EDMONTON - When the 2022 World Junior Championship originally began, Luke Hughes looked like a lost puppy at times.
USA played just one game, a. But Hughes struggled, and simply didn't look comfortable.
Fast forward eight months, and he finished his college freshman season, played heavy minutes with the United States' World Championship team and, heck, if he wanted to go play pro with the New Jersey Devils, nobody would blame him.
Now, he's one of the best players at the world juniors, the redo edition.
Hughes is up to five points in two games already, which is more than his brother Jack got in four games in. With Jake Sanderson electing to focus on the NHL season with Ottawa, the Americans turned the No. 1 defenseman reins over to Hughes, the third brother to play in this tournament. In Game 1, he looked controlled, poised and mature, rarely making a mistake moving the puck and doing a fantastic job of manning the top power-play unit.
When talking to the media post-game, even Hughes got tripped up over the timeline between the original 2022 tournament and where we are now. Eight months. Not a year, not two years. Eight months. But in those eight months, Hughes has taken big strides in his development.
“I think I’ve grown a lot as a person, grown in confidence,” Hughes said. “I’ve really learned my body and how to use it to help my game. It’s just focusing on getting better every day, growing my skills.”
In his first season at Michigan, Hughes had 39 points in 41 games, leading all freshmen and defensemen in scoring and finishing as a finalist for the prestigious Hobey Baker Award -- something typically reserved for the best older players in the NCAA. So for him to be that good so quickly in his career truly is special. He spent the season playing with players like Owen Power, Jacob Truscott, Ethan Edwards and Nick Blankenburg on a stacked blueline. Hughes said playing against like Hughes and Matty Beniers at practice every day pushed his game to new levels, and it showed when he made his debut against pros at the 2022 World Hockey Championship.
Hughes was a big part of USA's fourth-place finish in Finland, featuring one of the youngest teams with a lack of experience on the world stage. The United States played well and nearly made the final with a solid effort against Finland.
Hughes averaged 19:14 in ice time, a nice chunk for the youngster. That was boosted due to the Americans using four defensemen for most of the tournament due to injuries and other circumstances, but as the games wore on, Hughes started to really shine.
Sound familiar? Power played for Canada at the 2021 World Championship and won gold on the team's top pairing. He originally started deeper in the lineup but once he figured out how to play against older, stronger competition
The learning pains were obvious -- he gave the puck away which directly resulted in goals on a few occasions. But he's willing to take risks, and he's learning, and he wasn't benched for those mistakes. Coach David Quinn was willing to lean on him and put him into uncomfortable situations because he believed in him. The circumstances of the team's lean defense core aided in that, but he got just about everything you'd hope from a young player out of the experience.
“Playing with guys like Seth Jones and Nate Schmidt and watching how they compare on and off the ice, seeing what they could do and then seeing what [I] could do in that atmosphere playing against men," Hughes said. "Coming back here, I think I’m pretty confident in my abilities in taking over games.”
It's a level of confidence that's visible early on. And coach Nate Leaman recognizes that, and is giving him elevated responsibilities this time around.
"I think we feel like he's in a much better place to run a power play," Leaman said. "His shot from up top is very good. We want him to continue to shoot it. We've been encouraging him to shoot it. In the breakouts, he can skate by anyone."
It feels like a guarantee that Hughes will turn pro after his second season at Michigan. By then, he shouldn't have much more to prove and should quickly step into an important role with the club. The Devils have some promising young talent on the way, and Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier are already making their mark. Hughes, along with 2022 second-overall pick Simon Nemec, are the future of New Jersey's blueline, and that has to get fans excited after years of misery.
Hughes' play at the World Junior Championship is just the sneak peak of what's next. And if all goes well, it can be the perfect springboard to a fruitful season for the 18-year-old.