There’s a picture in Jack Hughes’ bed room of Pavel Datsyuk, captioned, “To Jack, see you in NHL!”
Datsyuk, the former Detroit Red Wings star, knew what he was writing.
Jack Hughes has been the favorite to go first overall in the 2019 NHL entry draft for more than a year, the 17-year-old middle child in a family of hockey phenoms. He’s a “generational-type” forward who draws comparisons to Patrick Kane and a self-assured teenager who’s grounded by his family even though some project him to impact the league by 2020.
The Red Wings, and the rest of the NHL, would be fortunate to win the right to select him as he’d accelerate a rebuild and be a potential franchise cornerstone. The Ottawa Senators, Red Wings and Los Angeles Kings lead the “race” for last place in the NHL, giving them those teams the best chance to land the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery. (The Colorado Avalanche hold the Senators’ first-round pick.) The last-place team has a 18.5% chance of getting the No. 1 pick.
Red Wings personnel have scouted Hughes heavily, an easy task with him playing for the Plymouth-based USA Hockey National Team Development Program in suburban Detroit.
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“I’ve watched him play four or five college teams this year, play against guys who are three or four years older than him and just physically bigger and more mature,” said Kris Draper, Red Wings assistant to the general manager. “They come after him but I’ve yet to see Jack Hughes back down. He’s a real competitive kid. He wants the puck.
“To me, one of the most impressive things is he is an undersized forward, but he is dynamic on his edges. His quickness, his stops and starts, his change of direction off the rush — he has the ability to create time and space for himself. And then he just knows how to slide the puck. He has that knack of where to put the puck to get it back.”
Hughes put up 116 points last season, starting out with the NTDP’s Under-17 team before being promoted to the Under-18 team.
“There are a lot of players who have high skill, a lot of players who have speed,” NTDP U18 coach John Wroblewski said. “With Jack, it’s his consistency and desire to be the best that separate him from other players that are really good or even great players. He’s at the top of the pyramid.
“There’s a genuine passion to play the game with this young man and a genuine drive to be the best at his trade. But he does have god-given physical attributes. His ability to train and push himself to the limits is in the upper echelon of any athlete I’ve ever seen. He is blessed with a God-given ability to process oxygen or play at a high level with depleted oxygen.”
Holes in the walls
Jack Hughes was born May 14, 2001, in Orlando, Florida. His older brother, Quinn, is a sophomore defenseman at Michigan who was drafted seventh overall last June, by the Vancouver Canucks. His younger brother, Luke, is a defenseman with the 15U Little Caesars AAA Hockey Club and is expected to continue his development next season with the NTDP.
All three were taught to skate by their mother, Ellen Weinberg-Hughes, who played hockey, lacrosse and soccer at the University of New Hampshire. Their father, Jim, was an assistant coach with the Boston Bruins from 2001-2003. It was while Jim was head coach of the AHL’s Manchester Monarchs in 2005-2006 that Jack learned to skate on outdoor rinks. The family then spent 11 years in the Toronto area while Jim was director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs, before moving to Michigan in 2017. Jim played at Providence from 1985-1989.
Their house in Toronto had an unfinished basement by design. It was a hockey laboratory for the Hughes brothers.
“Two-by-fours were doubled up against one of the walls, and they would rifle pucks,” Ellen said. “We broke a lot of glass. There was one window in particular that was constantly broken, no matter what I put up there. We had nets that were all dinged up. One wall we did Plexiglas up to your waist, but then above that it was all holes. It was crazy.”
“When we moved and we had a realtor in there, we said, ‘Should we get somebody to come in here and fix it?’ And they said, ‘No, don’t bother. Somebody is going to have to come in and gut this.’ We had a lot of fun though.”
Jim and Ellen wanted to raise well-rounded boys, and athletics was a major part of that.
They played baseball, lacrosse and soccer.
They golfed, fished and water-skied, too.
“We always pushed them to be the best you could in anything they did,” Ellen said. “We made them all run cross country and track in Toronto through junior high. They hated it and we made them do it. We thought it was a real gut check. They all did great.”
Seated in a conference room at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth in early February, Jack Hughes was just nearing a return from an undisclosed injury. He’d recently graduated from Plymouth Canton Educational Park.
“I don’t have to wake up at six in the morning any more,” he said, “so that’s nice.”
Hughes has been lauded as the prize of the 2019 entry draft for more than a year. That carries significant weight.
In 2016, Auston Matthews became the seventh U.S.-born player drafted first overall in the NHL, and Hughes appears destined to be the eighth.
“They have followed kids that were supposed to have long careers and a lot of them do and a lot of them don’t,” Ellen said. “We’ve always been under the philosophy that nothing has happened yet. You have to work every day and the day you’re not working, someone else passes you by. Be passionate about what it is you choose to do.”
