Jack Hughes, the consensus No. 1 prospect for the 2019 NHL Draft, talks about the draft, his hockey-playing brothers and the success of his NTDP teammates. The Detroit News
Plymouth Twp. — There was a time early this season when Jack Hughes was as interested in the NHL Draft lottery as hockey fans.
And for good reason. Hughes, the 17-year-old star forward of the U.S. National Team Development Program, based in Plymouth, is projected to be the No. 1 player picked in the draft.
Hughes got caught up in it, too, checking the odds over which team held the best chance of landing the No. 1 pick.
But he gradually lost interest.
“Once it came to October and November I just kind of stopped looking at it and realized I have no say whatsoever,” Hughes told The Detroit News, shortly after another powerful performance for the USA team last month. “I have no choice where I go, so there’s nothing I can do. All I can do is control my play.
“I don’t get to choose where I go.”
Maybe Hughes hasn’t thought about it much lately, but the teams at the bottom of the NHL standings certainly have. The team that wins the draft lottery on Tuesday (8 p.m., NBCSN) will be very happy.
Ottawa has the best chance to win the No. 1 pick at 18.5 percent, but the Senators traded their selection to Colorado last year. No. 2 on the odds list is Los Angeles (13.5 percent) followed by New Jersey (11.5 percent), Detroit (9.5 percent) and Buffalo (8.5 percent).
Many scouts (there were about 30 at nearly every USNTDP game this season) and draft analysts believe Hughes is a generational talent who is capable of transforming an organization in a short period of time with his speed and skill.
“Hughes remains the best player available this year,” said Craig Button, TSN director of scouting wrote in his late-season report, “combining elite offensive skill and imagination with his will to compete every time he comes over the boards.”
Hughes broke the all-time scoring record for the USNTDP this season, passing Clayton Keller (Arizona Coyotes), with 202 points (63 goals, 139 assists) in 101 games over two seasons.
On a USA team that could find a half-dozen or more of its players drafted in the first round this year, Hughes’ talent stands alone.
Still, there was a bit of a slow start this season for Hughes, as the attention, speculation and notoriety gradually built.
“When we went overseas (Czech Republic tournament in November), that was a turning point for him,” USA coach John Wroblewski said. “Just to get away from everything and concentrate on hockey for a week and be able to go about his business.
“We went over there, there were four games, and he put up 16 points (won the tournament's Most Valuable Player honors) with no media, and he was just able to go and play hockey.”
Playing and practicing daily at USNTDP against some of the best competition in his age group has been a tremendous benefit, Hughes said.
“It’s awesome, you’re playing with the best kids in your age group, the best 20 kids in your age group in the USA,” Hughes said. “Our practices are just as hard as the games. We practice, we compete every day.
“It’s been an awesome two years here. You go through the same things, create a bond, friendships that will last a lifetime.”
The only hesitancy some hockey personnel have regarding Hughes is his smallish frame. Listed at 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, Hughes will no doubt fill out more and become that much more of a threat on the ice.
And even if he doesn’t get that much bigger, the way the NHL is trending, with speed and skill more important than physical size, Hughes could be entering the league at just the right time.
“If there’s ever been an era to come into if you’re good enough and you’re going to make it, this is it,” Wroblewski said. “Here’s the other thing with Jack — he’s an athlete. He’s not even close to hitting his max as an athlete. He’s going to put on 20 or more pounds between now and when he peaks (physically).
“And with that skating ability? He’s going just revolutionize the sport.”
Many hockey people have compared Hughes’ game to Patrick Kane’s (Chicago Blackhawks), another prolific, smaller player out of the USA program.
Kane has gone on to win Stanley Cups and Olympic medals, and has helped transform the Blackhawks organization despite not being 6-foot tall.
But Wroblewski sees a bit of a difference between Kane and Hughes on the ice.
“Kane, as I watch him play, he’s an expert at slowing the game down, where Jack speeds the game up and try to catch me,” Wroblewski said. “Kaner slows it down and everybody starts to watch him and he carves you up.
“Jack is going to go at you and he’s going to out-skate you and he’s going to go at someone else and take him on. He has the same vision; they are both very acute with their vision. But they’re different how they attack.”
Hughes has taken parts of Kane’s game into his own.
“I love to watch him play,” Hughes said. “I don’t think I’m exactly like him, but there are similarities there. He’s played 12 years in the league already. He kind of slows the game down. My game is a little more like (Mathew) Barzal’s, up the ice and dart through. I enjoy watching (Connor) McDavid, guys like that.”
As with any young player, Hughes feels there’s work to do on his game, along with physically getting stronger.
“I have to work on my whole game, I have to round out my game to 200 feet,” Hughes said about developing his two-way game. “That’s a big thing with me.”
Hughes knows who has the best odds of winning the lottery, and casually knows the rosters. If Hughes has a preference where he’d like to go, he isn’t saying.
“There’s obviously some teams you’d love to go to, but it’s the National Hockey League — anywhere you go it’s going to be an unbelievable spot,” Hughes said. “You have to be grateful to go there.”
NHL Draft lottery
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Format: The lottery will determine the top three teams in the draft. No team can fall more than three spots. The Red Wings are currently fourth in the draft order, so the worst they can do is seventh.
NHL Draft: June 21-22 in Vancouver