2019 NHL Draft Prospect Profile: Jack Hughes

At this point in the year, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone with anything to say about Jack Hughes that hasn’t already been said. The staff at NextGen have a running joke that whenever it would come time to write about the consensus first overall pick, we would post a profile of the player simply saying, “he’s good”.

That may be an understatement, but it’s also the truth. Jack Hughes is good. Really good. There isn’t an area of the game he doesn’t excel at, and he still has room to grow, which is why he will and should be selected first overall next Friday in Vancouver.

Bio

  • Age/Birthdate: 18 / May 14, 2001
  • Birthplace: Orlando, Florida, USA
  • Frame: 5-foot-10 / 170 lbs
  • Position: Centre
  • Handedness: Left
  • Draft Year Team: U.S. National Team Development Program
  • Accolades:
    • 2016-17
      • OJHL Champion
    • 2017-18
      • U17 WHC All-Star Team
      • U17 WHC Gold Medal
      • U17 WHC Most Assists (10)
      • U17 WHC Most Points (15)
      • U18 WJC All-Star Team
      • U18 WJC Best Forward
      • U18 WJC Most Points (12)
      • U18 WJC Most Valuable Player
      • U18 WJC Silver Medal
      • USA Hockey Junior Player of the Year
    • 2018-19
      • U18 WJC All-Star Team
      • U18 WJC Bronze Medal
      • U18 WJC Most Assists (11)
      • U18 WJC Most Points (20)
      • U18 WJC Top 3 Player on Team
      • U20 WJC Silver Medal

2018-19 Stat Rundown

GP G A P INV% 5v5 Pr INV% 5v5 ePr60 SEAL Sh/GP Sh% 5v5 eTOI GF% GF%rel GD60 rel XLS% Top XLS% XPR
50 34 78 112 32% 19% 3.26 1.74 5.17 13% 12.6 66.2% 1.6% 0.67

(Editor’s note on the stats and charts in this article: the U.S. National Team Development Program is a unique program in that its roster plays in several different leagues over the course of the season. Typically, we’ve just used their stats against USHL competition. However, this year their NCAA stats have also been incorporated in some circumstances.

Games played, goals, assists, points and shot data include all U.S. NTDP games. Any data derived from game sheets (involvement percentage, eP60, SEAL data, and on-ice data), as well as any charts that reference “USDP” as the league refer to U.S. NTDP games against both USHL and NCAA competition. pGPS data is based off of USHL games alone.)

Scouting Report

To borrow a phrase from baseball, Jack Hughes is the hockey equivalent of a five-tool player. He exhibits good-to-excellent skills in every facet of the game, with no glaring weaknesses or deficiencies.

He is one of the smoothest, most effortless skaters I have ever seen. He may not be the flat-out fastest player in his class, but his acceleration is second to none, and he can explode out of a standing start to beat opponents to the puck. His edgework is among the most excellent I’ve seen from a player at the junior level. Scouts often say that players with good edges and strong lateral movement can turn on a dime, but Hughes is even better than that. Not only can he turn and pivot without losing speed, he’s the rare player who can actually accelerate out of a turn, which he uses to make opponents looking silly in their own end on a regular basis.

As fantastic of a skater as he is, Hughes’ puck skills may be even better. He’s quick in his movements, and he thinks the game even more quickly. He’s a supremely talented puck-handler who can draw defenders in and create space for his teammates. He’s a gifted passer, creative, and able to make plays under pressure and in heavy traffic.

He’s definitely more of a playmaker than a shooter, but if he can add some power to his wrist shot, he can be a consistent 30+ goal scorer at the NHL level.

Defensively, Hughes is not elite, but his ability in transition is so good that he’s always had a strong defensive impact and I expect that to continue as he turns pro. There’s room for improvement for him when it comes to in-zone defensive play, but it’s not a concern moving forward. I’ve never seen Hughes take a shift off or give up on a play and I have confidence that if he is determined to improve his abilities as a two-way player, he will.

Hughes looks every bit like a guaranteed future first-line centre, but he’ll need to get stronger and add weight to his 5-foot-10, 170-pound frame to maximize his potential. That might sound like a strike against him, but it’s actually a positive thing. While other players in this class, including Kaapo Kakko, already have NHL size and may be able to translate their games to the NHL more quickly and seamlessly, Hughes looks to be the better bet for any team playing the long game. Given the choice between two or more otherwise equal players, I will always pick the player who is less physically developed and has more room to grow because that player has the best chance of improving beyond what he is right now. As good as Hughes has been, he can still get stronger, faster, and harder on the puck because he’s still a few years away from reaching his physical peak.

Analysis

As you might expect from a player who’s been a lock to be a top-2 pick for the past two years, Jack Hughes stands along when it comes to statistically comparable players. His season with the U.S. National Team Development Program has no cohorts via the Prospect Graduation Probabilities System (pGPS), with no players of a similar height or age coming close to matching his output. He was the second-best player in this year’s class by SEAL adjusted scoring behind the only player who’s demonstrated even the slightest chance of usurping him as the first overall pick at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft: Kaapo Kakko – more on that in a second.

A large portion of Hughes’ production came at even-strength, but his production totals were also padded to some extent by a high number of secondary assists and a relatively low number of goals. It’s important to note, however, that only Hughes’ USHL and NCAA games counted towards the data reflected in his SEAL chart, leaving out games against international squads, where his goal totals improved.

He was a remarkably consistent point producer in his 34 USHL and NCAA games, getting held off the score sheet just five times, putting up 18 multi-point games and 10 games with three or more points.

