In Luke Hughes, the Devils change the situation. It’s time to use it

RALEIGH, North Carolina — Somewhere in Ann Arbor, Michigan, students in a business management course at the University of Michigan were supposed to complete a group project this spring. One of the members of this group was Luke Hughes, and let’s just say his classmates might not have benefited from his academic contributions.

He was a little attached, after all.

“Ha. I forgot,” he said in a quiet moment in the Devils locker room last month. “I really have to get on it…”

Hughes, 19, left Michigan last month after leading the hockey team to the Frozen Four. He had two points in his first two NHL games with the Devils, and since then he’s watched the team that drafted him fourth overall — and, of course, his older brother — navigate their first significant playoff series in over a decade.

You know those cases that read “break glass only in an emergency?” Hughes, metaphorically, is inside one of them. Lindy Ruff holds the little hammer, and so far this spring the Devils head coach has shown no signs he’s considering using it. This time has come.

It’s clear: if the Devils replicate their performance in Game 1, their Stanley Cup playoff stay won’t last beyond next week. The emotional series hangover against Rangers no doubt has something to do with what happened Wednesday night at the PNC Bank Arena, when the Devils led 3-0 before being credited with their second shot at the aim.

But that wasn’t the only reason. The Devils struggled against the Hurricanes’ tight forechecking system, which prevented them from using their speed to create chances in the run. The answer is crisp, fast puck movement and fast, evasive skating, and those were two of the skills that prompted the Devils to draft Hughes with the No. 4 overall pick in 2021.

Hughes joined the Devils after leading Michigan to the Frozen Four, playing just two regular season games. His talent, however, was undeniable and he scored the overtime winner – on a pass from his brother Jack, of course – to defeat the Capitals in the regular season finale.

Ruff said after the Game 1 loss that open ice would be a bonus. Hughes is the kind of player who can create it. Will Ruff consider moving? Asking him for a direct roster change is the quickest way to end an interview at this time of year, but usually asked about the challenges of bringing a young player into the roster at this time of the year, he did not completely reject the idea.

“You can always take this opportunity to try a young player like that,” Ruff said. “The regular season is one thing. The playoff battle is another level up. It is something that can always be considered.

“You look at what our lads did at the end to get through all seven games against Rangers – I have to give them a lot of credit for that. We know we have a few players with (Brendan) Smith and Hughes, different qualities, who can help us and who have been in our squad.

Ruff has already shown he’s not afraid to bench a defender after a bad playoff game, sitting stalwart Jonas Siegenthaler in Game 2 of the Rangers series in favor of veteran Smith. On Wednesday night, Ryan Graves – who has played in 78 of 82 regular-season games this season – found himself glued to the bench after Hurricanes center Seth Jarvis passed him for a first-period goal.

Rolling the dice on Hughes, of course, comes with some risk. The Hurricanes have a system that thrives on forcing mistakes, and Hughes hasn’t seen live action in three weeks. But Ruff himself praised Hughes for his “on-ice awareness, his ability to get out of the way and skate with people”. The Devils will also play again at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, their sixth game in 11 days. If there was ever a time to tap into squad depth, it’s now.

“They skated well. They were all over us,” defenseman Damon Severson said of the Hurricanes. “We skate so well when we’re on. When the defensive team has to follow us, we put them in a bit of trouble, so we just have to do better.

The Devils will start next season with Hughes filling one of six defenseman positions. He is the future. Is it too much to ask of a teenager who was still finishing his college homework a month ago to step into the Stanley Cup cauldron? Maybe. But he is no ordinary player.


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Steve Politi can be reached at

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