Last but certainly not least!
Jack Hughes of the USNTDP comes in as my number one rated prospect for the 2019 NHL Draft. After a tight race with Kaapo Kakko, Hughes lands at the top of my board because of his superstar upside. While this pick over a sure thing in Kakko is risky, you could be missing out on a player with special abilities.
When I think of special, I think of players who are among the elite of the elite, who can do things that others simply can’t. Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Aleksander Barkov, Elias Pettersson, Rasmus Dahlin, and Jack’s brother Quinn Hughes come to mind. While I don’t anticipate Jack Hughes being as complete of a player as some of the aforementioned names, there is no denying his speed and transitional play is rare even for star NHL players.
I stress that this is about potential. Some may not like it, but I don’t expect Hughes to come into the NHL next season and bang down the door at 18 years old. I’m not saying he’ll need AHL time, but I’m also not saying it would hurt. Having patience can seem frustrating with a number one pick, but the rewards are too much to overlook. Some may claim this is about size and strength, but rather, I believe he has raw abilities that may take time to catch up to his skating.
|Team||U.S. U18 (USNTDP)|
|Birthday||May 14, 2001|
Skating: 70 – Puck Skills: 60 – Hockey IQ/Sense: 55 – Physicality: 45
Hughes skating ability is special. His impact as a transition player is immeasurable. No player from this draft can create something out of nothing quite like him. There is a rush of excitement you get when Hughes circles back in his own zone and receives the puck on his stick. The pace he plays at is electric, almost looking like a lightning bolt through the neutral zone.
What sets him apart is his top-gear. Hughes can leave you in the rear view mirror in a hurry. Some of his rushes are jaw dropping displays of elite skating ability. This just isn’t fair:
That second clip from above really puts into perspective just how much of a game breaking talent Hughes is. That one shift was far and away the most dominant sequence I saw from any draft eligible prospect this season. He showcased elite skating, creativity, and drive, producing a multitude of chances. But I will say his finishing ability needs to improve. So many times he failed to convert on these golden opportunities.
That is what pushes Hughes to the top of my board — the absurd amount of scoring chances he generates. Be it with his feet or passing ability. Hughes can make other players better because of the attention he draws from the opposition. He is so elusive and does a great job of avoiding checks, which is very important for an undersized player. However, worth noting that once he played against men at the World Championships he had a difficult time creating space for himself. That lack of room made it easy to knock him off the puck. Hughes is very weak on the puck because of his lack of strength, which causes some concern. He will need to make a living of avoiding contact.
A question I’ve been forced to ask is how will he be able to handle the NHL playoffs? Once the checking gets tighter there will be no breathing room for Hughes to work his magic. The reliability year-to-year may not be there, with the most recent example being Johnny Gaudreau, who struggled throughout the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Something to keep in mind.
But there is no denying what Hughes can do with space. His quick first step makes him a daunting task to keep up with, constantly creating new looks to feed his teammates. His ability to pass the puck through traffic is incredible. Combined with excellent puck skills and you’ve got a dynamic playmaking pivot.
The potential that Hughes has is staggering — to be able to make these plays with his feet and mind is a sign of a special player. This is simply world-class talent that cannot be taught.
That world-class talent culminated into a record-breaking two-year run with U.S. Program. Hughes is the USNTDP’s all time leading scorer with 228 points. The next closest is 39 points away…yeah. That record will stand for a long, long time. The scoring didn’t stop there, with Hughes breaking Alexander Ovechkin’s points record at the U18s. The kid just kept breaking records.
Hughes lands at the top of my board, not because of what he’s done, but what he can do. I think Hughes is just scratching the surface of how good he can be. He didn’t live up to the expectations I set for him at the start of the year, but I still think he can reach the potential he has, which is a superstar center in the NHL. He may need some time to realize that potential and that won’t sit right with some.
Kaapo Kakko is one hell of a player, but no one can pass on this kid and feel good about themselves. A close race, no doubt, but the upside that Hughes presents is ultimately why he deserves to be the first name off the board in Vancouver.
I believe Hughes will play in the NHL next season but the results may not come right away. He will need time to adjust to the stronger competition and tighter checking of the NHL. The AHL can always be a possibility but I don’t think it will get to that point. In terms of other options, well, it’s too late in the process for him to commit to college and he is too good to go play in the CHL.
I wouldn’t bet on him winning the Calder Trophy but I think he lasts the entire year. Once he starts to figure out how to gain space look out. Eventually his speed and skill will take over and he’ll be a rising young star in the NHL. With that, he’ll be the first player to ever go straight to the NHL from the USNTDP ever.