In my earlier profile of Joel Farabee, I talked about how size matters much less to scouts than it did ten to fifteen years ago. But what I did not mention is that trend is not only evident among forwards. Over the course of the last 30 years, NHL general managers’ ideal defenseman used to be a hulking physical specimen who would punish any attacking player who tried to get past him. Now, defensemen are expected to be just as much a part of the offense as forwards are, and that has opened the door for smaller players on the blue line, including such sub-6-footers as Ryan Ellis, Torey Krug, and (ahem) Erik Karlsson. Teams aren’t averse to spending high draft picks on some of these players, either. And the crown jewel of the small defensemen in the 2018 NHL Draft––at least among North Americans––is Quinn Hughes.
Hughes, the oldest member of what could be the next First Family of American hockey, grew up in the Greater Toronto Area when his father, Jim, was working with the Maple Leafs in various capacities, but only has American citizenship and represents the US internationally. USA Hockey kept an eye on him from a young age, and after a minor midget season with the Toronto Marlboros where he scored 13 goals and 44 points and led them to the OHL Cup, they offered him a spot on the National Team Development Program. Hughes would have been a very high OHL draft pick, but by that point had already committed to Michigan for college hockey, and elected to accept the offer and join the NTDP.
While there were a couple of defensemen among the 1999-born NTDP crop who were perhaps more highly-regarded at the time the team was selected, Hughes, the smallest of the blueliners and the youngest player on the squad, quickly emerged as a player NHL scouts showed up in droves to watch, even in his under-17 season. The team as a whole wasn’t great, and was derided by some as one of the worst in program history, an assertion that turned out not to be true. But Hughes impressed pretty much everybody who watched him, using his elite puck-moving ability and even more elite skating ability to contribute offense from the back end and become a force on special teams.
As NTDP teams usually do, the ‘99s got better in their second year together, and the point totals for most of the team shot up considerably. Hughes was no exception, with his stat line rising from 7-17-24 in 57 games as a U17 to 10-43-53 in 65 games as a U18. Those 53 points included a goal and four assists as Team USA returned to the top of the medal stand at the World Under-18s in April of 2017, with Hughes recording a primary assist on the game-icing goal.
A number of NTDP players have accelerated their studies to play their draft season in the college ranks, and the uptick in competition at such a young age has impressed NHL scouts enough to select them early in the draft. Recently, Jack Eichel, Zach Werenski, and Charlie McAvoy have been successful examples of this trend, and without any NTDP eligibility left, Hughes decided to join the Wolverines and new head coach Mel Pearson a year before he initially planned to, and that decision worked out quite well.
Although elsewhere in the state of Michigan, much of the prospect spotlight was on Hughes’s little brother Jack, who became the best under-17 player the NTDP had ever seen and is the frontrunner to be the #1 pick in the 2019 draft, a pick that may well go to the Avalanche depending on how the Senators do next year. But Quinn showed scouts and prospect watchers that the concerns about his size were completely misguided, and that he was a top-10 prospect himself.
Although Michigan has produced some good NHL defenders in the past decade, their blue line has largely been their downfall year after year, and why they had a minor fall from grace in Red Berenson’s last years there. But this year, their blue line was solid on both ends and their power play was lethal, with Hughes, the youngest player in college hockey, leading the way. He was third on the team with 29 points, and second among freshman defensemen nationwide in points per game. Hughes helped Michigan reach the national championship game, and also played big roles with Team USA at both the World Juniors and World Championships, winning bronze medals at both events.
I don’t believe Hughes is NHL-ready right now, but he’ll be off the board long before the Avalanche pick at 16, and I think has the upside of a top-pairing NHL defenseman. There is a case to be made that with the offense he brings and his dynamic abilities with and without the puck, he might be the second-best defenseman in this entire draft class. I think he will spend one more year at Michigan, potentially playing with his brother, and both will head to the professional ranks together and have long careers in the NHL.
What the Scouts are Saying
“Hughes is a small but highly–skilled puck-mover…a strong skater who possesses impressive four-way mobility…gets up to top speed in just a couple short strides…transitions smoothly and keeps up with his opponents, even those who are shifty and the fleetest of foot…a constant puck-rushing threat who makes impulse choices to join the rush when he sees open ice and has the quickness and soft mitts to remain in control of the puck at high speeds…confidently jumps off the line and lets his skillset go to work when getting looks at the net…shoots and passes with intent…his ability to retrieve pucks under pressure and kickstart the breakout is impressive, as is his ability to aleviate pressure…mobile little defender is skilled and speedy but still has to learn to manage his own zone better…possesses an active stick and smarts that he uses to strip pucks from unsuspecting opponents, and then like a flash he is gone on offense…regularly gets outmuscled when physically defending…has the potential to become a solid puck-rusher and power play specialist at the NHL level. ” –Future Considerations
“Smooth-skating offensive defenseman with superior command of his puck control and distribution, Hughes is the very best of a talented group of American draft-eligible rearguards. Raised and nurtured within a deeply-rooted hockey family, the current freshman at Michigan is one of the NCAA’s top newcomers and became an instant go-to option on a team loaded with NHL prospects and quality upperclassmen. The first thing you notice about Hughes is his calmness with the puck — he rarely, if ever, gets frazzled or frustrated in the face of a relentless or physical opponent. His ability to maintain control of the puck under harrowing circumstances is excellent, but it’s the plays he makes immediately after eluding pressure that sets him apart from the significant majority of not only his draft peers, but all defensemen in college hockey.” –Steve Kournianos/The Draft Analyst
Where He’ll Be Drafted
If he were a couple inches taller, Quinn Hughes would be in the discussion for #3 overall and would be a lock to go in the top-5. As it stands now, he might still get drafted there, but there is a strong possibility that he falls to the bottom of the top-10.
He is one of the most naturally talented players in the draft and has all the makings of a high-end puck moving NHL defenseman. WHoever he falls to is going to be a very lucky team.
Projection: 8th overall