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2019 NHL Draft prospect profile: Jack Hughes could be the one to go first overall

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Hughes’s exceptional skating abilities will serve him well in the NHL.

United States v Slovakia - 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship Photo by Kevin Light/Getty Images

A lot has already been written about Jack Hughes, and for good reason. With the NHL Draft Lottery fast approaching, he is an immense prize for any team lucky enough to be awarded a lottery pick.

Hughes has been a force coming through the ranks of USA Hockey. Last season, after being called up from the U.S. National Under-17 Team upon producing at two points per game in that age group, he remained an incredible play-driver even when promoted a level higher. The U18 squad was filled with talent, but it was Hughes who transformed the formation into a true powerhouse, one that could go toe-to-toe with some of the best NCAA formations, and outright crush the weaker USHL teams.

Birthplace: Orlando, Florida, USA
Shoots: Left
Position: C
Height: 5’10”
Weight: 168 lbs.
Team: USNTDP

Choosing to go back to the program despite an NCAA offer for the 2018-19 season, Hughes picked things up where he left off. He didn’t storm out of the gate like some would have expected, but his production soon skyrocketed. On a night in March, he earned his 190th point, breaking the record previously held by similarly undersized creative forward Clayton Keller.

EliteProspects

Hughes is a special talent, and, like his brother Quinn, a gifted skater. He’s smooth, effortless, and in perfect control at all times.

If he is allowed to pick up speed, the ice becomes his playground. He can take advantage of any slight mistake in defensive positioning by threading the puck through opponents, then exploding or turning abruptly into space.

Even against a solid defensive gap, Hughes can consistently bait defenders into over-committing, using fakes inside his skating patterns to open up seams, gain a step on the opposition, and continue his course. Any room given to the forward is too much. He can easily squeak by the defence on one leg to regain his balance and full control of the puck.

More than speed and acceleration, Hughes’s standout trait is his agility. He is rarely centred in his skating. He carves the ice by continuously shifting his weight from side to side in crossovers, making it hard to read his intentions. In the offensive zone, he draws circles around the opposition after picking up loose pucks, head up the whole way, scanning the play for his options.

In tight spaces, checking Hughes can be like trying to pin Jell-O to a wall. His ability to read defenders and his powerful strides allow him to escape checks others couldn’t.

Added to his skating, are his handling abilities. Even if we take away his element of speed, the centreman can still make opponents miss the puck repeatedly. He presents the puck to opponents as an easy target for a pokecheck, only to take it away at the last second, sliding it inside the sticks and skates of now off-balance defencemen.

The forward’s ability to receive the puck also stands out. He can manage it in full flight in a number of difficult ways — behind his back, with his skates, one-handed barely within his reach with his backhand — without having to stop or even altering his movement.

Hughes’s skills are the foundation of his playmaking. They serve him in what he does best: continuously creating offensive chances for his team.

The top prospect processes the game a lot faster than his counterparts, and understands how on-ice situations develop before they happen. He make plays quickly, but can just as well hold on to the puck to wait for a passing lane. When the opposing defence shows itself to be stubborn in its structure, Hughes starts moving opposing pieces around by making himself threatening, forcing defenders onto him, and then connecting with freed teammates.

Rankings (not all rankings are final)

Future Considerations: 1
Hockey Prospect: 1
ISS Hockey: 1
McKeen’s Hockey: 1
McKenzie/TSN: 1
NHL Central Scouting: 1 (NA skaters)

While Hughes projects as more of a setup man, the puck flies off his stick quickly and unexpectedly. He makes good use of precise snapshots and has scored his fair share of goals from the left faceoff circle on the power play. His release keeps defenders guessing as to his intentions, and on their toes when he gets inside the dots. It contributes to making his playmaking more effective; if opposing sticks are pointed toward him, they’re not covering passing lanes.

Overall, be it to score, dangle, or pass, deception drives Hughes’s effectiveness.

But no player is perfect. Despite all of his offensive prowess, and his status as the projected first overall pick, there are still some concerns about Hughes.

Some wonder if Hughes will have what it takes to play centre at the NHL level, bringing up the possibility that he ends up as a winger when faced with elite competition. It’s something that could diminish the prospect’s draft value, considering the premium that is placed on pivots.

But even with the consideration of Hughes’s style of play and smaller stature, centre is the best fit for the forward. First, it’s where has had his success, and second, he’s not someone who will ever be a force grinding along the boards. He will be effective by continuously remaining in motion. That means winning races to pucks ahead of his opposition and giving himself space to get off the wall and escape the defence with cutbacks and changes of speed.

Wingers have to be proficient on the half-wall in the defensive zone. They are often placed in difficult situations when they have to dig pucks off the boards in pressured breakout situations and resist a ton of back pressure from defenceman. Smaller players with great awareness and skill can manage it (and Hughes could probably learn to do it effectively), but, due of the high demands of their transition role, the wing is not necessarily a more natural fit for an undersized forward.

Centremen have to sometimes battle with their back-end in defensive scenarios, but they can rely on their sense of timing to swoop in and take the puck away or support their defenceman as a low-pass option; things Hughes already has a knack for.

He will mature physically, and has already proven that his game sense allows him to thrive against older opponents. His two-way game will also develop over time. With a few years of experience under his belt, his effortless skating could easily transform him into a 200-foot threat, a player able to create offensively, challenge for possession on the backcheck and push his team’s offence the other way multiple times in a shift, doing that without expending the energy of less technically sound skaters.

The current NHL game is all about constant pressure, quick transitions, and finding ways to make the defence and goalie move in the offensive zone. Jack Hughes fits this game perfectly and for this reason will have a colossal impact on a franchise in the coming years.