NEWARK, N.J. — On the night before his National Hockey League debut, Jack Hughes went to dinner with his proud parents, Jim and Ellen.
But like most teenagers, Hughes wanted to be left alone on game day.
“I’m going to dial it in,” Hughes said. “My normal routine.”
For the No. 1 overall pick, that involves sleep – and lots of it.
Hughes, 18, left the Prudential Center and planned for three-hour nap before taking the ice against the Winnipeg Jets on Friday night (7 p.m. ET on TSN3).
Call him Jack Snooze.
“Maybe three and a half hours,” Hughes said, smiling. “It just depends on the day. I’m a big sleeper.”
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For Hughes, this is not a day like any other. You only get one NHL debut, he said. It’s a day that he’s admittedly “looked forward to for a lot of years.”
“This is the real deal now,” Hughes said. “It’s more exciting, but for me, it’s the same mindset.”
New Jersey is buzzing with anticipation for Hughes and the rest of the new-look Devils, who are expected to be back in the playoff hunt. It’s a big night for the retooled Devils, with P.K. Subban and Wayne Simmonds also making their team debuts alongside a healthy Taylor Hall.
Hughes will open the year centring KHL transplant Nikita Gusev and Jesper Bratt – a line that runs on jet fuel.
There is no denying Hughes is an incredible talent.
“His feet know what his hands are doing, his hands know what his feet are doing, and his eyes are able to know what everyone else is doing,” Devils defenceman Connor Carrick told NHL.com during training camp.
“He’s the prototypical player for today’s game,” Subban said.
So, what are realistic expectations for Hughes this season?
You only need to look a few stalls down in the Devils’ dressing room to answer that question. Nico Hischier is just two years removed from his first game as the No. 1 overall pick. He answered all the same questions, felt the same nervous energy.
Hischier then went out and netted 20 goals and 32 assists for a stout 52 points in 82 games.
That would seem to be a reasonable bar for Hughes.
“I think he’s going to be just fine,” Hischier said. “He’s done it in the preseason and he’s already a big part of our team. I’m happy for him that’s he’s at this point, to finally play an NHL game.”
The biggest thing standing in Hughes’ way right out of the gate may simply be physical maturity, which will come over time.
“I think he’s got a little ways to go, but he’s hockey strong,” Devils coach John Hynes said. “If you can combine these three things – his hockey sense, his ability to skate and elusiveness, and his competitiveness – those things will allow him to have success.”
The Devils watched Hughes closely in training camp to make sure he was absolutely ready to make the jump to the NHL, not that there was much question. Hughes played four preseason games and collected three goals and one assist.
“It was a chance to have some confidence, to tell myself I’m really ready to go,” Hughes said. “I had a great summer and I [know I] can really do something good in the league.”
Listen to Hynes describe Hughes and he agrees: “Elite competitor … Very consistent … Never wore down.”
“He can skate all day,” Hynes said. “Hard practices, exhibitions, long morning skates … he’s able to go right through that.”
Now, facing a Winnipeg Jets team with a first line that dominated the Rangers on the other side of the Hudson River Thursday night, Hynes said he wouldn’t necessarily feed Hughes to the wolves – nor would he make a concerted effort to shield him.
“I think it’s important not to put a top on players,” Hynes said.
Hughes will have to feel his way through it – and everything else that comes with an NHL debut.
“You’re not going to be able to replace the nervous excitement that you’re going to have,” Hynes said. “But that’s a good thing because it means that there is something important going on.”
Hischier knows what that feels like. He said his message to Hughes would be simple.
“You worked hard to get to this point,” Hischier offered. “You made it. Trust your strength. You’re a great player.”
Hughes has dreamed of this moment, walking the red carpet to the ice and the pregame introductions, since he was a little kid. But he didn’t anticipate any trouble napping.
“Oh yeah, I just hit the pillow,” Hughes said. “Once the buzzer goes, I’ll be ready to play. Once the game starts, that’s when I’ll have my most fun.”
Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravall