Jan 22, 2023; Newark, New Jersey, USA; New Jersey Devils center Jack Hughes (86) skates with the puck against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the second period at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Blackburn’s Big Board, a weekly check-in on the hockey things that I currently care about. It’ll go a variety of ways, including teams that are earning my attention, players of note, storylines generating buzz and any other hockey topics that my weird brain finds compelling.

Is Jack Hughes building a legitimate MVP case?

Before the 2022-23 season, I put out a list of some of my favorite NHL futures on the betting market and declared that the wager I liked the most was Jack Hughes going over the preseason line of 72.5 points. Given that Hughes seemed to be on the cusp of superstardom and produced at over a point-per-game pace in an injury-shortened 2021-22 season, it seemed very likely that the New Jersey Devils center would fly past that 72.5 mark and potentially hit triple digits if he stayed healthy.

Well, here we are — a little more than halfway through the season and Hughes has played in all 47 of the Devils’ games. His upward trajectory has remained impressive, and he’s managed to hit the 60-point milestone for the first time in his career, registering an even split of 30 goals and 30 assists.

The latest of those 60 points may have been his most impressive of the season, as he dished out this incredible primary helper to set up Dougie Hamilton’s game-winning goal in overtime against the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday.

I mean, that is pure sorcery. He was in the process of getting his face mashed into the boards, and not only does he maintain possession but he also shifts his eyes to the back of his skull to put the puck on a tee for Hamilton, who has developed an insatiable addiction to scoring overtime goals this week.

Hughes may not be as downright unstoppable with the puck as some other superstars across the league. However, his creativity, vision and silky smooth offensive skill set in the face of pressure is registering at elite levels, and he’s racking up results.

He’s currently top-10 in the league in goals as well as points, and for those keeping track at home, he is projected to finish with 52 goals and 105 points over 82 games. Those numbers would push him way past the preseason points line set by oddsmakers, and they would set new Devils franchise records in both categories and likely push Hughes into a potential Hart Trophy candidacy — especially if New Jersey finishes atop the Metropolitan Division.

P.K. Subban, Hughes’ former teammate, is banging that drum hard, and he’s alleging that nobody wants to talk about Hughes’ case for the Hart. So let’s talk about it.

First, let’s state the obvious — any MVP conversation that doesn’t immediately start with Connor McDavid is erroneous. He has 88 points before the All-Star break and is on pace to finish with 68 goals and 150 points — totals that haven’t been touched since Mario Lemieux posted 69 and 161, respectively, in the 1995-96 season.

If McDavid keeps this up, which somehow seems likely at this point, any MVP talk that seriously contemplates other options is going to involve unnecessary mental gymnastics.

But let’s just say, for the sake of discussion, that No. 97 gets injured or suddenly decides to be a normal human being instead of an earth-torching hockey cyborg. In that scenario, there could be a number of secondary Hart candidates entering the picture.

There’s the towering highlight reel that is Tage Thompson, who will certainly get deserved consideration if he drags the Buffalo Sabres to the playoffs. Then there’s a group that will likely involve some, if not all, of the following: Leon Draisaitl, David Pastrnak, Jason Robertson, Nikita Kucherov, Mikko Rantanen and, yes, Jack Hughes.

Even if you expected the Devils to improve this year, the fact that they remain one of the very best teams in the Eastern Conference has to be labeled a surprise. And Hughes elevating his game is a big reason why New Jersey has enjoyed so much success.

On a team that ranks sixth in offense this season, Hughes is nine goals and 12 points clear of the next-most productive players on the Devils roster. He’s been outstanding at driving five-on-five play, and his expected goal share per 60 minutes ranks third among centers (behind Patrice Bergeron and Mikael Backlund), helping illustrate that Hughes’ two-way game has taken a step forward.

Still, his offensive numbers may not be gaudy enough to overlook his lack of overwhelming presence on the defensive end, including on the penalty kill. (Hughes has less than four minutes of PK time this season.) As such, he’ll probably face an uphill battle trying to make a Hart case against guys with better numbers, especially if he needs to prove his individual impact relative to the rest of his team against someone like Thompson.

So is it time to start campaigning for Hughes as MVP? We can probably wait on that a bit, but it’s definitely worth acknowledging and appreciating the progress and development he’s showcasing at 21 years old.

Hughes may not be a clear Hart candidate yet, but the framework is there. And he has clearly elevated himself to being a legitimate superstar in this league for years to come.

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