It has been a long time since there has been a superstar American defenseman in the NHL.
Norris Trophy voting is subjective, and hardly irrefutable. Nonetheless, only once in the last 14 years has an American finished top three in voting for the award (Ryan Suter was a runner-up in 2013). The last outright American winner was Brian Leetch in 1997. There are some very good American defensemen in the NHL, but none who are unequivocally elite. Columbus’ Zach Werenski is coming off a phenomenal rookie season and has the potential to reach that level. To a lesser extent, perhaps Boston’s Charlie McAvoy will follow.
But it is Quinn Hughes, a top prospect eligible for the 2018 Entry Draft, who might offer the highest ceiling. The flashy, captivating defenseman is projected to be a surefire top-10 pick next June in what is the best class of defensemen in ages. TSN’s Bob McKenzie has him ranked sixth overall.
A Florida native, Hughes’ family moved to the Toronto area early in his life. However, he chose to represent the United States internationally, and opted to join the USA Hockey National Team Development Program. The program, among other functions, has an under-18 team that plays in the United States Hockey League.
During the 2016-2017 season, Hughes scored four goals and added 22 assists in 26 games, numbers that are unprecedented in the USHL. No defenseman in USHL history has posted a higher points-per-game ratio two seasons prior to draft eligibility.
When watching Hughes play, it is easy to see how he generated that kind of offense. He has immaculate skating ability, both in terms of straight-line speed as well as agility. Furthermore, he reads plays from the back-end similarly to how an elite football quarterback might survey the field.
In the age of analytics, the ability to make clean entries into the offensive zone with possession has been highlighted as an effective first step towards creating threatening shifts. Hughes’ previously highlighted abilities plus his fearlessness when dealing with the opposition’s forecheck make him elite in creating these types of shifts.
Hockey coaches and players are risk-averse in nature, often preferring a lower yielding but less dangerous dump-and-chase game as well as safe clearances from the defensive end into the neutral zone. Hughes credited USNTDP head coach John Wroblewski with giving him the freedom to make creative plays and accepting errors.
In theory, the ways in which Hughes’ aggressive, daring style positively impact his team predominantly outweigh the occasional gaffe.
“I’ll be the first person to tell you I’ve given up goals, but sometimes it’s not going to go your way,” Hughes told Sporting News in an interview this week. “Ultimately, the goal of the game is to score more than the other team.”
In the offensive zone, Hughes brings the same qualities. He is adept at walking the blue line and creating time and space for himself to set up a play. He takes on defenders, makes crisp passes to open players in dangerous spots, and can get the puck off his stick quickly to surprise goaltenders with a hard shot.
The knock against Hughes, as is often the case for defensemen like him, is his size.
Very generously listed at 5-10, 175 pounds, scouts will be unsure of his ability to influence the game as much at the professional level, where mature, adult players are better equipped to deal with his speed and also will have a meaningful physical edge over him. Thanks to Hughes’ agility and brain, he defends well one-on-one, displays proper gap control, and intercepts passes. However, he does struggle in front of the net and during board battles.
Such deficiencies have indeed held back some players who dominated at lower levels, but others like Brian Rafalski, Torey Krug and Jared Spurgeon made teams regret such skepticism. Hughes is unfazed by the size mismatch he could face in the NHL one day.
“I’ve always been the smallest guy on the ice,” Hughes said.
The best defense, of course, is not letting the other team possess the puck in the offensive zone. When Hughes is on the ice, his team tends to have sustained pressure. Furthermore, his skating and vision allow him to kill the opposing attempts at entering the zone and transition the other way.
Despite spending much of his hockey career in Ontario, Hughes will forgo junior hockey in Canada. Instead, he will follow in the paths of Werenski and McAvoy by playing his upcoming pre-draft season in the NCAA. Hughes will be a freshman at the University of Michigan, and despite the dorm room being a bit hotter than he would like, he claims that he is adjusting to his new environment well.
A productive season against players multiple years older than he is would help suppress concerns regarding his size. Hughes claims he is ready to make a difference for the Wolverines.
“It’s a chance to play against guys who are bigger and faster,” he said. “If I didn’t think I was ready for (the challenge), I wouldn’t have gone the college route.”
As with all prospects, caution is pertinent. He still needs to undergo extensive development in the next few years before he can even hold his own at the NHL level. Nonetheless, the tools are there for Hughes to become the most exciting American defenseman in years
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