All-Star festivities showcase next generation of NHL stars
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New Jersey Devils players often watch from the bench and marvel at some of the things Jack Hughes can do on the ice.
“Every game, at least a few times, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this guy is amazing,'” forward Michael McLeod said. “He just does it every night.”
The same is true at Buffalo, where Rasmus Dahlin described Sabers teammate Tage Thompson’s development as “a ticking time bomb.” And in Dallas, where coach Peter DeBoer dreamed of coaching Jason Robertson with the Stars.
While being an All-Star is old hat for former NHL guard Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and even the undisputed best player in the world Connor McDavid, this weekend’s festivities 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 straight season, Thompson and Robertson each for the first time, and their emergence could shake up how the ratings — and standings — lay out for years to come.
“Once you’ve established yourself as an NHL player, the next step is 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 watch these players go through this process to become not just NHL players but true superstars, but more importantly how they try 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 hunt at the break. The same goes for the surprising Seattle Kraken, the only team without an All-Star after rookie Matty Beniers was injured, but they will need him later on to have a successful second season in existence.
The Devils are on pace to play playoff hockey for the first time since 2018 and only the second in 11 years thanks in large part to Hughes trailing only McDavid, Boston’s David Pastrnak, Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen and Thompson in the goal race. Mike Rupp, who won the Cup with New Jersey in 2003, expected Hughes to produce at a 100-point pace but didn’t expect his scoring to become so significant this season.
“He scores in the big moments,” said Rupp, an NHL Network analyst who will see Hughes up close this weekend at Sunrise. “It’s his way. He carries his team at times. He pushes his team, Jack and Tage, (too). And I think that’s what’s amazing is that they’re not just great talents: they’re great talents, and they seem to have nerves of steel.
Thompson’s nerves and playing ability could be on display in the playoffs if Buffalo can finish strong and eliminate Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins or Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals from a wildcard spot. The Sabers have by far the league’s longest playoff drought at 11 seasons, and if they break it, Thompson will be a big part of it before he even starts a seven-year, $51 million contract he was signed to. awarded last summer.
Messier credited Thompson for getting stronger in the offseason, increasing the hands that made the now 25-year-old a 38-goal scorer in 2021-22 and putting him on track for 50-plus this season. Norris Trophy-winning defender PK Subban, who saw Thompson grow by playing against him several times over the past five years before retiring and joining Messier as an ESPN analyst, sees him as a version larger than Hughes with the same skill level.
“What separates him 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 this size to do everything at full speed (with) his reach, his skill with the puck, his skating ability,” Subban said. “He’s got all the tools to be a dominant player in this league for a long time.”
The same goes for Robertson, who just finished a 41-goal season and, like Thompson, signed a lucrative extension before 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 that matches his game and could soon be one of the faces of the league.
Robertson has been on the show this season with 66 points in 51 games.
“You kind of get used to it, and you almost have to sit and think about it after seeing how special it is what you’re witnessing,” DeBoer said. “It’s amazing. He makes it look easy.
And, along with Hughes and Thompson, he’s helping the NHL not lean on Crosby and Ovechkin, who both broke in more than 15 years ago.
“Obviously they’re all-time greats, but that was kinda fair on them,” Rupp said. “It was a few guys who really had to carry the league. (Now) there’s a ton of guys wearing it, so I think it puts the league in a very healthy position with superstars.
Follow AP Hockey writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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