The NHL was different when Jack Hughes was born in 2001: The game was slower, the average skater weighed seven pounds more, the two-line pass existed and the New Jersey Devils turned hockey into a plodding, painful exhibition with the neutral zone trap. The game has changed. Teams are scoring and shooting more than any other time in the league’s history. Faster, high-octane forwards like Nikita Kucherov, Johnny Gaudreau and Patrick Kane roam the ice unimpeded and have taken over for the stockier, brawny stars of the early 2000s. Somewhere, Paul Kariya is forging blueprints for time travel.
Hughes, more than any potential No. 1 pick in recent drafts, epitomizes hockey’s evolution. On the ice, the 17-year-old is a turbocharged center with skill in abundance, akin to a bullet with hands. He’s only 5’10” and weighs just 166 pounds. That would make him the smallest first overall since Kane, but his small frame isn’t seen as disqualifying. Not even close. Hughes can go into sixth gear and go back down at will, and his skating has drawn comparisons to Connor McDavid.
Hughes broke Clayton Keller’s USNTDP points record with 194 points and counting, and has helped fellow first-round prospect Cole Caulfield approach Auston Matthews’s USNTDP single-season goals record. In fewer words: he’s good. That’s why, with less than nine games to go, the NHL’s bottom squads are lining up in the Lose For Hughes sweepstakes ahead of the draft lottery on April 9. Here’s a look at how he’d fit with those teams:
Colorado Avalanche (via Ottawa)
The Ottawa Senators’ trade for Matt Duchene will haunt the franchise for the foreseeable future. They elected to keep their 2018 first-round pick, and their continued implosion has all but ensured the Avalanche will have the best odds for this year’s No. 1 overall pick. And, Hughes and Colorado would be the best fit for each other. Already a playoff contender, Hughes would have time to find his footing as the team’s No. 2 center, playing behind Nathan MacKinnon and potentially flanked by either Gabriel Landeskog or Mikko Rantanen. Combined with their skill, Rantanen and Landeskog’s added size pairs well with Hughes ability to dart into the offensive zone and create opportunities once he’s there.
Add in Hobey Baker finalist Cale Makar to the blue line, and the Avalanche have two of the top five rookies in next year’s Calder race.
Los Angeles Kings
There’s nothing not to like about Hughes going to the Los Angeles Kings: a potential franchise-changing center heading to the NHL’s second-largest market. The Kings are aging and are on the bad side of years of 45-plus win seasons, but Hughes would cap a short rebuild and step into a locker room with veterans like Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and Jeff Carter. There are worse players to learn from. On the ice, Hughes would bolster a talented pool of centers with 22-year-old Adrian Kempe and 2017 first round pick Gabriel Villardi. Ideally, both Villardi and Hughes will be in the Kings’ top-nine forwards next year and one of the two would have to move to the wing. Hughes would fit well alongside 21-year-old Carl Grundstrom, whose strength aggressiveness on the forecheck complements Hughes’s speed and skill.
One more note: Hughes’s entry-level contract would expire in the 2021 offseason— the same year Dion Phaneuf, Alec Martinez and Ilya Kovalchuk’s combined $15.5 million cap hit comes off the books. That could be a nice payday if everything pans out.
Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings are on pace to finish with their lowest points per game average in 33 years and are destined for its third straight top-10 pick. Things aren’t great in Motown, but Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou and Hughes would form arguably the best trio of under-25 centers in the NHL if the Ping-Pong balls fall in Detroit’s favor. Hughes could slide in and log top-six minutes with Tyler Bertuzzi—whose tenacity and chippy play on both ends of the ice fits well with Hughes’s game. Whether Hughes is playing with Bertuzzi, Anthony Mantha or Filip Zadina, the Red Wings would have the best 1–2 young core in Larkin and Hughes. And, hey, Hughes has a picture of Pavel Datsyuk that’s autographed “To Jack, see you in NHL!” according to the Detroit Free Press, so maybe a reunion is in order.
New Jersey Devils
The New Jersey Devils have the third fewest wins of any NHL team (excluding the Vegas Golden Knights) over the past five seasons and have done little to restock the system. Hughes would be arriving to a Devils team bereft of talent on the wings. Worse yet, Taylor Hall’s future with the franchise is uncertain as he will become a free agent in 2020 if general manager Ray Shero doesn’t work out an extension. In the meantime, Hughes would probably play as the No. 2 center behind the Hall-Nico Hischier-Kyle Palmieri line. Still, Hughes and Jesper Bratt would form a skilled, elusive second line and good luck to any defensive pairing trying to skate with them. The Devils need help in free agency and, it’s going to be a long rebuild, with or without Hughes.
The Anaheim Ducks rebounded from a five-game losing streak with a 6-4-0 record in their last 10 games … and thus hurting their position in the Lose for Hughes sweepstakes. Anaheim ranks dead last in the NHL in goals per game and needs a generational talent like Hughes to transition it from the Getzlaf-Perry era. What the Ducks do have, though, is a collection of wingers who would fit nicely next to Hughes. Rickard Rakell is one year removed from back-to-back 30-goal seasons and pairing his all-around game with Hughes’s speed and skill could help the Swede return to All-Star form. Or, the Ducks can surround Hughes with Jakob Silfverberg, Corey Perry or callus Ondrej Kase and Troy Terry. Anaheim will miss the playoffs for the first time in six seasons but Hughes would get them back in playoff contention for the 2019–20 season.
New York Rangers
Here’s the dream offseason for the New York Rangers: win the NHL draft lottery, select Jack Hughes No. 1 overall and sign Artemi Panarin. To that end, the Rangers have aided their chances at a top-three pick by posting a 1-6-3 record in their last 10 games. Hughes would be a boon for the Rangers rebuild, offering wingers like Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich a chance to play with the fastest, most dynamic center of their respective NHL careers. Add in 19-year-old Vitali Kravtsov, and Hughes has a group of wingers that’ll ease his transition to the NHL and take some of the pressure off him.