Hughes likes what many teenagers like: playing video games, preferably “NHL 19,” often with teammate Alex Turcotte, the fifth-ranked North American prospect in 2019 according to the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau. “All American” and “Riverdale” are his favorite TV shows. Kobe Bryant’s “The Mamba Mentality” is on Hughes’ reading list. Ellen describes her middle child as very organized.
“He knows where everything goes in his room,” she said. “He’s always been very mature, he’s always hung out with older kids. Partly it’s his relationship with his (older) brother, and part of that is how he was born. Jack has always had his head wrapped around being the best. That’s who he is. You can’t make a kid be determined like that. He’s always been so driven. He’s always had a huge engine.”
His 18th birthday is coming up on May 14. Six weeks later, on June 21-22, he’ll be in Vancouver, British Columbia, for the draft. He’ll know where he’s going by then, as the draft lottery, usually held the last Saturday of April, will reveal who picks first.
“It’s what you dream of, right? Being in this position,” Hughes said. “I’ve worked really hard to get here. It’s really cool and a lot of fun. I don’t really see it as expectations or pressure, I just see it as fun. It’s really cool.”
Hughes grew up watching Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby, but “as I got older, it’s been Patrick Kane. He’s a guy I idolize and love to watch play.”
The comparisons between Hughes and Kane come partly because both are undersized forwards (Kane is 5-foot-10, 177 pounds; Jack is listed at 5-10, 168). Kane, 30, has won three Stanley Cups with Chicago since the Blackhawks drafted him first overall in 2007. In 2015-16, he became the first U.S.-born player to win the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s scoring leader (106 points).
“It’s an interesting comparison because there are some tendencies that are the same,” Wroblewski said. “But Jack is moving at top speed almost the entire game, whereas Kane is so good at slowing the game down and drawing in defenders. Jack is going to carve around them and carve through them. They both have acute vision and think the game a step ahead of everybody else, but the way they dissect the opponent is different.
“Are they going to score at the same clip? I think eventually Jack will challenge some of Kane’s scoring prowess. Jack is a unique generational-type talent, and there are going to be kids today talking about wanting to be Patrick Kane and I think there’s going to be kids in 10 to 15 years talking about wanting to be Jack Hughes.”
Hughes’ overall numbers — 16 goals, 45 assists in 30 games — give him a 1.97 points-per-game average, surpassing last season’s 1.93 average (116 points in 60 games). At 177 points and with seven weeks left in the season, Hughes should surpass Clayton Keller’s NTDP record for career points (189), set from 2014-16, ahead of such NHL notables as Phil Kessel (180 points) and Kane (172).
“His edge work is impeccable and if you look at some of the great players of our game — you don’t have to look much further than Pavel Datsyuk,” Wroblewski said. “He wasn’t a guy with tremendous stature out on the ice, but the lower body, his ability to grip the ice with his skate blades, was one of the many marks of Pavel Datsyuk. Jack has that same hockey strength and it’s something he acquires through hours of training and God-given talent.”
Some of Jack’s best performances have come against NCAA opponents, where he has 17 points in 11 games.
“Those experiences are huge,” Hughes said. “We’re playing against really tough competition and you get a feel for what it’s like to play older, stronger kids on a nightly basis. It’s really good exposure for us.”
See you in the NHL
Jack has a competitiveness about him that’s evident in the way he wants to do something every shift. Given his speed and skill set, he should be in the NHL next season.
“I’m really confident in my abilities,” Jack said. “I know it’s a hard jump, but I feel like I could do it after a big summer.
“Everywhere I’ve gone I’ve succeeded. Even growing up, I was always playing older kids, playing up a year. I always succeeded. I always found my way.”
Tampa Bay Lightning assistant general manager Pat Verbeek, himself a former undersized NHL forward, has scouted Jack numerous times.
“He’s not real big, but with his speed, that gives him room to be able to make plays,” Verbeek said. “He has the puck a lot, and he’s a tough guy to check. I think he’s got a chance to be a special player, but the hardest thing to overcome when you’re 18 years old is, a lot of the guys are stronger. If he can maintain his skating, which he does really well, then he’ll be able to stay ahead of some of the physical play that he could get caught up in. But that’s always the thing you worry about, the physical part. Is he mature and ready for that? If he is, he’ll do well.”
It’s Hughes’ self-awareness that has helped propel him to the first-overall favorite.
“What I like about him is, he knows he can’t go to the net and hang around and think he is going to score a goal there by out-battling a defenseman,” Draper said. “He uses his smarts. He’s a dart-y player. He gets in, he does what he has to do, and then he gets out and makes his play.
“There are nights where you walk away from having watched him play and he’s done some things that are real special and puts a smile on your face.”
Follow Helene St. James on Twitter @helenestjames.