Hughes poised to follow Eichel, Matthews as NHL’s next great American

Jack Hughes, left, celebrating a goal for the U.S. (Photo: USA Hockey/Hockey Canada)

This week, nearly 200 of the best teenage hockey players from five nations descended on northern British Columbia for Hockey Canada’s World Under-17 Hockey Challenge. It’s a tremendous event, in most cases the first major international tournament for skaters who will go on to form the backbone of the national teams for the globe’s major hockey powers.

Even though the players are 16, or in a few cases 15, the speed and skill is outstanding. Two-thirds of the first-round picks in last summer’s NHL draft played in the 2015 tournament. For major-league scouts, it’s an early opportunity to get a look at the best prospects who are going to be available two years down the line.

This year, there’s no doubt that Jack Hughes is the best of them.

The Americans have sent some great players to the event in recent years. Jack Eichel went in 2013, putting up three points in five games for a team that finished third. Auston Matthews fared better the next year, with eight points in six games and a gold medal.

Hughes compares favourably to both, especially in his work with the National Team Development Program generally and with his performance at this event. He has 11 points through five games, and this iteration of Team USA will finish no worse than second.

Top American players at 16            
Player League GP G A PTS P/GP
Jack Eichel USHL 35 13 14 27 0.77
  U-17s 5 3 0 3 0.60
Auston Matthews USHL 20 10 10 20 1.00
  U-17s 6 4 4 8 1.33
Jack Hughes USHL 4 3 7 10 2.50
  U-17s 5 4 7 11 2.20

This doesn’t necessarily mean Hughes will match the early careers of Eichel and Matthews. Colin White outscored Matthews by an order of magnitude at the 2014 tournament; Sonny Milano did the same to Eichel the year before. All are good players, but to do what Eichel and Matthews did, Hughes is going to need to have two monstrous development years between now and the 2019 NHL draft.

The man entrusted by his nation to ensure that development happens is John Wroblewski.

Even by the standards of this tournament, which is used to develop coaches for the national program in the same manner as players, Wroblewski is young. He came up through the national program with Ron Hainsey, whose playing career is still going strong in the NHL, but at age 36 Wroblewski is already a seasoned coach. A decade behind the bench has taken him to the ECHL (where he was voted coach of the year by his peers in 2012) and AHL, as well as to the junior level and tournaments like this one.

For Wroblewski, what sets Hughes and linemate Cole Caufield apart is the work they do when the scouts aren’t watching.

“The thing that I’ve always been impressed with those guys is just their day-to-day, how they carry themselves,” Wroblewski said. “They’ve got the skill but it’s also their passion for the game and how hard they practice. They’re in the shooting room before practice and afterwards and asking for video and learning all the time. There’s not a drill they take off either. Hughes is always asking for our hardest drills, our angling drills and our skating drills. He’s a kid that appreciates the grind.”

Put another way, Hughes practices like the son of a coach, which he is. Jim Hughes coached in the AHL, KHL and NHL and then had a long run as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ director of player development. Jack’s older brother Quinn is a top prospect for this summer’s draft and his younger brother Luke is already on the radar for 2021.

Asked about the value of a family with such ties to the game, something he shares with teammates like Danny Weight, Ryder Rolston and Alex Turcotte, Hughes offered a fairly typical hockey soundbite.

“We all love the game here,” he said, shrugging. “We’re all just trying to play our best and work hard every game. Our work ethic is there every game and that’s what we’re striving for.”

The pivot to work ethic, the desire to reflect all merit on the team as a whole rather than the individual; both of these are typical hockey virtues and don’t offer much insight on the individual other than that he’s internalized those values. In context, though, it’s perhaps telling that Hughes’ first thought when asked about his hockey heritage was love of the game.

In some ways that’s obvious, in others counterintuitive. We often refer to the endless hours in the gym, in the video room and at practice as work, because it is a tremendous amount of work. But when Wroblewski says that Hughes “appreciates the grind” it’s because he, like so many other elite athletes, revels in it.

“I’ve been around some really special players through this program throughout the years and from a young age they have that knack of what it takes to put in the effort,” the coach explained. “For guys like that it’s not work. For guys like that it’s a desire and it’s a passion and it’s something that burns inside them.”

It’s easy to see Hughes’ passion on the ice, and it’s not just that he competes. His vision, his ease with the puck, his apparently effortless skating all betray a joy for the game and imply an underlying love for the detail and hard work that it takes to develop those skills. His off-ice stoicism may offer little evidence of that love, but his game is steeped in it.