95% of Hughes' non-denied entries (carry-ins, pass-ins, or dump-ins) are controlled. That's not just how he plays against his peers, either. In the WHC games I've tracked (small sample, I know), he has only dumped the puck in once while recording 12 carry-ins and three pass-ins. That's ~1% below his average including all competitions.

Compare that to Kakko who, through nine games, has almost as many dump-ins (21) as carry-ins and pass-ins (26). His non-denied controlled entry percentage sits at 55% across all competitions, and ~53% through three tracked games at the Worlds.

This isn't me saying I'd take Hughes over Kakko because significantly more of his entry-attempts result in his team maintaining control (though that helps!). I'm just pointing out that's the case, and it is one of the things that makes adding Hughes into the mix so exciting.

2) I'll likely write more about this in the coming weeks but one under the radar free agent target who could make sense for the Devils, should he hit the open market, is Joonas Donskoi. Having recorded 30+ points in three of the last four seasons, Donskoi is a pretty reliable bottom-6 scorer. He is also a very good skater – making him a nice fit for the fast, attacking, supportive style John Hynes likes to play – and an extremely good defender. We all know how effective Blake Coleman is without the puck, and Donskoi's defensive impact over the last three seasons is comparably strong (chart via Evolving-Hockey.com).

If the Devils don't want Nico Hischier and Taylor Hall facing top competition every night (they shouldn't), and want to protect Hughes' line with lots of offensive zone starts vs softer competition (they should), then having a high-end defensive unit like Coleman, Donskoi, and Travis Zajac to eat up the tough minutes could be extremely valuable to the team.

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