When general manager Ray Shero steps to the podium in Vancouver, he is going to announce Jack Hughes as the first-overall pick. Not just because Hughes is more marketable than Kaapo Kakko, or because Shero knows Hughes’ dad. It will be because Hughes is a better hockey player than Kakko and can be a game-changing talent at the NHL level.
Hughes is one of the most decorated prospects in NHL history. He holds the USNTDP record for career points and points per game. This year he broke Ovechkin’s record for career points at the IIHF U-18 tournament. And he came one point shy of breaking Nikita Kucherov’s single-tournament record for points. Hughes has performed exceptionally against every type of competition he has faced. Whether it was the USHL, NCAA, U-20, U-18, and grown men this year at the IIHF World Championship.
While Kakko has certainly raised some eyebrows through his awesome showing at the Worlds, there are still plenty of reasons to believe Hughes will be the more effective NHL superstar.
In today’s NHL speed kills. Everyone on an NHL roster has to be able to skate at a high level, from a team’s first-line center to their third-pairing defenseman. There is no room for players who can’t get themselves up and down the ice.
Hughes in a straight line may not be the fastest player in this draft class. However, there isn’t a player in this class who can handle the puck like Hughes does at the speed he skates. We have seen Connor McDavid dominate the NHL with his ability to handle the puck while flying up the ice. Hughes may not be at that level, but he has the necessary tools to maybe one day get there.
What Hughes can do is completely change the way an opponent defends against his line. He will push defenders back on their heels with his speed. In the modern NHL, controlled zone entries and exits are at a premium. When people discuss why Hughes should go first overall, it is easy to point to his gaudy point totals and elite skating. What really will set Hughes apart from the pack is his ability to transition the puck from defense to offense almost seamlessly.
This isn’t to say that Hughes doesn’t also possess
However, there are some knocks on Hughes game that should be stated as well. He lacks physically maturity, and he can often be neutralized by some physical play. His answer for this is his agility and I.Q. that help him avoid situations where guys can crunch him against the boards.
I think there is one string of plays that perfectly encapsulates why fans shouldn’t be worried about his physicality. In the third period of the quarterfinal against Russia (the #1 seed in the tournament) Hughes was slammed face first into the ice by Nikita Zadorov. His chin was cut open and he slowly went to the bench.
Hughes didn’t miss a shift, and two shifts later, he stole the puck from Mikhail Sergachev and hit Noah Hanifin with a perfect pass to bring the U.S within a goal of tying the game. If that isn’t a gamer then what is?
Many point to Hughes’ defensive game as a weakness as well. While he will struggle to push people out of the front of the net, he can certainly provide defensive value elsewhere. The most effective defensive play in all of hockey is a controlled zone exit. As stated above, Hughes is the best player in his class at transitioning the puck up the ice. His greatest defensive ability is not allowing for the puck to be in the defensive zone all that long.
The Devils haven’t drafted an offensive talent like Hughes since Zach Parise. Though having a physical monster along the boards like Kakko can be enticing, dynamic playmakers like Hughes are just not available anywhere besides the first-overall pick. Hughes has, and will always be,the right move.