Since there isn’t a lot more to say about Hughes on his own, I’ve decided to spend the last portion of this profile discussing a topic that’s been increasingly gaining traction as we hurdle towards draft way. I’m talking, of course, about whether Jack Hughes truly deserves to go first overall, or if Finnish phenom Kaapo Kakko has done enough to take his place as the top prospect of the 2019 draft.

I won’t spend a ton of time on Kakko, whose profile will be coming out shortly. Needless to say, he’s a fantastic prospect in his own right, who also possesses a unique and high-end set of skills, has no pGPS cohorts, and undoubtedly deserves to be one of the first two names called at the 2019 NHL Entry Draft.

Primarily, I want to address two things, and hopefully also plead my case for why Hughes is still the top prospect in the 2019 draft. The first is the importance of not placing too much importance on international play. Kakko’s hype really took off at the World Championships in May, where Kakko put up an impressive six goals in ten games, helping Finland capture a gold medal in the process.

Hughes, on the other hand, had a somewhat underwhelming showing on the international stage, putting up 3 points in 7 games as the USA bowed out against Russia in quarterfinal play. Some viewers took this stark contrast as evidence that Kakko had surpassed Hughes. Given that Kakko has the more NHL-ready frame and had been playing against men in Liiga all season, that viewpoint isn’t without merit; but it’s important to note that the circumstances surrounding both players couldn’t have been more different. At best, Jack Hughes was the third centre on USA’s squad, buried underneath Jack Eichel and Dylan Larkin; while Kakko, playing on a team with virtually no NHL talent, benefited from opportunities and minutes that simply didn’t exist for Hughes.

While the argument that Kakko’s season should be considered more impressive because he was playing in a men’s professional league, I think this punishes Hughes for circumstances that were mostly beyond his control, especially when he realistically could not have been expected to have a better season than the one he just completed with the USNTDP.

That brings me to second point I wanted to address, which is establishing a historical precedent for each of Hughes and Kakko’s impressive seasons.

Since pGPS is unable to compare these players against their peers, we’ll have to do it the old fashioned way, by just looking at simple points-per game. In Hughes’ case, he boasts two of the three best seasons by points-per-game (excluding players with fewer than 30 GP) in the history of the USNDTP (his draft-1 season was just a single point away from matching Auston Matthews draft-1 totals). If you look at some of the players he’s ahead of, you’ll find some impressive names.

Player Year P/GP
Jack Hughes 2018-19 2.24
Auston Matthews 2014-15 1.95
Jack Hughes 2017-18 1.93
Phil Kessel 2004-05 1.78
Clayton Keller 2015-16 1.73
Alex Turcotte 2018-19 1.68
Jack Eichel 2013-14 1.64
Patrick Kane 2005-06 1.58
Cole Caufield 2018-18 1.56
Phil Kessel 2003-04 1.53

Every player below Hughes on that list is either an elite NHLer or a current teammate of Hughes’. While some might point to that as evidence of a stacked team inflating Hughes’ production, I’m skeptical. Judging by the way players like Oliver Wahlstrom and Jake Wise (players I thought were home runs where they were selected) have fared away from Hughes in their first season in the NCAA, I’d be willing to bet Hughes has elevated the play of his teammates this year as well. It’s also important to note that in many cases, Hughes’ season wasn’t just better that these players’ seasons, it was so much better that it did not meet the similarity threshold for that player to be one of Hughes’ statistical cohorts by pGPS.

Not to be outdone, Kakko has his own impressive list of players he surpassed in the history books this season. (Since Liiga is professional men’s league, I only included seasons by U18 players).

Player Year P/GP
Mikael Granlund 2009-10 0.93
Aleksander Barkov 2012-13 0.91
Jari Torkki 1982-83 0.88
Kaapo Kakko 2018-19 0.84
Reijo Ruotsalainen 1977-78 0.77
Risto Jalo 1979-80 0.72
Patrik Laine 2015-16 0.72
Artturi Lehkonen 2012-13 0.67
Juha Jyrkkio 1976-77 0.62
Joel Armia 2010-11 0.6

It’s an impressive list too, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say Kakko’s season was historically unprecedented. Obviously, this exercise has a ton of flaws. There are no era adjustments, or considerations made for either player’s attributes, but I just wanted to viscerally illustrate the extent to which Hughes’ performance this season has virtually no historically comparable example in comparison to Kakko’s season.

Even giving Kakko the benefit of only being compared against recent peers, there are players who have had better seasons as recently as six years ago, and who played the more coveted position at that. This isn’t to take anything away from Kakko, but it does illustrate what I think is the most salient point regarding the Hughes vs. Kakko debate: there is nothing statistically about Kakko’s performance in Liiga this season that proves to me definitively that he is a more impressive prospect than Jack Hughes.

Even Kakko’s biggest boosters will admit that the two players are very close. Every list by every major draft publication is going to have Hughes and Kakko as their #1 and #2. I think I speak for most scouts when I say that if you’re going to pass up on a centre to pick a winger, you had better be damn sure that winger has significantly more upside. In this instance, as amazing as Kakko has been, that isn’t the case. (And yes, I know some people have said they think Kakko can be a centre, but he hasn’t looked as good at that position, and that’s quite the bet to make when the player you’re comparing him against has hundreds of games more experience at the position.)

To the extent that either player has peers at all, Hughes’ are more impressive. He has the larger body of work, and plays a premium position. While Kakko has done enough to keep things interesting, this should be an easy choice for New Jersey next week.

Additional Charts and Data

Rolling Season Data

Team Relative

Sources

Raw data for the charts used in this article came from eliteprospects.com, ushl.com and collegehockeyinc.com.

Some clips were pulled from videos from prospectshifts.com. Check out Jack Hughes’ page here (paywall). Other clips were pulled from original broadcasts, with all rights reserved for the original broadcast companies.