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Top prospect Jack Hughes aiming for the stars as draft draws closer

The spotlight has been on Jack Hughes for years now. But instead of shying away from the pressure, he has embraced it.
Jack Hughes

Steven Ellis/The Hockey News

Less than an hour before learning about where he’ll almost certainly start his NHL career, Jack Hughes was in the CBC studios for the draft lottery in a snappy blue suit. From there, he shuttled off to the airport for an overnight flight to Finland for the World Under-18 Championship.

Jack Hughes could have passed on making himself available for this dog-and-pony show. He had the option of simply skipping the event and going to the Under-18s with his teammates instead. Given that he’s worked two years in USA Hockey’s national team development program for this tournament, it would certainly be understandable. But rather than hide from the scrutiny, he’s embracing it. And that’s one of the many character assets that will likely make him the No. 1 overall choice in the 2019 draft. There has probably never been an 18-year-old in a high-pressure situation that is more comfortable in his own skin than Hughes. And that is not hyperbole.

To wit: Hughes was asked prior to the lottery whether he has dreamed of being an NHL star all his life. “I mean, I didn’t really dream of being a grinder or anything,” Hughes said. “But, yeah, you always want to be the best player. That’s competitive nature. For me, I’ve always wanted to be a star player and win individual awards, but the end goal is Stanley Cups and you want to have as much impact as you can.”

And all indications are that he will do exactly that. Hughes, who was born in Florida and grew up in Toronto when his father, Jim, was the director of player personnel for the Toronto Maple Leafs, has off-the-charts skill and speed. Yes, Kaapo Kakko broke Aleksander Barkov’s scoring record for scoring by an under-18 player in the Finnish League, but Hughes is the highest-scoring player in the history of the U.S. program, a group that includes Patrick Kane, Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Clayton Keller and Phil Kessel. So there. There’s really no reason to overthink this.

To that end, Hughes is poised to become the first player to jump directly from the U.S. national team development program to the NHL. This season, Hughes had 23 goals and 86 points in 41 games, including registering two points per game in the USHL this season. “I’m focused on playing in the NHL next year,” Hughes said. “I think I can do it. The way the game is now speed and skill, I feel like my game translates perfectly to that.”

The way the NHL has transformed, for the better, is a huge factor in all of this. All you had to do was watch Calder Trophy frontrunner Elias Pettersson play for the Vancouver Canucks this season. There was a time when an undersized and skilled player would either get mugged or be removed from his senses if he dared cut through the neutral zone with the puck the way Pettersson does.

“My biggest things are my inner drive, my competitiveness,” Hughes said. “I want to score. I want to score every shift, make a play happen. I’m a smaller, skilled, speed player. I like to say I play like Patrick Kane a little bit, but I feel like I’m more of a Matt Barzal, cut through the neutral zone, lug the puck, find my teammates. I think that’s more my game.”

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