'Brilliance' on ice: Local player Jack Hughes is consensus No. 1 pick in NHL draft
Plymouth – If there were any doubts he is the top prospect in the 2019 NHL draft, Jack Hughes’ performance earlier this month in the Czech Republic shattered them.
Hughes dazzled at the 2018 U18 Five Nations tournament.
Sometimes dashing and dancing through two and three defenders to score, he reaffirmed the No. 1 ranking of at least five trusted draft guides, including NHL Central Scouting.
The 17-year-old forward led the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) tournament with six goals and 10 assists in four games, driving the United States to a dominant championship win, outscoring opponents 24-7.
“He just tore it apart,” hockey analyst Bob McKenzie said on NBCSN Wednesday, as he reported scouts’ reactions to Hughes, and his direct contributions in two-thirds of the two dozen goals.
“He shredded it.”
Scouts marshal descriptions of Hughes, who trains and plays in Plymouth at the National Team Development Program. They call him: Smart. Elusive. Electrifying. Always a step ahead. A difference maker.
Local fans watching him in USA Hockey Arena can see ample evidence for acclaim.
Red Wings management, with geographic proximity easing the way, have kept watchful eyes on Hughes.
“We’re talking about a special talent here,” said Kris Draper, assistant to Red Wings GM Ken Holland.
“Hockey sense, skating, competing, the way he sees the game, the vision that he has. It’s kind of the direction the new NHL is going, with the game of puck possession and speed and making plays at high speed.”
A group of pro and amateur scouts and managers from the Wings, including Draper, traveled to Czechia to watch the Five Nations tournament.
Among players his own age, Draper said, Hughes is dominant.
“I saw him with Hakan Andersson, who has been doing this for a long, long time,” Draper said of the Wings' director of European scouting, who was integral to turning around the franchise in the 1990s and sustaining Stanley Cup wins in the 2000s.
“I would never put words in anyone’s mouth, but I can tell you Hakan had a smile on his face watching Jack Hughes play.
“The first three games he dominated, the way he produced, the way he made players around him better, the way he skates, the way he puts the puck into space,” Draper said.
“You go into a rink and you watch Jack Hughes and chances are you are going to walk out with a smile on your face, and he’s going to do something special.”
Draper said he also saw Hughes and the talent-laden U18 team from the National Team Development Program again last week against Bowling Green. The 5-foot-11, 168-pound teenager and his peers faced many players on the Falcons' roster who were bigger and three-to-five years older – some even older than that.
“They came after him hard,” Draper said. “That is why I wanted to go watch the game, in that environment.
“He got hit, he got hit a lot and he kept coming. That’s a credit to the way he wants to play.”
What separates Hughes
Hughes’ talents lit the fancy of Red Wings fans from the start of the season.
As an injury-riddled, rebuilding roster stumbled to a 1-7-2 start, the #LoseForHughes hashtag began appearing in social media.
Fans signaled their willingness to withstand the onslaught of defeat, if it increased chances in the draft lottery that the Wings could obtain Hughes.
“What separates him is the consistency of his brilliance,” said John Wroblewski, head coach of the U18 squad at the National Team Development Program.
“You’ll see a similar amount of brilliance to what Jack brings with other players on the team, kids like Trevor Zegras and Matt Boldy, in particular.
“What Jack has, where he is little above the other guys in the draft class, is that he brings that every single day, where he’s doing things you can only imagine out there.”
Hughes has lived with his family, a consummate hockey brood, in Metro Detroit for a couple of years, after moving from the Toronto area.
His brother Quinn plays at Michigan. A 19-year-old defenseman, the Red Wings passed over him to draft Filip Zadina in the first round in June. The Canucks drafted Quinn with the next pick, seventh overall.
Jack’s brother, Luke, 15, plays for Little Caesars U15 Midget. Eligible for the 2021 draft, scouts have had their eyes on the youngest Hughes for a couple of years. Some say he plays in a style like Jack and may skate better.
Their dad, Jim, is a former director of player development for the Maple Leafs.
Their mom, Ellen Weinberg-Hughes, played hockey, lacrosse and soccer. A silver medalist in the 1992 IIHF World Championship for the United States, she is a member of the University of New Hampshire Athletics Hall of Fame.
“It’s been awesome,” Hughes said of his family life.
“It’s always so competitive, so many people around the house all of the time with three boys going. It’s been really busy all of the way from when we were 6 or 7, until now.
“I’m really a proud brother, watching Quinn and Luke progress. It’s really cool, and I’m really excited for them, too.”
Draft can wait
Hughes is part of remarkable group of players in the National Team Development Program this season.
NHL teams could draft eight players, in addition to Hughes, in the first round: forwards John Beecher, Matthew Boldy, Cole Caufield, Alex Turcotte and Trevor Zegras; defensemen Alex Vlasic and Cam York; and goaltender Spencer Knight.
McKenzie said a scout told him the entire United States U18 team may be drafted.
“We have a great team,” said Hughes, captain of the squad. “For us, it’s just kind of coming to the rink every day and trying to have fun and competing and trying to get better.
“None of us are really just thinking about the NHL. We’re trying to work on our game and win some games.”
Like all players in the program, Hughes attends high school classes while training, practicing and playing a full schedule of major junior hockey in the United States Hockey League (all home games are in Plymouth), against some college teams, including Michigan State in two weeks, and in international competition.
The other big NHL prospects in the program say they understand the attention Hughes draws and they are happy for him and the program.
“I think it’s great,” said Caufield. “This stuff that he’s getting, he deserves all of it.
“And, he says he takes it day-by-day. I think we all are, with this thing.
“It’s a long time away, so we’ve got to keep working each and every day.”
Unlike most of his teammates, Hughes has yet to commit to a college. But, if he plays in the NCAA before the NHL, it may not be for long.
“I have some things in my head,” he said, adding that with Quinn playing at Michigan, Luke already committed to do so and being big fan of the Wolverines in hockey and football, he almost feels committed already.
“I’m not too sure. I know the decision will come one of these days. But, right now, I don’t need to worry about it.”
He goes about his busy schedule in the program, preparing for his next steps on hockey and life.
The NHL draft and lottery afford the franchises and little control over who picks first, and the players none.
“It would be pretty cool,” he said of playing for the Red Wings. “My family lives here, of course.
“But it’s the National Hockey League. All 31 places would obviously be a dream come true.
“But I’m really not too worried about that. I’m kind of just worried about my game and keep going to the draft, which is so far away.
“I feel like I have a lot of things I can improve. I feel like I just have to keep working at that, to improve my game.”