KALAMAZOO, MI — Heading into this offseason, the expectations for Luke Hughes’ sophomore season could’ve reached from Ann Arbor to New Jersey. After setting the Michigan hockey team’s freshman scoring record last season and choosing to return for another go-around, Hughes saw his name pinned near the top of nearly every Hobey Baker watchlist and season preview. Hughes was the man, and seemingly knew it.
But eight games in, his season hasn’t been so cut and dry. After a knee injury in August’s World Junior Championship took away much of his preseason preparation, Hughes hasn’t delivered his trademark dominance to the degree anyone expected.
That is, until Saturday. Scoring a signature 2-on-1 overtime goal against Western Michigan, Hughes looked like a carbon copy of his freshman self. And as the Wolverines start conference play, the timing couldn’t be better.
“He’s trying to put the world on his back every day,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said. “He can breathe, he can sleep well tonight. Just happy that (goal) went in. He was phenomenal, man, it was his best game of the year.”
Other performances haven’t screamed phenomenal like Saturday’s. No performances have been bad by any real definition, but Hughes has lacked the kind of offensive production relative to his usual play. Before Saturday, his scoring was limited to sporadic primary assists, far from the nearly automatic pace that made him such an X-factor last season.
But against the Broncos, Hughes was everything and more. Driving plays from the back end, he assisted on two key goals and scored the aforementioned game winner. More than that surface level production, he also broke out of his defensive zone with his blazing speed and settled down Michigan’s attack in the face of aggressive forechecking.
For the most part, that’s exactly what the Wolverines have wanted out of Hughes. Now, he’s delivering on those needs.
Part of Hughes’s seemingly slow start has been caused by his usage. Last season, Owen Power played as the No. 1 defenseman and ate most of the tough minutes, leaving easy matchups for Hughes to overwhelm. This season, Hughes is that guy, and he’s had to play a more conservative style because of it.
The effect goes further than just some extra defensive assignments. It changes the way Hughes can create offense by shifting the situations he finds himself in.
Hughes’s offensive game thrives off of his speed, and he uses it to create his scoring chances. Any time he can wind up from his own end and turn on the jets, nine times out of 10 that ends with the puck in the net. That much could be seen on his goal, when he marched down the ice and called game with determination. A little bit earlier in overtime, he almost scored on a similar rush but was robbed by the goaltender.
“That guy’s a ballplayer,” freshman forward Rutger McGroarty said. “It was a 2-on-1 and he made the right play. The (Western Michigan) guy did a good job of defending me and (Hughes) just ripped it low blocker, and then we cellied.”
With Hughes taking greater defensive responsibility, though, those opportunities for celebration aren’t always a guarantee. He often has to hold the blue line and keep from getting burned, not skating deep into the offensive zone like he did so often last season.
With that changing role, Hughes has tried to create offense by force. In games against Lindenwood and Lake Superior State, he tried his hardest to score, shooting eight and six times respectively in those games. His season shooting percentage is a measly 0.71%.
But games like Saturday show that he can tap into that offensive game without forcing it. Instead of looking for the play to come to him, Hughes played his role at the blue line and became a facilitator, taking his rush chances when they were there but not willing them into existence.
That’s a hard decision for a player who wants to be an impact player night in and night out, but it’s one Hughes is seemingly willing to make. With so much pressure for Hughes to perform, he came through in spades Saturday night.
And with the payoff finally matching the work he’s putting in, those high offseason expectations don’t seem so far off.