Jack Hughes, US National Team Development Program (USHL)
Age on Draft Day: 18.12 Years Old
Height/Weight: 5’10, 168 pounds
2018-2019 Stats (USHL Only): 24 GP, 12 G, 36 A, 4 PIM
NHL Central Scouting (North America only): 1st
Bob McKenzie: 1st
Craig Button: 1st
ISS Hockey: 1st
Despite being a center, Jack Hughes mimics his brother, Quinn, who plays defense for the Vancouver Canucks. Though he is undersized, Jack Hughes uses that to his advantage, as he’s an extremely quick, agile skater who weaves through the neutral zone with the puck like a hot knife through butter. He’s incredibly adept at avoiding contact, moving laterally to avoid open-ice contact and spinning away from pressure behind the net. He can’t power his way to the net, but he doesn’t need to. Instead, he slips past defenders into the slot and makes plays.
Because of his speed and ability to carry the puck with ease, defenders get scared and essentially gift Hughes the blue line for fear of otherwise getting burned and therefore allow rush opportunities for his team as well as controlled possessions in the offensive zone. Like his brother, the younger Hughes is effectively a one-man forecheck destroyer. He feasts on turnovers and turns them into transition chances with his speed.
The 18-year-old is an elite passer as the 36 assists in just 24 games show. He seems to always know where his teammates are on the ice. He’ll often pass from what appears to be a natural shooting position, a lethal strategy if a player has the vision and poise that creates high-percentage shots for teammates when the defense and goaltender are not expecting it. What’s so impressive about Hughes is that he plays “fast.” He can be moving a million miles per hour and still have the presence of mind to make plays that others would need to be at a standstill for. What’s more, he has the hands to pull off some creative moves and change the angles of his shots and passes in a flash. The ability to make quick decisions in small spaces and in-stride is what separates the great players from the mere good ones.
Hughes won’t be a Rocket Richard winner at the NHL level, but he can definitely put the puck in the net with frequency. His wrist shot is quite good, and his release is quick. Most importantly, he puts himself in scoring positions with the puck. His unpredictability leaves goaltenders guessing at when shots might be coming, and he beats them with soft hands rather than brute force.
There are two knocks on Hughes’ game, and they’re both relative. First, his size comes into question. In an ideal world, sure, he’d be 6’2, 200 pounds. He isn’t, and as such he suffers in contact situations. However, it doesn’t matter what kind of size advantage opposing players have on him if they can’t actually initiate contact. Hughes’ elusiveness is at a level that even few NHLers can match. By the time defenders get positioning on him, the puck has already left Hughes’ stick.
Hughes’ defensive game is also still a work in progress. It’s not that this is actively a red flag, but rather that this part of the game needs to play catch-up to the rest of his skillset. He’s a thoughtful player with all the tools necessary to play defense at a high level. He’ll get there.
The USNTDP U18 team was absolutely loaded this season on its way to posting historic numbers. As such, it’s been incredibly hard for scouts to figure out who are the drivers and who are the opportunists. One thing was obvious, however: It all starts with Jack Hughes. He can create offense by himself, and he makes those around him better. A look at shifts like this one should make it clear that Hughes singlehandedly makes things happen on the ice.
Much of the data available will also make this evident. Pick any part of the offensive game. Chances are, Hughes was dominant in that aspect for the USNTDP.
From a data approach, there’s little doubt Hughes will be a stud in the NHL, as evident by his statistics in his D-2 season (the two seasons prior to the draft) compared to some high-end players who have also played for the USNTDP.
Those are some big-time names on that list, ranging from all-stars to borderline generational talents. What Hughes lacks in the goal department, he makes up with his assists, putting him ahead of the likes of Eichel and Kane in goals created.
Ultimately, Hughes is a player who, by himself, drives offensive possessions. He’s as good a passer as we’ve seen in recently at the junior level. He’s a power play quarterback who breaks down opposing forechecks and defensive units by himself. He’s a pass-first center who can also score at a high clip. Does he struggle in contact situations right now? Yes, and that will probably never be the best area of his game. However, you can’t defend what you can’t keep up with, and defenders at any level are going to have a hell of a time trying to initiate contact against a player who is teflon. As he gets bigger and more mature, he is only going to become more of a headache for the opposition. He’s also a natural leader whom his teammates respect. In many ways he reminds me of Matt Barzal, only better.
There are no questions — barring an injury or something unforeseen — about whether Hughes can be a franchise center. Rather, the only debate to be had is where he’ll rank among the NHL’s elite pivots. Surely not at the level of McDavid and Crosby currently, but after them? He has the upside to be as good as any center in the NHL.
The Million Dollar Question for months now has been Hughes vs Kaapo Kakko; who should be No. 1 overall? The margins are razor thin and either pick is justified. For me, though, the edge barely goes to Hughes simply because, all else being equal, elite centers take priority. A look back at recent Stanley Cup winners should reveal that it’s borderline impossible to succeed without an elite number-one center. Meanwhile, the Penguins won multiple Stanley Cups with Chris Kunitz on Crosby’s wing. A superstar center will make even the most ordinary linemates look good. I’m not convinced the inverse is equally true.
Yes, Kaakko has succeeded playing in a pro men’s league, but let’s be serious. Jack Hughes would have succeeded in a European league this past season just the same if he had that opportunity. He looked phenomenal in the USNTDP’s games against college teams. He looked great at World Juniors. And he’ll be a productive player for either the Rangers or Devils right away next season.
What Others Have Said
“Whatever Jack can do standing still he can do full speed. He just forces you to keep up and be aware.”
- USNTDP linemate Cole Caufield, via Sportsnet
“He’s as good as I’ve seen come through here in terms of talent, work ethic and being the complete package on and off the ice.”
- USNTDP Director of Hockey Operations Scott Monaghan, via USA Today
“One of Jack’s unique traits is that even though there are questions out there in regards to his size, he’s a true center iceman and he will play in the middle and he will figure out a way to make it work.”
- USNTDP U18 Head Coach John Wroblewski, via NBC Sports