In Rasmus Dahlin, the Buffalo Sabres picked a defenceman first overall who they hope transforms the franchise and gives the team the kind of dynamic puck-moving defenceman that’s been missing from an ongoing rebuild. Drawing comparisons to Erik Karlsson, Dahlin is sometimes called a generational talent — but even if he’s not that impactful, odds are he’ll have a major positive impact in Buffalo.
In Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers set their franchises on new, much more promising courses with their first overall picks. Teams “tank” to get a shot at picking a talent at the top of the draft. In a way these players are a reset button of sorts.
So who is early favourite to be the top pick in the 2019 NHL Draft?
Look no further than Jack Hughes, brother of freshly picked Vancouver Canucks prospect Quinn Hughes.
“I don’t think we’re going to see any challengers,” Sportsnet’s Sam Cosentino said on the latest Tape to Tape Podcast. “I think Jack Hughes — and he has been compared even for the past couple years now with some Connor McDavid-type qualities to his game. And I think as an underage player when you step into the world under-18s and you’re playing with Joel Farabee and Oliver Wahlstrom and you as an underage player are making both of those players better, that pretty much tells me everything I need to know.”
Hughes played for the U.S. National Team Development Program, and racked up 27 goals and 68 points in 36 games with the under-18 squad while posting the highest points-per-game average on the team. In 27 games against USHL competition, Hughes led the U.S. team in scoring outright, nine points better than Wahlstrom and 14 more than Farabee, two players picked in the first round of this year’s NHL draft. Despite playing roughly only half a season in the USHL, Hughes finished as the highest-scoring rookie.
In fact, Hughes’ 1.88 points-per-game average in under-18 competition was better than Patrick Kane’s 1.58 PPG mark in his draft minus-1 season. Even more incredible is that the 116 total points Hughes scored for the USNTDP this past season split between under-18 and under-17 teams set a new record for a 16-year-old player, crushing the old mark of 82 set by Phil Kessel and tied by Clayton Keller. Further, Hughes was one point shy of tying an all-time USNTDP scoring record set by Auston Matthews, who was 17 at the time on account of his late birthday in September.
A centre listed at five-foot-10 and 161 pounds, all eyes will be on Hughes next season.
In terms of other storylines for the 2019 NHL Draft, Cosentino pointed to the WHL as a league that should see improvement. Ty Smith at 17th overall was the highest-picked player out of the ‘Dub’ in 2018, but Cosentino sees a wave coming next year.
“What we saw this year in terms of the general scheme of things for the 2019 draft, there’s a real strong group coming out of the Western Hockey League,” he said. “That was not the case this year. In fact, they were close to having just one player (taken in Round 1) if it wasn’t for Washington taking (Alexander) Alexeyev with the last pick of Round 1. But that’s going to change. I think their ’01 group is dynamite.”